A couple turns an old lock master's house into a retreat along the Allegheny

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When the sun melts into the Allegheny River each evening, Jody Noble-Choder and her husband, Stephen, often sit near the water in Adirondack chairs to watch the light show.

The Allegheny River, where they paddle kayaks, parallels their Highland Park home, which was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a lock master in the early 1900s. Their view includes Aspinwall Marina and an old railroad bridge.

"It really is magical. You can't believe you're in the city," she said.

Mr. Choder grew up in Squirrel Hill and inherited his discerning eye for art and antiques from his mother, who owned an estate sale business. His wife, a lawyer, hails from Lower Burrell, where she caught fireflies and salamanders as a child. Now, she sews old feed sacks into outdoor pillows for garden benches.

Since 2001, the couple has transformed a long, narrow property into a peaceful, leafy refuge they call Choderwood. Hidden behind a 9-foot-high fence on just under an acre, this quiet compound offers so many spots for playful time-outs and relaxation that visitors may wonder how this couple gets motivated to tackle so many projects.

At the entrance, there's a two-level pond shaded by river birches and stocked with Japanese koi. Two companionable dogs, both rescues, greet visitors. Cody, a tall terrier mutt, came from the Bahamas; Zoe is a chunky blend of beagle and Jack Russell terrier.

The couple hired Kubrick Brothers Garden Center in New Kensington to build and install 14 large raised beds that hold vegetables and herbs. But they do a lot of the work themselves. After a storm felled three pine trees, Mr. Choder chopped them into logs and built a staircase to a treehouse they erected in 2003. That open-air structure has a roomy hammock and a great view of the ribbon of water just beyond their property.

Mr. Choder, his wife says, "is a triple A personality."

In one corner of the compound stands a picturesque garden shed heated with solar panels. The shed, which has LED spotlights on its ceiling beams, was delivered, fully assembled, from Lancaster, Pa. Its window box holds baptisia, red pepper plants, and pink and white verbena. ZeroFossil of Munhall installed the solar panels that heat it. There's a sisal rug on the floor and colorful antique license plates on the walls. Ms. Noble-Choder stows her garden tools and books about gardening here.

"We have a friend who keeps threatening to move in to it," Ms. Noble-Choder said.

Next to the shed are raised beds with organic vegetables, herbs and a stand of productive raspberry bushes. Purple wisteria climbs over a pergola that runs parallel to the pool house.

The heated pool is indoors, but its ceiling is partially open to the sky. At one end is a large, gas fireplace and two chaises. An art student painted a mural years ago, but the couple agree it's time for a fresh scene. Mr. Choder loves swimming in the evening here after sundown with his family during Rosh Hashana.

Below the house and closer to the shore is an outdoor fire pit, where they once held a clambake. "It was like midnight before we ate," Ms. Noble-Choder recalled.

Beyond that and beside a garden bed filled with a variety of Buddha statues is a hot tub. Along the riverfront and just below what they laughingly call Choderwood Beach is a primitive dock. The large piece of wood, which floated down the river after a storm, was tied up and is used to anchor their kayaks.

The couple's three-story home is a classic Foursquare with Craftsman-style details. The lock master who once lived here monitored boat traffic at Lock No. 2.

"The Corps of Engineers would build these twin houses at each of the locks and dams," Ms. Noble-Choder said. "It's very unusual that both houses are still here. The other locks and dams aren't in the city. Lock No. 2 is still very active."

The couple bought the property after a Realtor friend saw it on a tour. At the time, they were living in Point Breeze in a home they had devoted years to renovating.

"I peeked through the fence and saw the pond and the trees. I love ponds. We built one at our house in Point Breeze," Mr. Choder said.

His wife was captivated, too.

"I love to snoop at other people's gardening. I never even knew there were houses down there. I said, 'Holy cow, this is really special.' We were lucky enough to be able to buy it," Ms. Noble-Choder said.

Previous owners had renovated much of the home, "so we could focus all of our attention on the gardens, which is what we prefer anyway," she said.

"We've done a pretty darn good job of getting rid of all the grass."

Now the couple has hired local architect Fred Croce to alter the front of the house, which faces the river. Plans call for removing an arched wall in the living room and installing new floor-to-ceiling windows to better link the four-bedroom, one-bath home to the water.

The couple are regular visitors to Plum Line Nursery in Murrysville. Tall green cedars anchor one garden wall and hosta bloom beneath tall river birches. Nearby are lace-cap hydrangeas, a weeping pine and potted coleus bursting with color.

Mr. Choder dug a recently installed fountain that uses recycled water and serves to showcase water iris and water hyacinths. Around the fountain are rows of boxwood and ajuga, a purple and green groundcover with a rich texture. In a corner of the compound that's close to the river is a spacious coop that holds five chicks and two hens who are in "henopause."

"Fresh eggs are phenomenal. My pets make me breakfast," said Ms. Noble-Choder, who has raised chickens since 2009. Her pets' names are inspired:

Buffy the Worm Slayer, a Barred Rock chicken, raised the young chicks. Mother Clucker, a golden-laced Wyandotte, really likes people. Vera Wings, a white Brahma, got her name from bridal gown designer Vera Wang.

Choderwood is a certified wildlife habitat. Ms. Noble-Choder learned about the National Wildlife Federation designation while touring a Regent Square garden. At Choderwood, no toxic chemicals are used on the lawn or gardens. The vegetable and herb gardens are organic. The couple recycle, use a rain barrel, and provide food, shelter and water for local wildlife.

"It is a special property, and we think it is important to be good stewards of this unique property," Ms. Noble-Choder said.

Choderwood is available to rent for events and can accommodate up to 75 people. For details, call S.E.C. Properties at 412-855-8686 or email choderse@gmail.com.

homepage - homes - garden

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published August 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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