If you buy a ticket for the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour, you can expect to see painstakingly restored houses with elaborate holiday decorations. But not at the Sweeney house on Beech Avenue.
"We're the real people of Allegheny West," joked Chris Sweeney, noting that their Lionel train set goes up well before their Christmas tree.
With two young boys, he and his wife, Sara, are more focused on family activities than Victorian decorations. But they love that there's room for both kinds of people in this North Side historic district.
"In a lot of cities, we couldn't afford to live here," he said. "There's diversity of every kind."
Their house is one of seven stops on the tour Dec. 13-14. Guided tours leave every 12 minutes from Calvary United Methodist Church. In past years, the Sweeneys have volunteered to house-sit or lead some of the more than 1,500 people who visit the houses or the vintage toy train collection. Many visitors ask them what it's like to live on the North Side. About nine years ago, these two children of the suburbs wondered the same thing.
He is a New Jersey native who lived in the North Hills for about 20 years, loving his two-car garage but feeling "a little disconnected" from the city as the head of a nonprofit organization. She returned in 2000 to the place that several generations of her mother's family have called home.
Her family left Mt. Lebanon in the 1970s when her father, a steel executive, took a job in Michigan. Although she grew up in the 'burbs, she preferred urban areas and landed first in Lawrenceville upon her return.
"My deep roots feed into my love for the city," she said. "I feel very connected."
The couple looked at houses in many neighborhoods. Then they visited a friend in Allegheny West.
"We immediately fell in love with the neighborhood," Mr. Sweeney said. "I call it an urban oasis. When you get to Beech and Lincoln [avenues], it's like going back in time."
Luckily for them, previous owners had already done major renovations of this Second Empire-style house, which was built around 1872 and owned first by grocer William Seddon. The Sweeneys removed some wallpaper, painted in more contemporary colors and replaced some of the worn-out pine floors with oak.
Most of the art and other artistic touches are the work of Mrs. Sweeney, a photographer and mixed-media artist who sells at the New Allegheny Market House. In the kitchen, she used tin ceiling panels as the sink's backsplash and took down a large pot rack that loomed over the table. For the holidays, she has hung in its place large stars suspended from loops of metallic beads.
"It's not quite finished," she said. "I'll add some greens."
Greens, ribbons and stockings decorate an original marble fireplace mantel, one of four in the house, in the living room. The Sweeney boys -- Charlie, 7, and Eli, 4 -- are much more interested in the train set than the Christmas tree, a 10-foot Fraser fir that their parents will get soon from the Urban Gardener.
This urban family takes full advantage of nearby museums, the National Aviary and West Park, where they ride bikes and scooters and their mixed-breed dog Jackson romps in the dog park. Ironically, Mr. Sweeney now has a 20-minute commute to a technology job in the North Hills, near his former house. When he's jockeying for parking on Beech, he sometimes misses his two-car garage. But he doesn't miss the isolation that often comes with such suburban conveniences.
"We weren't here three days before a neighbor came over to tell us about street cleaning. This neighborhood is very social," he said.
Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour
When: 5-8 p.m. Dec. 13, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 14 (many slots open after 6 p.m. Dec. 14).
Where: Tours leave every 12 minutes from Calvary United Methodist Church, Allegheny and Beech avenues, North Side (15233). Holiday Shop at the church.
Tickets: $25 per person, $10 for train show at Holmes Hall.
Information: Reservations required for all tours — www.alleghenywest.org or 412-323-8884
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.