Moments after walking into a dilapidated row house she was thinking about buying, Laura Huon watched a huge chunk of plaster crash down from the ceiling.
Not exactly the best first impression.
Yet she wasn't dissuaded. It only reinforced that she and developer Brian Mendelssohn were looking at a total gut job. When the dust cleared, she was sure she would have the home she'd always dreamed about.
"I'd get everything I wanted, and be able to make it my own," she said.
Getting there took a year, with many compromises along the way, but the journey from commercial property slated for demolition to a sleek, modern home you can't help but drool over was worth every penny. The Lawrenceville project, which included turning a neighboring row house into a stunning courtyard patio, was named runner-up in the 2013-14 Renovation Inspiration Contest, large residential category (more than $50,000).
The 8-year-old competition, which is sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by staffers of the Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction, aims to honor and encourage sensitive and sustainable renovation. Ms. Huon's project hits on both cylinders.
The 1,880-square-foot, three-story building is one of five 19th-century row houses Mr. Mendelssohn of Botero Development purchased in 2011 with the Lawrenceville Corp. Vacated in the 1980s, the buildings had decayed almost to the point of being unsalvageable. In saving them from the wrecking ball, Mr. Mendelssohn hoped to preserve the fabric of a street in a neighborhood on a decided upswing.
A seasoned professional -- a project he completed on Butler Street was a runner-up in the 2010 contest -- Mr. Mendelssohn knew there would be structural and other challenges. Complicating matters was the fact that the red-brick buildings were sold as individual homes, with each buyer working directly with MossArchitects and Botero to customize them. Ms. Huon, for instance, desired an open floor plan perfect for entertaining.
The corner building was in the worst shape. Built in 1890 as a market, it last housed a beer distributor before being abandoned in 1984. By the time Mr. Mendelssohn arrived, it was beyond repair: One of the brick walls was collapsing, and the floor joists had fallen into the basement.
"It had become a bathtub," filling with water during rainstorms, he says.
The adjoining building that Ms. Huon bought was in better shape, but not much. All of the plumbing had to be redone, and the windows either had been bricked up or shrunken considerably. At least the floor of 5-inch-wide pine planks was restorable, even if the staircases were not.
Original plans called for a galley kitchen with a long island down the middle and door to the back porch. But would it be big enough? "I love to cook and entertain, so we wanted the first floor smooth," Ms. Huon says.
So Mr. Mendelssohn moved the door, placed the stainless-steel appliances against the outside wall and designed a small island that cuts the cherry kitchen into an L-shape while hiding a wine cooler. The result is a space that flows seamlessly from the front door to the rear wall.
The six-burner DCS commercial range, Bertazzoni convection wall oven and Futuro Futuro range hood from Italy were all splurges. The Shaker-style Kraftmaid cabinets were not.
"They came from Lowe's," she says.
Extra-deep window sills on a pair of windows overlooking the backyard are a few inches lower than the honed black granite counter tops, but that's OK: It's a perfect sunny space in which to grow herbs. The exposed brick behind the stove also was a risky design element, "but we just went with it" to add warmth to the room, says Ms. Huon.
The dining/living areas are decidedly more rustic, punctuated with Asian-style furniture made from refurbished barnwood, exposed brick walls and framed black-and-white photographs of Santa Fe, N.M. Solid cherry shelves hand-crafted by Wade Caruso Woodworking are to the left of a gas fireplace with a wood mantel from Crate & Barrel. A wall off the front door that had darkened the front of the house came down, opening up the space. But a pair of extra-large windows that flood the space with light are original. As for the wainscoting that once covered the lower portion of the walls, "it's in my apartment now," says Mr. Mendelssohn.
Double doors open onto the enclosed courtyard, which is about as cool an outdoor space are you can imagine. To keep strangers out and Ms. Huon's dog in, Colin Carrier of London Pattern Metal Works created fanciful, 11-foot-tall painted steel screens with forged ends. The only thing between the patio pavers and the sky is a series of steel beams two stories up.
While it's still a work in progress, the garden come summer will be awash in colorful flowers and trees of varying textures. Landscape architect Jen Urich has paired a weeping blue cedarwith hornbeams and light pink climbing roses. There's also morning glory and moonbeam vines that grow up the garden gates and a late-blooming white clematis that spreads against the back wall. Perennials hang in baskets from the five window openings, all of which still have their original lintels. There's also a Buddha with a water feature that's surrounded by hosta.
"It's a wonderful little slice of heaven," says Ms. Huon.
Her backyard garden, meanwhile, will be flush with cucumbers, peppers, beans, blackberries, raspberries and eight varieties of tomatoes. Lots of Asian herbs to cook with, too.
The second floor, once just a big open space, now holds a small but elegant guest room and bath that Ms. Huon likens to a Napa retreat. Thanks to moss-green walls and stylish Arhaus furniture, the master suite is equally serene. Until you walk into the adjoining bath, that is, and your jaw drops. The walk-in shower, enclosed on three sides by exposed brick and onyx tile walls and glass on the other, is huge. And with its river rock shower bed, so very cool.
Ms. Huon and her husband considered making it small to accommodate a second-floor laundry room. "But there'd still be no place to do the folding, so we expanded it," she says, and like so many old-time Pittsburghers, they put the washer and dryer in the basement.
The attic is anything but classic Pittsburgh. Painted bright purple, with gleaming honey-colored pine floors, it's a hip place for Ms. Huon to practice yoga. While the rear-facing windows are original size, the three on the side are brand-new, flooding the room with sunshine. Two skylights add even more illumination.
It's so bright, "this is where I begin my seeds and bring my garden inside in winter," says Ms. Huon, who also uses the space as a gym and home office.
The room is big enough that if the couple decides to stay, they could easily add two more bedrooms and a third bath, especially because the developer thought to include a trap door to the plumbing system.
Turning the derelict property into Ms. Huon's dream home, says Mr. Mendelssohn, took collaboration as much as it did time and money.
"It was translating what was in her heart into something practical and made a good, cohesive space," he says.
"I could just see what it could be and how beautiful it was going to be," Ms. Huon agrees.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.