Allegheny West home retains spirit of 'Jewish Santa'

North Side mansion with links to Jacob Gusky, Pittsburgh's "Jewish Santa" in the 1800s, is home once again to children and Christmas spirit



This North Side house has a spirit.

No, not a ghost, at least not one that the Moore family has seen. It's a giving -- and forgiving -- spirit that has little to do with Christmas and everything to do with children, even ones who don't celebrate that Christian holiday.

Mark and Kim Moore have decorated the house with greens, ornaments and an 11-foot Christmas tree, not just for their sons, Shane, 9, and Riley, 7, but for next weekend's 31st annual Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour, a fundraiser for the Allegheny West Civic Council. Six houses and a historic church will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. next Saturday. All will wear Victorian holiday trimmings befitting the neighborhood; one will even have a model train display. But no others share this house's connection to Jacob Gusky, known in the late 1800s as the owner of Pittsburgh's first big department store and to hundreds of orphans as the Jewish Santa.

Mr. Gusky, who was himself an orphan, arranged each year for a wrapped present to be delivered on Christmas Day to each boy and girl in rescue homes and orphanages throughout Pittsburgh and Allegheny, the city that became Pittsburgh's North Side. People thought the tradition would end when he died in the fall of 1886, but on Christmas morning, Gusky's delivery wagons were once again loaded with gifts at the store on Market Street and Third Avenue, now the site of the PPG Plaza ice rink. Driving the lead wagon was Santa Claus and Mr. Gusky's son-in-law, Kaskel Solomon, who took over the department store that would become Gimbels.

Mr. Solomon, the husband of Rebecca Gusky, bought this house on Beech in the late 1890s, and they raised four children (and Mr. Gusky's grandchildren): Mark, Madeline, Edyth and Gertrude. In 1891, Mr. Gusky's widow, Esther, endowed and opened the Gusky Hebrew Orphanage and Home in her husband's honor on Perrysville Avenue in nearby Observatory Hill. Closed in 1943, it is now part of SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Seminary.

The Moores have a framed print of a Gusky delivery wagon similar to ones that used to line up 30 deep behind Santa as he delivered presents to orphanages more than a century ago. Mr. Moore, who grew up on Beech, convinced his wife 15 years ago that they could turn this 6,000-square-foot sandstone mansion into a comfortable home.

"It looked like a money pit," she said. "He kept saying, 'You have to have vision.' "

John DeSantis, Mr. Moore's father and director of the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, had started renovating the house in the 1980s. But it sat empty for several years after he moved to the historic Holmes Hall on Brighton Road in 1988. One winter, a broken furnace caused pipes to burst. The water brought down plaster ceilings and caused the grand staircase to separate from the wall. But Mr. DeSantis couldn't bear to sell the house and was delighted when the Moores opted to finish its renovation.

As contractors worked for 10 months, the couple spent many weekends at auctions looking to replace what was missing or unsalvageable. The fireplace mantel in the drawing room came from the Clark mansion on Ridge Avenue and the large carved oak breakfront in the dining room from a furniture rental business in Manchester. Luckily, the dining room's ornate wooden ceiling needed only a good cleaning. Its crystal light fixtures are original, as is the chandelier in the front hall.

After nine years with two active boys, the chandelier's crystal pendants are still intact, but errant footballs or street hockey balls have broken two of the candlesticks that hold the light bulbs. Mr. Moore said Shane and Riley try to be careful around the antique furnishings, but they are children after all.

"Footballs aren't allowed anymore," he said. But "this isn't a museum. It's very lived in."

The couple acknowledge it's not a typical house to grow up in. How many 9- and 7-year-olds have a fireplace with a slate mantel in their bedroom? Or get to set up their model trains around an antique pool table? With their father and grandfather, the boys sometimes head over to West Park to watch the real trains go by, waving at the engineers. In the summertime, they guide a remote-control boat on Lake Elizabeth.

It's a scene that Jake Gusky might recognize. He was known to hire excursion boats to take orphans on cruises on the rivers. And on Christmas Day, he was the one riding with Santa on a horse-drawn carriage, or a one-horse open sleigh. His first stop? The children of old Allegheny.

Tour tickets are $25 each, $10 extra for the model train exhibit. Tours are scheduled at 12-minute intervals between 5 and 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. next Saturday. A Holiday Shop will be available at the conclusion of the tour. Reserved tickets are available at www.alleghenywest.org or by calling 412-323-8884. Tour day tickets will be sold at Calvary United Methodist Church, Allegheny and Beech avenues. Optimum times for walk-ins are 6:30 to 8 p.m. both days. Free parking is available throughout the neighborhood and in select CCAC parking lots.

homepage - homes - holidays

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978. First Published December 1, 2012 5:00 AM


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