A bold choice in Wilkinsburg: couple gambles on a grand home (and paint shades, too)

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Lisa and Craig Moss took a chance on Wilkinsburg. Why not do the same with their paint colors?

"Our contractors hated the purple," Ms. Moss said. "When they were done painting the front door, one said, 'See? I told you it was bad.' And I said, 'I absolutely love it!' "

She has never regretted her "fun choice" for the trim on their 1907 gray-brick Foursquare. Women in the neighborhood love it, her husband said ruefully. She also doesn't regret the peacock blue in the front hall or emerald green in the dining room. Instead of dominating the dark-stained mahogany woodwork, the bold colors make it pop, just as she hoped.

Wilkinsburg House & Garden Tour

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today

Tickets: $18 at starting point, Mifflin Avenue United Methodist Church, 905 Mifflin Ave.

Information: www.wilkinsburgcdc.org.

See for yourself on today's first Wilkinsburg House & Garden Tour. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., tour-goers can visit the Moss house and nine other homes or gardens within walking distance of each other. Tickets are $18 at the tour's starting point, Mifflin Avenue United Methodist Church, 905 Mifflin Ave.

After living in newer houses in Butler for nearly 30 years, Mr. and Mrs. Moss were unsure at first about moving to the East End or Wilkinsburg. But Mrs. Moss was tired of the hourlong commute to her new job on the South Side, and she had been fascinated by old houses since her childhood in Woodbridge, Va. Her husband found this house on Craigslist and knew his wife would want to look.

"She prefers older houses. I wanted low maintenance, modern wiring," he said.

What was unusual about this house is that it met both their parameters and that it wasn't done. The buyers would get to pick paint colors, tile and other finishes. The developer was Mark Fichnter and Penn Pioneer Enterprises.

The house was built for George A. Todd, president of Braddock National Bank and Bessemer Trust Co. His initials remain in the tile of the front hall. House historian Carol Peterson found a newspaper article from May 8, 1915, reporting that his first wife, Mina, and a maid were killed when a laundry boiler filled with gasoline exploded. After the most recent owner died, the house sat empty for at least 12 years, accumulating more than $200,000 in back taxes. To save it for renovation, the borough took the unusual step of a "free and clear" sheriff's sale. Mark Fichtner and his company, Penn Pioneer Enterprises, bought it in March 2012 for $6,600 and started work with Jim Zazzera and Jenza Renovations as general contractor.

Although the roof, plumbing and wiring had to be replaced, the ornate woodwork on the first floor, including most of the fireplace mantels, was in good condition. The floors required an oil treatment rather than sanding and refinishing. A swan-themed panel on the stair landing and some other stained-glass windows had been stolen, but the rest of the stained and leaded glass was intact.

With more than 3,000 square feet of living space, five bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths, the property was priced lower than comparable houses in nearby city neighborhoods. And although Wilkinsburg taxes are considerably higher than the city's, the property qualified for a 10-year tax abatement.

The Mosses, who have two grown children, decided it was worth the risk and bought the house in July for $363,030. They found much to love in it. Each room has a unique fireplace mantel, some of which are replacements. The kitchen was a blank slate but for some old subway tile on two walls. Ms. Moss, who sewed the kitchen curtains, chose new matching subway tile, white cabinets and black granite countertops. Mr. Moss found the schoolhouse lights online.

He turned a third-floor bedroom into a music room that is home to his records, music books, acoustic guitars, keyboard and one day, maybe, a baby grand piano, if they can get it up the stairs.

Ms. Moss reserved a large walk-in closet lined with pine cabinets and drawers for her clothes and 100 pairs of shoes. A size 12, she had trouble finding shoes in her size before the coming of Nordstrom and the Internet.

"If I was a size 9 I'd probably have 300!" she joked.

Catherine Berard of Prism Stained Glass in Lawrenceville created the intricate etched glass panel for the landing and seamlessly restored several other pieces of leaded and stained glass.

Working closely with contractors, the Mosses turned a second-floor bedroom into a large master bath with glass shower, white beadboard wainscoting, and hidden, high-efficiency LG washer and dryer. Original pedestal sinks were preserved and restored in two other bathrooms. A round one on the third floor echoes two circles in the upper sash of the third-floor windows.

The largest room on the third floor became a family room, where purple again makes an appearance. It's not quite as bold as the shade on the front door, which has proven a conversation starter with new neighbors.

"People are so friendly here," Ms. Moss said. "You can't sit on that porch without people stopping by."


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978. First Published September 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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