Couple transform Brentwood rental into spacious home fit for 2 pianos


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When Bill Sheppard plays “Traumerei,”  sweet chords fill his living room and you understand instantly why he wanted to keep this grand piano with the golden sound.

Made in 1917 by Mason & Hamlin, the mahogany instrument was a gift from Margaret Schreyer, his late, longtime music teacher and friend.

“She was my son’s godmother,” said Mr. Sheppard, who already owned a 1929 piano made by the same Massachusetts company when he inherited this one, made during a golden age for piano production.

The two instruments “took up the whole living room in our Baldwin house. You couldn’‍t put much else in there,” Mr. Sheppard said. A friend suggested moving to a larger home. 

Mr. Sheppard, a physical therapist for more than 40 years, was driving on Brownsville Road to see a patient when he noticed a Brentwood property for sale. When he walked through arched doors into a first-floor sun room, he knew he’d found the right home for his pianos.

“I just thought it was beautiful. I knew that would be great for my second piano,” he said.

So, in the spring of 1997, he and his wife, June, bought the three-story Craftsman-style house. They began undoing changes made by a previous owner, who had divided it into two apartments, one on each floor.

Mrs. Sheppard is a full-time grandmother who looks after her 8-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth Seiffert, 7-year-old Ben Sheppard and 4-year-old Samantha Sheppard. She recalls what a chore it was just to get ready for work each day. The only functioning bathroom was on the second floor. Bathing required a climb to the third-floor shower.

“All our clothes were in the garage,” Mrs. Sheppard said. For about a month, they had no laundry facilities. 

Her husband agreed it was a trying time.

“We spent the first five years living in dirt. I’m not a carpenter. I can tear it out, but I can’t put it back together,” he said.

The couple’s son, Paul, of Mt. Lebanon, was 21 when his parents moved to Brentwood.

“It was really rough. I was worried that they would be able to live there and do it and kind of keep their sanity. I think they did for the most part. At one point, my dad stepped through a hole in the floor and almost went straight through to the basement,” Paul Sheppard said. 

That first year had its share of unpleasant surprises. One day, the ceiling in the kitchen fell down. The couple hired Tim Schuster of Munhall to install oak cabinets that he had carefully removed from another client’s home.

“This woman had a huge kitchen. Tim Schuster fit it all together and made it work for us,” Mr. Sheppard said.

Above one of the kitchen cabinets, a wooden rack that once held prayer missals on a church pew in Oakland now displays colorful antique china plates arranged in a neat row. 

From a grandmother, Mr. Sheppard inherited a collection of Stickley furniture, including sofas and library tables that look especially at home in the living room, where the fireplace details include blue peacocks and brown and green leaves.

Renovations uncovered two archways, an especially wide one between the living room and dining room and another next to the living room fireplace. New oak flooring was laid because the original hardwood was badly damaged when new duct work for heating and air conditioning was installed. The couple also re-created the original tall baseboards.

The previous owner had installed a bathroom in the original dining room plus a dropped ceiling. Now, the dining room is a place where you can sit at a table, enjoy homemade cookies Mr. Sheppard made and admire the couple’‍s collection of M.A. Hadley pottery. 

When the couple moved in, there was no backyard. The previous owner had replaced it with an asphalt parking lot that accommodated nine cars. A friend told him, “This is too nice a house to have a parking lot in the back yard.”  

So, in 2007, the couple set out to create a real backyard from scratch. It took five years. In some places, the asphalt was 4 feet thick. That same year, their son had established Penn Allegheny General Contracting. He used his backhoe to tear up the blacktop, filling four 20-yard dumpsters with asphalt.

“That was probably one of my first, larger projects. Who better to test the waters on than your parents?“ Paul Sheppard said.

Afterward, many truckloads of dirt were delivered to the nearly 1-acre lot.

The Sheppards hired George Barati, an excavating contractor from Pleasant Hills, to level 5-foot-high islands of dirt that remained after the asphalt was removed. Mr. Barati planted grass and lent his long hoses for six weeks so Mr. Sheppard could water the newly planted lawn.

Landscape architect Heather Orient selected plants, shrubs and trees, including astilbe, cinnamon ferns, doublefile viburnum, ‘‍Limelight’‍ hydrangea, carpet roses, dogwood and redbud trees. Many came from Chapon’s Greenhouse in Hays. Dale Garlick of Northern Lawns did much of the planting. A wrought-iron fence frames one side of the long backyard, which includes a wooden gazebo with seating for six.     

During construction, Mr. Sheppard said, the backyard “looked like a battlefield. It’‍s hard to imagine. It’s so beautiful now.”

After a long day, he still plays both of his pianos, which evokes happy memories of Margaret Schreyer, whom he met in 1965 when he was a student at Geneva College. A stint in the Army and graduate school at Duke University interrupted those lessons. When he returned to Pittsburgh in 1975, Mr. Sheppard resumed his musical training with her.

In addition to the ebonized grand piano, the sun room holds an 1850s church pew from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. Above it hangs a tall mirrored headboard that Mr. Sheppard salvaged from a family member’‍s attic.

The mahogany Mason & Hamlin grand dominates the living room.

In May, the couple hosted a visit from the Living Room Chamber Music Project. There were two pianists, an oboist, a violinst, a vocalist and 40 audience members.

“They came and gave a concert,” he said.

And there was plenty of room for everyone.

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


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