Potential buyers with different goals assess the Bryce-Mesta home

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The house at 540 Doyle Ave. in West Homestead brings out the dreamer in nearly everyone who sees it -- except for its most famous resident.

"I wondered if I could ever get used to the murky atmosphere," Perle Mesta said as she beheld -- and smelled -- the smoke belching from the stacks of Mesta Machine Co.

She was 26 years old, a singer and pianist who had inherited her father's oil fortune, when she married a much older George Mesta in 1916.

Their house, which looked down on Mesta's sprawling factory on the Monongahela River, was built around 1880 for an earlier industrialist, Charles K. Bryce, a principal in the glassmaking firm of Bryce, Higbee & Co.

Mrs. Mesta didn't much like the house or Pittsburgh, a "dull" place whose socialites snubbed the woman who would later become famous as "the hostess with the mostest" in Washington, D.C. Her husband was building her a new house in Squirrel Hill when he died in 1925, leaving her $78 million.

The Bryce-Mesta House began a long slow decline after she left. Its ballroom, dining room and 10 bedrooms had been chopped into seven apartments when Manoj and Stacy Chandran bought the property in January 2007.

"I was fascinated by the historical aspect of the mansion," he said. "My wife walked up the steps, looked over the balcony and said, 'I want to buy this house.' "

Their plan was to turn the first floor into an office for Mr. Chandran's Internet marketing business and to live on the top two floors. They spent three years and at least $500,000 gutting, plumbing, wiring and framing its 9,500 square feet of living space. Their contractors ran new ducting throughout, replaced windows and the roof and put on a handicapped-accessible side addition and a rooftop deck. Mr. Chandran even had a California company replicate by the hundreds the decorative corbels along the eaves. Their composite material will hold up much longer than the old wood.

"I wanted to put in something that would last forever," he said.

But by 2010, the Mt. Lebanon couple realized their dream house would never be. A business downturn and the births of two children shifted their priorities away from the house, and they put it on the market.

"It was very upsetting for us," Mr. Chandran said. "We didn't go in the house for two years."

Its current price, $150,000, and national advertising have drawn lookers from as far away as New York and Maryland, said sales agent Frank Machi of Northwood Realty Services (412-681-4050 or www.northwood.com). Although impressed by all that has been done, most are overwhelmed by the mansion's sheer size and the amount of work that remains to bring back the house and its 1.5 acres of mature trees and hilly, overgrown land.

But there are still a few dreamers. Kimberly J. Andrews and Yolanda Rodriguez are trying to raise $500,000 to buy the property and turn it into a home for them and their children and the Riverway Lighthouse Estate, a series of businesses that include a greenhouse/urban farm, film and music studio, holistic spa and event center.

"We saw the mansion's potential and fell in love with it," said Ms. Rodriguez, a Peabody High School graduate and Army veteran who recently earned a bachelor's degree in health science from La Roche College.

"We have poured our hearts into this," said Ms. Andrews, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., and a disabled Air Force veteran who has an MBA from Carlow University.

She lays out her business plan for the property on a fundraising website, www.indiegogo.com/projects/mesta-mansion-is-going-from-grime-to-green. Unlike Kickstarter, the site will allow the women to keep whatever they raise even if they don't reach their goal by Feb. 13. If they fail to purchase the Mesta house, they will pursue their plan on another site in the Steel Valley, the women said.

On the day a reporter visited last week, University of Pittsburgh student Wyatt Sullivan and his friend Jake Sadler were inspecting the house with the idea of buying and renovating it as living space for themselves and fellow students. The mortgage cost would be about what he would pay to live on or off campus, Mr. Sullivan said. His father, a contractor, wanted to look at the house before agreeing to help with the project.

"It's a lot better than I thought it would be," Mr. Sullivan said, noting the ABS plastic plumbing and extensive ducting.

He got down on his hands and knees and squeezed his 6-foot-5 frame between studs on the third floor to climb to the rooftop deck. He admired the new fiberglass shingle and torch-down rubber roof, then took in a view that included several bridges over the Mon and the many buildings of the former Mesta plant, now WHEMCO, which stands for West Homestead Engineering and Machine Co.

"I figure this is a 10- to 15-year project," he said.

Mr. Machi, who has renovated century-old houses in Uniontown and Lawrenceville, told him he was looking at spending $200,000 to finish turning the Mesta house back into a single-family home and $100,000-$200,0000 to create apartments on the second and third floors. The Realtor pointed out original details such as the ornate central staircase, sturdy hardwood floors and the house's original refrigerator -- a huge cooler off the kitchen dug into the hillside.

He didn't know much about the garage, which is actually a two-level stable beneath one of the concrete terraces. Its stair has a unique balustrade with wooden posts and what appeared to be iron balusters.

"Old people from the neighborhood would stop by and tell me about the parties Perle would have here," Mr. Chandran said. "One man said, 'Is the brass railing still there?' "

Mrs. Mesta's marriage and time in the house was less than 12 years, but she treasured memories of her husband, who gave her a $25,000 pearl necklace on their first Christmas together and took her to Europe 22 times

"George had pampered me and treated me like an ornament," she said in a 1960 interview. "And I had loved it."

After his death, she moved to Washington, D.C., and turned her husband's friendship with Calvin Coolidge and her own friendship with Harry Truman into a lifetime of entertaining politicians from both sides of the aisle. In 1949, Truman named her U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, and her parties continued to draw a buzz there.

Mrs. Mesta, who died in 1975, once said a successful party is a combination of cool guests, hot food, cool music and a warm hostess. Although she always supplied lots of vintage champagne and alcohol, she was a Christian Scientist who didn't smoke and rarely drank. She was too busy taking care of her guests.

"The hostess should always look her best because it is a compliment to her guests," she once said.

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

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