David Lagnese still laughs about his family's reactions to the big century-old house in Highland Park he'd decided to purchase in October 1997.
He'd already redone a 1920s townhouse in Shadyside with his wife, Cristi, who was pregnant with their second child at the time of the walk-through. This 2 1/2-story brick Foursquare was uninhabitable -- with no running water, gas or electricity -- but it had "good bones," including stained-glass windows and lovely woodwork.
His father, Joe, a civil engineer, quickly realized the house's potential. As he told his son, "It's level and square ... looks pretty good to me!"
His mother had a different reaction.
"She started crying," recalls Mr. Lagnese, a health care consultant, board member of Construction Junction and self-taught cook who owns three stalls in the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty.
His mother-in-law was similarly dumbstruck. "She just kept saying, 'Oh my God. Oh my God!' "
Oh ye of little faith.
Fifteen years later, the house's renovation is finally complete. The Lagneses did such a bang-up job of it that it was named a runner-up in the large category (over $50,000) of the Renovation Inspiration Contest, which is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by the Post-Gazette and Design Center Pittsburgh.
The basement-to-attic rehab is a study in workmanship and attention to detail, from the tiled caterers' kitchen in the basement, to the period kitchen with soapstone countertops and a 1946 Chambers stove, to the tranquil master bedroom suite on the third floor. It took Mr. Lagnese nine years to refinish by hand the home's 34 doors and 37 windows -- 50 man hours per sash -- and the couple also meticulously restored all of the woodwork.
The neighborhood itself has an interesting history, in that the block was originally developed in the late 1800s as a small estate for H.J. Heinz's aunt. It was one of the first of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods with gas lines.
Mr. Lagnese says he and his wife had two goals in this project: to restore or use salvaged materials as much as possible and to do it in a way that paid homage to the original craftsmen who built the five-bedroom house in 1910.
"It had just been sitting there all those years," he says. "You could just tell it was amazing."
One architectural detail that immediately caught the couple's eye was the colorful stained-glass windows. All were designed by J. Horace Rudy, a renowned Pittsburgh stained-glass artist who created windows for Peabody High School, the Sarah Heinz House, Allegheny General Hospital and many private homes.
The Lagneses originally figured the entire project would take three to five years. Talk about wishful thinking. It took two years just to come up with a kitchen design and the materials to match the yellow pine cabinetry in the butler's pantry. They finally found it in cabinets recovered from the Vincentian nunnery in the North Hills. The redesign involved removing a back porch and expanding the kitchen's footprint to allow for a dining counter.
"We decided we were going to work with people who 'get' what I'm trying to do, and not be in a hurry," explains Mr. Lagnese, adding, "I don't know how you do old houses right without those relationships."
"We didn't realize how enormous a task it was," agrees Mrs. Lagnese, a jewelry designer whose eye for color resulted in buttercup yellow walls, a blue ceiling and orange linoleum floors in the kitchen, and dark red walls and bright white woodwork in the living room.
In the dining room, an elegant brass, copper and steel Reznor fireplace from the 1880s and the moss-colored wallpaper depicting birds is based on a historic pattern. The new plaster ceiling medallion looks like an original. The radiator in a large bay of windows was sandblasted and repainted to show off its detail.
"Those windows were just beasts," says Mr. Lagnese, pointing to the oak-trimmed sashes in the bay. "That's where I almost gave up."
Restoration expert George Starz spent many months refinishing the staircase and foyer, where the couple added a skylight and painted the walls a soothing ceylon green. On the third floor landing, they added built-in bookcases with foot-deep shelves and new Amish-made maple floors with inlaid cherry. (The pattern is copied from the first floor.) Framed black-and-white photographs hang on cornflower-blue walls.
The master bedroom also has built-in shelving and shiny new floors, but what really catches the eye is the bath. Colorful tilework matches countertops made from crushed sea shells from Columbia Marble.
In a walk-in closet down the hall, carpenter Bob Frey constructed massive cherry and walnut cabinets lined with cedar. It's so spacious, there's room for a leather chair.
Tucked into the second floor are two kids' bedrooms and a guest bedroom with an elaborate hand-painted mural above the fireplace, one of six in the house. The bath is pure 1920s, with a hexagonal tile floor, beadboard wainscoting (the original subway tile couldn't be salvaged) and an original stained-glass window.
The couple's creative reuse of salvaged products extends to the basement. Pine flooring screwed to the ceiling joists came from an 1880s Butler County farmhouse, and a bathroom wears bleacher wood gleaned from the razed Aliquippa High School. In Mrs. Lagnese's jewelry studio, supplies are stored in metal cabinets from Braddock Hospital or on a tabletop crafted from bowling alleys.
This workspace also is where you'll find one of the home's more interesting design elements: The ceiling is a collection of trap doors made from cabinet fronts interspersed with light panels.
The two children chose the gameroom's black-and-gold color scheme, the perfect backdrop for a sports mural by Autumn Kunselman. Black-and-white checkered linoleum flooring adds to the room's casual feel.
Mr. Lagnese's idea of fun and games, meanwhile, translated into a basement kitchen with floor-to-ceiling white tile, commercial-grade equipment -- he can cook for up to 200 people in the space -- and lots of storage for his spices and cooking tools. A window offers a view of a brick pizza oven and built-in grill in the backyard that Rick DiBucci of DiBucci & Sons just finished building in December. In it, he'll make the thin, Neapolitan-style pies he enjoyed while traveling in Italy.
"It was all about the creative process," says Mr. Lagnese. "It was, 'Wow. We're creating something!' That gives me joy. That's what made it fun."
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published March 23, 2013 4:00 AM