Squirrel Hill's 'Denniston Abbey' features the best of old and new design

This time, flippers make a home

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Some people walk through an old home’s front door and cringe when they see the amount of work to be done.

Others roll up their fashionable sleeves and march forward, confident of their ability to visualize how each room will look once it is transformed.

That’s what happened in March 2012 when Steven Alschuler, a native New Yorker and public relations consultant, stood outside a home on Denniston Street in Squirrel Hill. His wife, Hannah Arnold, and their business partner, Dan May, had already led the charge on seven successful home renovations in the East End, which they sold. This time, they were buying a place to call their own and for a moment, Mr. Alschuler hesitated.

"Are you sure?“ he asked Ms. Arnold, a public relations executive and self-trained interior designer.


Her vigorous nod launched a major renovation that included removing several walls, raising two doorways to improve sight lines, building a new staircase that runs from the basement to the third floor, and filling and emptying 17 dumpsters.

Now, visitors can truly appreciate the walnut-stained woodwork and jade- and gold-colored stained glass in this Colonial Revival with five bedrooms and 3 1/​2 baths. To offset the heavy, polished woodwork, Ms. Arnold used dramatic light fixtures, metallic finishes and soft fabrics throughout its rooms. She also insisted on adding more windows to capture every last sliver of natural light. Mr. Alschuler named the house Denniston Abbey.

Built in 1900, the house has its original tall glass and wooden double doors in front. In the entryway, light streams through the center hall and all the way back to a sleek new kitchen. Ms. Arnold designed this space around a massive, circular chandelier of brushed aluminum that hangs over an island topped by honed Vermont marble.

To create a seamless connection from the kitchen to a new outdoor deck in the backyard, the couple replaced a door that had led to a small stoop with a 10-foot-wide wall of glass. Now the kitchen floor is flush with the deck, which seats 14 people. Built-in wooden planters around the deck’s perimeter hold an array of fresh herbs that Ms. Arnold uses daily. She designed the planters, too.

In fine weather, cooking outdoors is easy. A few steps from the deck is a large propane grill covered by a wooden pergola. Grilling even in the late evening is possible because 15 old-fashioned Edison bulbs hang from the pergola.

Preparing meals inside is a pleasure, too, because the spacious kitchen is well-organized. A 10-foot-tall vertical mirror covers part of the wall by a Thermador stove. Cooks can stand at the stove and talk to guests at an island with seating for five. There’s plenty of eye candy, too. Covering the top half of one wall is a massive walnut and glass cabinet that holds vintage and unusual glassware that Ms. Arnold has collected. Below it is a bar and wine storage.

Just off the kitchen is the home’s most dramatic space. The dining room has a coffered ceiling and a large three-paneled bay window with original stained glass. Ceramic tiles are aubergine, gold and green. Ms. Arnold chose a light fixture from Luna Bella in Miami and designed the room around it. The chandelier has 13 pendant torchieres made of brass and aluminum that cast a magical glow over an elliptical rosewood table. The ceiling is trimmed in silver-leaf Phillip Jeffries wallpaper.

From the dining room, guests can adjourn to a living room with a gas fireplace. Anchoring this area are two dark leather sofas from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.They are tufted on the back, giving them an elegant flair. Carefully arranged pillows pick up the rich hues in the wine-colored vintage Turkish rug on the floor.

Directly across the hall from the living room is a media room and art gallery. Filled with comfortable furniture, its walls hold a dozen canvases by American painters who favored vivid hues. Two leather poufs in an elegant shade of peacock blue provide a rich pop of color. Above the gas fireplace is a watercolor landscape done in deep shades of blue and gold. It’s the work of Margaret, Ms. Arnold’s maternal grandmother.

"She was my best bud,” Ms. Arnold said.

A framed photograph shows Ms. Arnold as a girl dressed in denim overalls and standing next to her maternal grandmother, who built a cabin many years ago in Somerset County. Ms. Arnold paints, too.

Off the media room is a powder room. These spaces are often afterthoughts but there’s no shortage of visual interest here. Ten round mirrors, some faceted and others flat, are framed in antique silver and gold. The walls are covered in a silvery paper that has the texture of linen.

On the second floor landing, a massive antique Moroccan mirror hangs just above a Chinese buffet table. Below that is a vintage brass trunk with leather handles. This level holds Ms. Arnold’s office. Decorating one wall are 14 variations of the first letter of her first name. There’s a blue H from a movie theater in Chicago and a gold H and O from the original Woolworth building in Downtown Pittsburgh. A big black wooden easel serves as a television stand, while vintage ticket holders made of cast iron hold photos of her beloved nieces, Alana and Sydney. Her drafting table is 100 years old. A whimsical touch is the light fixture made of hand-blown glass balls and aluminum bulbs.

The second floor also holds a guest bedroom and a large bathroom with a shower framed by one glass partition and walls of marble tile. Green and gold stained glass decorates the bathroom window. The master suite on this floor includes a large bedroom, a dressing room with custom-made closets, plenty of shoe storage, and a bathroom with a white tub and a 19th-century British Colonial mirror trimmed in teak wood.

Ms. Arnold designed the white master bath around this mirror, then choreographed its delivery and installation. It took six muscled men to wrestle the mirror through a second-floor window and into it what is undoubtedly its final resting place. Mr. May, a Wilkinsburg carpenter, said the crew figured they couldn’t carry the huge mirror up the stairs.

"That’s when we knew we had to take it up over the roof,“ he said. ”That night it snowed, naturally.“

Despite the wintry weather, ”the next morning, our friend showed up with a boom truck. He literally came in and picked it up right off the porch.“

Three men stood on the roof while three stayed inside.

”We had to uncrate it and make sure nobody fell off the roof because it was slippery. We threw some rock salt and put some carpets out,“ Mr. May said.

One of the men had worked as a professional mover, and he helped the team turn the mirror around until it was upright and flush against the bathroom ceiling.

”It was real heavy. Thank God we had enough people here,“ he said.

The mirror is only one example of the house’s fine woodwork. Ron Songer of National Forest Products in Marienville, Forest County, made the walnut cabinetry in the kitchen and built-ins in Ms. Arnold’s office and dressing room. New flooring and trim were made by C & M Hardwoods in Centerville. O .C. Cluss Lumber & Building Supplies, based in Uniontown, made the new staircase banister.

The third floor is a man castle. Mr. Alschuler’s office is here, along with a second guest bedroom and a recreation area that holds a large television, two refrigerators, a billiards table and two leather chairs that recline. Mr. Alschuler tried every leather chair he saw at Levin’s before choosing the one he has wanted for many years. Slanted ceilings and recessed lighting give this space the feel of a hideaway.

”I can work in my office, go down to the kitchen for a meal and go back upstairs to work feeling as if I'd gone out to lunch,“ he said.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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