2014 RENOVATION INSPIRATION CONTEST: Winner, Large Residential

A former candy factory in the Mexican War Streets is turned into a light-blessed home

For more than a decade, the abandoned candy factory next door to Dan Wintermantel and Leslie Vincen's house in the North Side both tempted the couple and drove them crazy.

The former because, with enough work and money, they knew it could be transformed into a terrific single-family home. The latter because renovating the 8,000-square-foot building would require ridiculous amounts of both work and money.

Although the upstate New York natives had renovated three houses in the Mexican War Streets, this project seemed just a bit unwieldy.

Candy factory 'brought back to life' as modern home

Leslie Vincen and Dan Wintermantel speak about their renovation project on Monterey Street in the Mexican War Streets. They are winners of the Post-Gazette's 2014 Renovation Inspiration contest. (Video by Michael Henninger; 4/19/2014)

While its handsome brick facade still was in fairly good shape, its sprawling interior hadn't fared so well. Abandoned sometime in the '70s, the three-story building had been roofless for 30 years. The water and weather that beat down inside had buckled floors, ruined beams and turned plaster to mush.

"We planned and planned and gave up and gave up," says Mr. Wintermantel, a graphic designer and illustrator whose work has been published locally and in national magazines.

"We talked about it, had people ask about it and dreamed about it," agrees his wife. "It's such a great building. We hoped someone would do something great with it."

When the city decided last spring to tear it down, Mr. Wintermantel and his wife realized it was now or never. They bought the building, hired John Francona of Astorino to come up with architectural plans and took the proverbial leap of faith into renovation hell -- and landed in residential heaven.

In January, after just six months of construction, the couple moved into a new home so arresting that it captured the top prize in the 2013-14 Renovation Inspiration Contest, large residential category (more than $50,000).

Now in its eighth year, the competition is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by staff members of the Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction. They consider appropriateness of construction and materials, functionality, and imagination -- all of which this home has in spades.

Knowing they didn't want such a huge home, the couple chose a radical plan for the renovation: have contractor Dave Menk of Premier Renovations remove the back half of the building and build a new 2,300-square-foot house, center courtyard and garage inside the old walls.

It was risky in that no one knew if the four courses of brick, which appeared to be in great shape, would remain standing during demolition. "Nothing wavered," says Mr. Wintermantel of the monthlong teardown, which took up one-sixth of their $300,000 budget.

The couple insisted the new part of the house be as bright and open as possible, with lots of natural light from windows. Because the house is just 17 feet across, they'd also have to be clever about storage and space-saving solutions, such as using pocket doors and barn doors on sliders.

Another must was a modern, open floor plan that would make it easy to entertain. To that end, "everything's right here," says Ms. Vincen. On the main level, the kitchen is sandwiched between a sunken living room that opens onto the courtyard and a dining area with windows overlooking Monterey Street.

Their clever reuse of a commercial building, including its large front windows, confuses some passers-by. A long antique dining table from Architectural Emporium in Canonsburg is in plain sight when the shades are open.

"They see the big table and kitchen and ask if it's a restaurant," says Ms. Vincen, laughing.

In designing the living space, the couple kept it simple. The 12-foot quartz countertop and white kitchen cabinets from IKEA offer a beautiful built-in look at a fraction of the cost of custom. The 5-inch-wide maple floors came from Lumber Liquidators. Because paint is cheaper in five-gallon buckets, they stuck with one color on the walls, Sherwin Williams mossy-green Chatroom.

That allowed for elegant upgrades such as extra-tall baseboards and the Shaker-like board-and-batten paneling above the living room mantel.

"It's so classic and beautiful. We got a big punch there but not a big cost," says Ms. Vincen, a marketing/communications specialist at Astorino.

Even the walk-in shower in the master bath was done on the relative cheap, using 12-inch natural stone tiles they discovered in the bargain area at Best Tile. It just so happens they're the same color as the building's stone foundation.

As showers go, this one's a beauty: almost 6 feet square, larger than some bathrooms, but much more open with half-glass doors and hidden built-in shelves to hide the clutter.

"Our architect just laughed his head off when we told him how big we wanted it to be," Ms. Vincen says. "But it's awesome. We love it."

The master bedroom is brightened by a wall of windows that offers a birds-eye view of the red-brick courtyard. Sleek but still homey, it's anchored by an antique fireplace with a mirrored overmantel.

The real eye candy, though, is another story up in the family room. There are windows galore here, too, spilling sunlight onto the comfortable leather furniture and across shiny floors to the wet bar. But all you really want to do is step out onto the sprawling deck and climb the spiral staircase to the rooftop patio. The view across the rooftops is nothing short of remarkable, with all of Pittsburgh spread out in front of you like a picture postcard.

"Sunsets are so spectacular," says Mr. Wintermantel.

"Friends start in the kitchen, but eventually everyone makes their way up here," adds Ms. Vincen.

Their new digs also boasts a home office for Mr. Wintermantel, a "hidden" laundry on the second-floor landing and a guest suite that rivals those in fancy hotels.

Still to come are a pair of trees in the courtyard. They're thinking maybe a Japanese split-leaf maple, with its lacy light-green leaves to offset all the red brick, and a flowering dogwood.

When giving a tour, Mr. Wintermantel and his wife point out that the project never would have happened without the help of Ernie Hogan at the nonprofit Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. A pilot program aimed at putting houses slated for demolition back on the tax rolls helped them secure special financing with WesBanco. Traditional lenders all had said no.

The couple brush off suggestions that their home project was somehow extraordinary.

"Anybody could do this," says Mr. Wintermantel. "It really wasn't that hard, especially with the open concept."

New construction, he adds, goes so much faster than renovation. "They just came in and built it."

To see before and in-process pictures of the renovation, go to Mr. Wintermantel’s blog at danwintermantel.com/#/house-project. The house also will be on the Mexican War Streets House Tour in September. Information: www.mexicanwarstreets.org.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

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