Crafton house tour spotlights community's elegant old homes
December 13, 2013 8:00 PM
The front of the Boehm home in Crafton.
The dining room in the historic home of George and Crystal Boehm in Crafton.
The front hallway in the historic home of George and Crystal Boehm in Crafton.
The kitchen in the historic home of George and Crystal Boehm in Crafton opens up to an enclosed porch.
One of the stained glass windows in the dining room in the historic home of George and Crystal Boehm in Crafton.
The formal living room in the historic home of George and Crystal Boehm in Crafton.
An antique family clock stands in the living room in the home of George and Crystal Boehm.
The family room in the home of George and Crystal Boehm.
One of the original stained glass windows on the second floor landing in the home of George and Crystal Boehm.
A child's bedroom in the home of George and Crystal Boehm.
By Marylynne Pitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the owner of Keystone Lumber Co., George Glass no doubt appreciated the beauty of quality hardwood. When this son of Irish immigrants began building a stately Colonial in Crafton in 1906, he used two layers of red brick, gorgeous stained glass and plenty of quarter-sawn oak.
More than 40 years later, David Noel Freedman, one of the world's foremost experts on the Bible, turned the front part of the third floor into his study, meeting there occasionally with a group of young seminarians, including a fellow named Fred Rogers.
Now, more than a century after it was built, the three-story house is hosting a third generation of Boehms, a family that bought the Belvidere Street property in 1959. George Thomas Boehm Jr., who grew up here as one of eight children, is delighted to be living in his boyhood home. Mr. Boehm calls Crafton "the best-kept secret in the county because you can buy a million-dollar home for $300,000."
His house is one of seven open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday during the Crafton House Tour, which benefits a fund used to improve the community's parks. The Crafton United Presbyterian Church at 80 Bradford Ave. is on the tour, too.
Before marrying her husband, Crystal Boehm lived in Penn Hills in a 1,600-square-foot modern ranch with lots of windows. She knew he had always wanted to return to his family's home in Crafton but found it so dark and drafty that initially, she had a hard time adjusting.
"As we started to fix the home up, I really and truly fell in love with it," Mrs. Boehm said.
Since the summer of 2005, with the help of friends, relatives and a professional plasterer, the Boehms have restored the 5,000-square-foot house. Certain traditions are continuing. George Boehm Jr. learned to ice skate on a nearby pond. The couple's two daughters and one son -- 8-year-old Ashley, 6-year-old Rachel and 5-year-old Jacob -- are learning to skate there, also. The girls favor figure eights while Jacob dreams of playing hockey.
The house is impressive on every level. The entryway has a set of double doors with glass panes, dark wood pilasters, leaded glass and a terrazzo tile floor. The foyer has a coffered ceiling while oak wainscoting lines the central hall. To the left is a dining room with a coffered ceiling, quarter-sawn oak wainscoting and a plate rail that circles the room. Purple grapes and vines adorn two stained-glass windows.
To the right is a music room with two Boehm family heirlooms -- a baby grand Steinway piano and a Man Over the Moon clock from England that is more than 200 years old. The white ceramic fireplace surround gleams because Mrs. Boehm cleaned it with Westley's Bleche White, a product that's popular with car owners.
A working pocket door divides the music room from a den that also has a coffered ceiling, a fireplace, a beautiful stained glass window with flowers and dark oak wainscoting.
Two months after the couple moved in, Ashley was born in October 2005. Mrs. Boehm did not let that pregnancy or two later ones in 2007 or 2008 stop her from working on the house.
"I fell in love with the home the more I learned about it and the more we renovated," she said.
If a relatively new home is a hungry thing, a house that's more than 100 years old is utterly ravenous, especially one with nine fireplaces and four chimneys, all of which had to be cleaned. The original inserts in the fireplaces were removed and stored in the basement. The couple installed plywood boxes, which they painted to match each room, then inserted electric logs.
A major leak from pipes in the second-floor bathroom forced them to redo that room first. Water from the leak had damaged the coffered ceiling in the foyer so that was repaired, too. Then, the slanted plaster ceiling in the third floor game room, which runs the length of the house, had to be taken down and new wiring installed.
Mr. Boehm is the third generation of his family to be a title underwriter and is president of American General Services Corp., a title closing company. While the couple hired various contractors, Mr. Boehm did his fair share of dirty work.
With his buddy, Robert MacArtie of McDonald, Pa., he donned a gas mask to remove plaster from the third-floor game room. Lou Ciotti, a professional plasterer, finished off the space. Mr. Boehm and Mr. MacArtie also covered over the old brick fireplaces at either end of the room with new Pennsylvania blue stone and installed oak mantels.
Then one night about 4 a.m., the Boehms heard a loud kaboom. Mr. Boehm got up to investigate and when he returned to bed, he told his wife they had yet another project. An old plaster ceiling, which had expanded and contracted with temperature changes for more than a century, had crashed in large chunks into a third-floor guest bedroom. The space had just been newly carpeted and painted.
"The carpet was black," Mrs. Boehm recalled.
After the guest bedroom was redone for the second time, replastering the ceilings and walls in the girls' second-floor bedrooms came next, followed by a redo of the master bedroom ceiling.
One day in 2006, Mrs. Boehm used Murphy's Oil Soap to clean woodwork. The varnish began melting onto her cleaning rag, turning the wash water in her pail black. Her husband learned that after a century, it's not unusual for varnish to oxidize and crackle.
So, they tackled the monumental task of stripping and cleaning the woodwork throughout the home. Mr. Boehm bought a portable scaffold and they began using Citristrip to remove old varnish from two of the coffered ceilings in the center hall and dining room, wainscoting in the center hall and second floor and a staircase that runs from the first to the third floor. Then, while wearing masks, they cleaned the wood with nylon brushes soaked in ammonia.
"It was so dark before, you couldn't see the grain'' of the wood, Mr. Boehm recalled.
Finally, in 2009, the couple gutted their kitchen. MAL Contracting did the job, installing black appliances, an island with black granite countertops, a slide-in range and maple cabinets with a mocha glaze. A former pantry has become a breakfast nook with a table for five. Off the kitchen is an enclosed sun porch that holds solid oak Jamestown Royal parlor furniture from the 1800s, a Boehm family heirloom handed down by Mr. Boehm's paternal grandfather.
Heating bills were exorbitant, so three years ago three dormer windows on the third floor were removed and new curved casings were made for them. New glass was installed in those windows and custom storm windows were made for the entire home. Insulation was rolled into the third floor, too.
Mr. Boehm is delighted with the research his wife has done in tracking down members of various families who once lived in the home and recording their memories.
Every other year, the couple host a Christmas Day party in the evening with appetizers, cocktails and cookies for at least 80 Boehm family members.
"The kids love it because they get to see their cousins," Mrs. Boehm said. Two years ago, astronaut Buzz Aldrin attended the gathering because he was dating a friend of Mr. Boehm's sister.
When Mr. Boehm was growing up, his parents always had Santa visit their eight children.
"One time, my father had a friend of his do it. He went to the wrong house. He had had one too many eggnogs," Mr. Boehm said, adding that this particular Santa still paid a visit to his family.
"He just came about 15 minutes late."
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648.
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