A former North Side rectory becomes a family home for nine

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Look closely at the decorative cross that frames the doorbell at Daniel and Luisa Plazek’s house on the North Side. It’s a visual clue to the building’s past.

It was once a rectory for priests at the nearby Byzantine Catholic Seminary, then a convent for the Sisters of St. Basil and later the home of two Byzantine Catholic bishops.

Now the home of the Plazeks and their seven children, it will be one of 13 stops on the Observatory Hill House Tour from 1 to 5 p.m. June 1. The neighborhood, located at the east rim of Riverview Park, takes its name from Allegheny Observatory, which was built there in 1912. The houses range in architectural style from Italianate to Craftsman to Colonial Revival. The differences are evident in details like the Plazeks’ front door, a split Dutch door with a brass knocker.

It was substance more than style that drew the family from Bellevue in 1999. This house has six bedrooms, three full baths and two powder rooms.

"We moved here when we had child number six because we couldn’t find a big enough house that we could afford anywhere else,“ Mrs. Plazek said. ”We love being close to the city.“ 

In the front entry is a curved mahogany staircase and a stained-glass fixture that is a Tiffany reproduction. To the left is a living room with built-in mahogany bookcases on each side of a fireplace mantel.  Family photos fill the wide mantel shelf, which runs the length of the bookcases. Below, light pink marble surrounds a log-burning fireplace. On one wall are two examples of Mrs. Plazek’s cross-stitch.

Next to the living room is a spacious dining room with crown molding and a magnificent solid-brass chandelier that hangs over a table big enough for 12 people.

"That was not the original light fixture,” Mrs. Plazek said, adding that the chandelier came from Mahla’s Antiques in the Strip District.

Beyond the dining room is a remodeled kitchen. The pickled oak cabinetry was already there but the Plazeks added a new green ceramic tile floor and creamy Brazilian granite counter tops. Five cast-iron skillets hang neatly above a stainless-steel Viking stove. There’s also a center island with a deep sink. 

"With a lot of kids, it gets a lot of traffic,” Mr. Plazek said.

To the right of the entry hall is a family room with an upright piano and elegant gold floral wallpaper hung by Mrs. Plazek. She also stripped wallpaper in three bedrooms, the kitchen,  the breakfast room and a long hallway. Mr. Plazek insists he is “just a handyman” but he made at least five pieces of colorful stained glass that hang in various windows throughout the home, including a cheerful breakfast room with a large wooden table and six Victorian-era chairs. 

The house’s first owner was a physician who used the living room as his waiting room and the dining room as his examination room. The Plazeks know this because several summers ago the doctor’s granddaughter stopped by one day while visiting Pittsburgh. She asked if she could have a tour of the house, so Mrs. Plazek showed her around.

After the doctor died in the late 1940s, the house sat empty for about a decade before it was purchased by the Byzantine Catholic Diocese. When the Plazeks moved in 15 years ago, the backyard held nothing but mud and stone. So they laid down a large concrete side patio that’s made more inviting by black wrought-iron chairs, a table and a wrought-iron archway purchased at The Artistry in the Strip District.

The couple also added a 30-inch-high flagstone wall and planted rhododendrons, the only flower that deer from nearby Riverview Park don’t  eat. There is also a back patio and a deck with a hot tub. At times, a trampoline in the back yard serves as the world’s largest cat cushion for one of three feral felines who live in the neighborhood. 

While the home has an inviting front porch with white wicker furniture, noise from passing buses deters the family from spending time there. So, in warm weather, they make use of the back deck and patio for outdoor meals.

One of the home’s unusual features is an elevator that was installed when the Byzantine Catholic bishops lived there. Filled with brass hooks that were presumably used to hang coats or vestments, it’s now referred to as “the moving closet” and travels from the basement to the second floor. 

On the home’s second level, Mr. Plazek has an office that’s just above the driveway’s porte cochere. Family members call this the portico room and its mahogany woodwork was recently revealed when a contractor stripped paint and varnish. The wooden columns that supported this room had rotted away but Mr. Plazek installed three new ones with Ionic capitals. 

One of the second-floor bedrooms was used as a chapel when the Byzantine Catholic Diocese owned the home. The current chapel at St. Cyril & Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary is one of two religious buildings on the house tour. The other is Riverview United Presbyterian Church. The surroundings suit the Plazeks perfectly.

“You can’t find a better neighborhood in Pittsburgh to live,” Mr. Plazek said. “We’re three minutes from Downtown. We’re three minutes from the malls. We’re a minute from one of the nicest parks in Pittsburgh, which is Riverview Park. It’s just a great spot.“ 

Tickets for the Observatory Hill House Tour are $15 and are available at the starting point, Riverview United Presbyterian Church, 3505 Perrysville Ave., 15214. Although it’s a self-guided tour, Molly’s Trolleys will give visitors a lift to key intersections throughout the neighborhood. Information: Observatory Hill Inc. at 412-736-2489 or www.observatoryhill.net.

Marylynne Pitz: 412-263-1648 or mpitz@post-gazette.com.

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