Dilapidated Deutschtown duplex agitates advocates, developers

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The space between blight and preservation opportunity is filled with many more enticing candidates than a squat, swimming-pool green duplex at 406-408 Foreland St. in Deutschtown. Its humility, lack of character and questionable market aside, it is one of the oldest buildings in the North Side.

It was likely built before the 1840 incorporation of Allegheny City as housing for people involved in commerce generated by the nearby canal, which was disassembled with the growth of the railroads later in the century.

It exists now in the portfolio of October Development, a prolific agent of change in the neighborhood. At December's Historic Review Commission hearing, at which owner Al DePasquale asked for permission to demolish it, Mr. DePasquale said he has "saved 17 of 18 buildings" he bought in Deutschtown since 2006 but concluded: "I'm not good enough to save this building."

The commission put off considering approval to demolish, granting preservationists time to assess the value of its restoration.

"I support the retention of these houses, which are even older than is understood by people in the community," said architectural historian Carol Peterson of Lawrenceville. "I have rehabbed houses in such bad condition that they probably should have been torn down."

Architect Bob Baumbach, who works with Mr. DePasquale on new construction and restorations, told the commission that unhealthy amounts of mold have grown into the old duplex because there is no vapor barrier; floor joists are sitting on dirt.

But having restored numerous old buildings, he said, the condition of the duplex has him torn.

"It could be charming," he said. "It would take a labor of love. One factor is marketability. Al understands the preferences of the market and has been very successful" with townhouses. "These two homes have none of that marketability -- low ceilings, no fancy fireplaces, most of the woodwork is gone."

The entire property is 30 feet wide. With a three-foot easement between them and a foot of space for walls, each living space is about 12 feet wide, but the necessary three feet of pass-through from room to room leaves only nine feet for furniture.

"It's hard to sell a 9-foot-wide living room," he said. "If you took away the easement, you could widen it" to become one house. "The market for that is small, but it's out there."

So many historic buildings fall into that margin: Someone should save them, but who? The reuse of a house as a house is an easier call than the reuse of, say, a school, but reuse of this duplex is not a no-brainer. Its plainness and modesty almost call attention to it; just not quite enough.

The first-floor windows of both are boarded. A metal awning sags and snagged the top of the storm door at 406 when Realtor Joe Larkin pulled it open. The front room has a sepia quality. It is crowded with furniture and strewn debris, likely the result of squatters hunting for anything of value.

A modest fireplace served the front and middle rooms. Someone taller than six feet has to duck through doorways.

The stairs list slightly and lead to two bedrooms, both of which are clogged with household items and more strewn debris.

Stephen Brady, owner of the nearby Brady Funeral Home, owned the house from 1994 to 2007. He said the people who lived in one unit died before he sold the property and another older couple was still living in the other at that time.

"There are no basements, no heating system," he said. "It was all space heaters. There's not much to be said for the place. What Al has in mind is a wonderful update."

Mr. DePasquale has an interested buyer, whose architectural plans Mr. Baumbach presented at the review commission hearing. Joe Ferrara of Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, proposes a three-story replacement that would include design appropriations compatible with the adjacent Victorian he restored.

His restored property faces Allegheny Commons Park on Cedar Avenue. It took 21/2 years to transform it from a distressed property into three high-end apartments. He said he respects the historic argument and would be willing to concede the duplex to a buyer who would restore it, "but it can't compromise my investment."

The asking price for the duplex is $46,000.

City council President Darlene Harris brought community council members together with Mr. DePasquale recently and said she thinks there could be a workable solution.

"I know it's [a] historic district," she said, "so we want to be careful about what comes down there."

Mr. DePasquale said he gave the community council 90 days "to find a buyer or the money" to buy it "and have a plan in place to make the building serve the neighborhood."

While waiting for completion of a new house he will live in nearby, Chris Gibson is renting an apartment in the building Mr. Ferrara restored. He said he is torn over the future of the duplex.

"I respect the history and diversity in this neighborhood. It's why we choose to live here. But I do see both sides," he said. "I'd like to think it could be saved. Its history is undeniable.

"But somewhere there's a line that has to be walked between the need to preserve and the need to replace blight. This property exists in the tension in between."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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