At Gerbe Glass in Lawrenceville, passers-by sometimes stop to watch the woman in the window. It's Bernadette Gerbe, a glass artist who has fashioned a new life for herself and her husband, Chuck, in an old storefront on bustling Butler Street.
"We were in the suburbs, raising kids," she said. "We always joked that we would retire to New York City. We wanted the vibrancy of the city. We thought, 'Where in Pittsburgh can we get the same feeling?' "
They found it in Lawrenceville, in a 150-year-old building that has previously housed a men's clothier, a butcher and a beauty shop. Painted on an exposed steel beam is the only sign of its former lives, a simple promise that's a bit opaque for a glass studio: "FREE DELIVERY! COURTESY."
With images of polite tailors and friendly butchers in mind, a few lucky visitors get to see what the Gerbes have done with the rest of the building. A narrow corridor leads to their living space in back, where exposed brick, high ceilings and colorful artwork combine to create a modern yet warm home that perfectly reflects the couple's new urban lifestyle.
"Most of our friends thought we were nuts for moving here," Mr. Gerbe said.
"But then they came down and said, 'Wow!' " his wife added.
That was also the reaction of judges for the 2013-14 Renovation Inspiration Contest. Although the Gerbes entered the commercial category, they received an honorable mention in the large residential category ($50,000 and over). The contest is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by staff members from the Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction.
The judges weren't the only ones who were confused. When the couple applied for a building permit last year for a renovation and addition, they were told they needed to install a sprinkler system. About $25,000 and seven messy months later, a city building inspector stopped by for a look and asked them why they had installed sprinklers. They were not pleased, understandably.
Is it commercial? Is it residential? It's both, and although there are other business owners who live above their shops in Lawrenceville, none live behind it, too, as far as the Gerbes know.
"The commute is awesome," the artist joked. "If I don't like what's on TV, I can work till midnight."
She previously worked out of the garage in their house in Franklin Park and sold at craft shows. He sells industrial machinery in Coraopolis. She wanted a real studio, and with their children grown and gone, they decided to start over in Lawrenceville. Once they found this building, they sketched out a new floor plan on a napkin. Architect Andrew Moss made the drawings, and Prime I Enterprises became the contractor. Although the couple had remodeled their last house, "this was beyond us," Mrs. Gerbe said.
Adding 40 feet onto the old building was not easy -- especially when the contractors discovered there was nothing but plaster between their building and its neighbor in one section. Doing their own demolition to save money also turned out to be a challenge. It was 90 degrees last August when they were chipping plaster off the brick walls.
"That was a horrible experience," Mr. Gerbe said.
They overcame each obstacle to end up with 2,600 square feet of functional living space that includes two upstairs bedrooms, 1½ baths and a 20-foot-high wall in the living room that showcases paintings by their daughter, Alexandra Gerbe, a San Diego artist who regularly joins her mother for mission trips to Haiti. The faces of young villagers peer out from her luminous acrylic canvases.
Her mother's work is also found throughout the house, from the iridescent glass tiles in the upstairs bathroom to the cabinet knobs in the kitchen to the sink in the downstairs powder room, the first she had ever made.
Other artisans whose work is on display include Joe Kelly of Kelly Custom Furniture, who made the kitchen cabinets; Chuck Stein of Allied Millwork, who made custom windows and the three folding doors that lead to the courtyard and garage; and Heritage Industries, which provided the wrought-iron railings.
On the wall in the courtyard is a large steel art piece that was purchased at Art All Night, an annual event that draws the Gerbes and thousands of other artists and art lovers to Lawrenceville each April. This year's event is set for April 26-27 at 4001 Willow St., 15201 (www.artallnight.org). Mrs. Gerbe plans to take a ukulele she made by a labor-intensive glassmaking technique known as network. It now rests in her studio with a price tag of $750.
She is deservedly proud of her glass creations and the studio where she performs for passers-by each day. But the rest of the building is for them alone.
"We made this to our own liking, not for resale," Mrs. Gerbe said, looking around her home.
It just might be their best work, this new life in the city, proving that sometimes the best things come with FREE DELIVERY, COURTESY of perseverance, providence and maybe a sliver of luck.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.