Interest in Shaler mansion crosses generations

Shaler student helps couple restore Greek Revival mansion built by Isaac Lightner, wealthy foundry owner


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Andrew Hyatt had always admired the grand old house with imposing white pillars in his Shaler neighborhood.

“There’‍s no other house like it around here,” said the 18-year-old, who lives a block away from the Greek Revival mansion that has been listed on the National Register since 1978.

In June 2011, his curiosity prompted him to write to the home’‍s owners, Sue and Tim Dreier.

“I had no idea who they were. I asked if they would be willing to show me the house. There was scaffolding on it and tarps. It was pretty much a construction site,” he recalled.

A few days later, Ms. Dreier telephoned and invited the high school student and his parents, Chris and Nancy, over for a tour.

So began Mr. Hyatt’‍s sweaty but satisfying apprenticeship in historic preservation at the Isaac Lightner House, which was built between 1834-36 for a wealthy foundry owner, his wife, Louisa, and six children. The Dreiers, who bought the property in October 2010, were thrilled to have an enthusiastic, hard-working teenager on their team.

As he worked alongside various contractors, Mr. Hyatt tore down walls, cut vintage glass for first-floor windows and painted a fresh white coat on the home and summer kitchen’‍s handmade bricks. He also removed wallpaper from a second-floor bathroom and bedroom and a basement kitchen. The home’‍s English basement, which is half above ground and half below, contains four rooms and a bathroom. 

Earlier this month, the Shaler Area High School graduate was honored for his work and an essay about the house with a $4,000 scholarship from Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. Mr. Hyatt was one of four local students who won the scholarships, which have been given since 1999. The money will help him pay for books when he attends Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia this fall. 

As Mr. Hyatt invested his time and sweat equity, he developed a greater appreciation for the home’‍s architecture and detailed design.

“The first-floor rooms have a lot of picture molding. If you want to hang pictures on the wall, you would not have to hammer nails into the walls,” he said.

After learning of the high cost for authentic, hand-printed wallpaper, Mrs. Dreier and the couple’‍s only son, Jeff, an optometrist who rents the house from his parents, pored over Sherwin-Williams wallpaper books. They chose coral wallpaper with urns and cupids for the first-floor men’‍s smoking room. The fanciest space is the women’‍s parlor, which has blue and white wallpaper, a sparkling glass chandelier and four matching glass wall sconces. Francis Nowalk of Bloomfield, who restored the light fixtures, told Mrs. Dreier the glass was made in Czechoslovakia.  

The Dreiers used a decorating scheme of various shades of the same color in each room. While the ladies’‍ parlor is papered in blue, the woodwork is a lighter shade of that color and the ceiling is an even paler blue. 

Since their marriage in 1973, the Dreiers have regularly toured historic homes in Pittsburgh, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. They decided to restore the mansion partly because they live right across from the street from it and had always wanted to take on the Olympian task of preserving a historic home.

By the time the couple acquired the four-bedroom, 3½-bath home on Mt. Royal Boulevard, it had a leaky roof, reeked of mildew and lacked electricity. Termites were munching on baseboards, door frames, built-in handrails and staircase framing. Water had seeped into the foundation. Luckily, all the basement walls were brick so the home’‍s basic structure remained intact.

The Dreiers are the ninth family to own the 180-year-old home. Their 33-year-old son Jeff has furnished it with American Empire antiques, which are period-appropriate for the large rooms. Mrs. Dreier said her son found most of the antiques in Canonsburg, Ohio and North Carolina. 

All seven of the cast-iron fireplaces were made in the Kingsland, Lightner and Cuddy foundry. During the 1820s, Lightner served on council in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh‘‍s North Side. There, he owned a home at General Robinson Street and Bank Alley, Mr. Dreier said. The couple believe the Mt. Royal Boulevard home may have been a summer retreat for Lightner and his family.

In the early phase of restoration, the Dreiers confronted the problem of a badly sagging 22-foot-long front porch. 

“From the wall of the house to the front edge of the porch, it had fallen 9 inches. One of the four white columns had fallen and had broken,” Mr. Dreier said.

After the first contractor began working on the porch, more structural flaws were found.

“When they were jacking it up to restore it, we found the original locust posts that had held up the frame. Those had been attacked by ants and termites. The whole thing was being held up by one post. We were pretty lucky that the whole thing didn’‍t crash to the ground,” Mr. Dreier said.

Five weeks ago, the Dreiers learned that carpenter ants were eating the porch and hired a new contractor to install pressure-treated framing underneath it and rebuild the porch. 

So much work remains to be done that the Dreiers have not had time to landscape the 1 acre of land occupied by the house, summer kitchen and fieldstone spring house. 

Mr. Hyatt tackled a part of that project. He researched garden designs from the early 1800s, then drew a new plan that incorporated remnants of the original herb and vegetable garden located near the summer kitchen. He persuaded two of his Shaler Area High School teachers and 11 classmates to help. They used bricks to create geometric patterns, then planted herbs, vegetables and flowers commonly grown in the 1800s. Their work garnered an award from the Fairfield Challenge, a regional environmental competition.

One hot summer day, Mr. Hyatt and Mrs. Dreier cut vintage seeded glass for window panes to repair 49 broken windows. Before each cut, they scored the salvaged glass with tiny wheels.

“It takes a lot of effort. If you snap it the wrong way, the glass will break. It was definitely an all-day affair,” he said.

Behind the main house is a small two-story cottage. Originally a summer kitchen, it was used to prepare meals during the warm months so as to keep the main house cool. 

Termites had eaten the summer kitchen’‍s wooden floors and framing, and bricks in the first-floor fireplace and bake oven had collapsed. The couple installed new poplar flooring, rebuilt the fireplace and bake oven, and hired an iron forger to create a new crane for the fireplace.  

Working at the Lightner House, Mr. Hyatt said, has taught him some valuable lessons.

”This has enabled me to decide what I want to do with my life. I’‍ve decided I want to  go to college for architectural history and historic preservation.“

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


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