Friendship tour highlights craftsmanship of homes

Artist, former home builder and writer all find inspiration in 1899 house featured on Sunday's tour


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As an artist, Paul McMillan has won first, second and people's choice awards for his realistic oil paintings. But he can't re-create wood grain as perfectly as the unknown craftsman who painted the back of his closet door.

"I come over here for an art lesson," he said, laughing.

18th Annual Friendship House Tour

When: 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $10 in advance, $13 on tour day at Pittsburgh Glass Center, 5472 Penn Ave.

Information: friendship-pgh.org.

It's just one reason that Mr. McMillan, his wife, Laurie, and her father, Jim Arnold, love the grand 1899 house they share in Friendship. It's one of eight houses open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday for the 18th annual Friendship House Tour.

Mr. McMillan says the house's craftsmanship inspires his work and, in fact, every room contains at least one of his large paintings. But his father-in-law is the person who discovered it. A custom home builder for 40 years, Mr. Arnold was taken with its classical columned porch the moment he saw the For Sale sign three years ago. Although the Chicago native prefers early Frank Lloyd Wright designs, he loved the Greek feeling of the columns and the color scheme of the exterior. He urged his daughter to visit.

Laurie McMillan, a registered nurse who now leads writing groups, found her favorite part immediately -- the large dining room paneled in dark-stained oak.

"I saw this room and that did it," she said.

Groups of up to 20 writers now meet regularly in the dining room, sitting on chairs around the six-legged table her father made from ash or on benches that line the walls. One day earlier this week, the benches served as easels for her husband's paintings, as did the decorative stone mantel of the fireplace. It's the only mantel that didn't come with the house; the original was stolen before the previous owners started their renovation. All of the others are intact and unique, along with stained and leaded glass, hardwood floors, even the subway tile in the main bathroom upstairs. Lit brilliantly by the huge arched window over the front door, this bathroom is so pretty tour-goers may never want to leave.

Mr. Arnold's bedroom is the former maid's quarters. Although it's smaller than the other bedrooms, its fireplace has an oak mantel and tile surround as pretty as any in the house. There are six fireplaces, none currently working. It's one of the few things the previous owners, two men who moved down the street to start another rehab, didn't do.

The McMillans and Mr. Arnold have made a few changes since moving in. The biggest was to renovate the bathroom on the third floor and create an apartment there in what was once a ballroom. The huge third floor clinched the deal, Ms. McMillan said.

"I don't think we could have bought it if it didn't have the rental unit," she said.

So many of the big houses in the neighborhood have been broken up into four, six and even eight units. These caretakers are grateful that this one escaped that fate.

"It's really a great house," said Mr. McMillan, who has his studio in one of the four bedrooms.

"This house was made to let light in. That's unusual in houses of this time."

There are Victorian elements, of course. Pocket doors divided rooms, heavy curtains darkened the parlors and a back staircase kept servants out of sight. Today, the heavy window treatments are nowhere to be found, the back stairs are used for storage, and anyone -- not just family members -- can sit on the window seat in the landing of the main stair and enjoy the light streaming through a stained-glass window.

The McMillans have been told that their house was built for one of the Baum daughters whose family name graces the nearby boulevard. They appreciate the care bestowed upon it from the beginning and think it's appropriate that it remains a multi-generational house today. And Mr. Arnold, who built his last house at age 74, is always finding something else to admire here. He and his son-in-law recently rebuilt the concrete steps of the back porch.

"Look at those pillars," he said. "They're made of poplar -- for a back porch!"

homes

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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