Buying Here: Uptown


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Sam Kiss is looking for someone who will take a chance on Soho the way he did 33 years ago, when he bought an old storefront at 23 Seneca St. and turned the second and third floors into his living space.

No one else was very interested in this part of Uptown then. Owners of brick row houses next door and across the street offered to sell to Mr. Kiss for prices ranging from $3,000 to $13,000. He renovated them, rented them for a while and sold all but one for around $22,000 each.

In December 2000, he doubled down on Soho, buying six commercial lots across from his home on Tustin Street from Martin Media. It wasn't their billboards that bothered him -- they face the Parkway East. He was tired of looking out his window and seeing people dump construction debris. He cleaned up the lots totaling a little more than a quarter-acre, used them for an outdoor art market one summer and then did one more crazy thing (even for him):

He bought a three-ton statue of a warrior on horseback and installed it on the corner lot. Sir Samelot is decorated for nearly every holiday, but he doesn't come with the lots, which are now on the market for $70,000 (MLS No. 992966) through Helen Perilloux of Coldwell Banker Real Estate (412-915-6865 or www.pittsburghmoves.com). The billboards that stand on five of the six lots will remain as part of an easement. All are zoned Neighborhood Industrial.

Ms. Perilloux, who lives nearby with her husband and young son, also has the listing for Mr. Kiss' home and its first-floor commercial space, priced at $185,000 (MLS No. 992890).

"Sam was ahead of his time," she said.

A glance around suggests she's right: This part of Uptown seems to be on the rise. A house across the street that Mr. Kiss sold in 2008 for $8,000 sold earlier this year for $80,000. A young man bought it and its neighbor and is planning to live in one and rent the other. A company connected with developer Casey Steiner paid $160,000 last year for the former Corinthian Baptist Church on Forbes Avenue.

"It's shifting to owner-occupied," Ms. Perilloux said, noting a playground and community garden in the next block of Tustin.

So why are Mr. Kiss and Sir Samelot leaving?

"I can see the future," he said, noting that he will turn 80 later this year. "I won't be able to handle these steps."

He was equally practical about his rental property. "I sold them because I didn't want to go after rent anymore or fix toilets."

A native of Antwerp, Belgium, Mr. Kiss came to Pittsburgh with his family as a teenager and graduated from Taylor Allderdice. After serving in the Army, he went to Carnegie Technical Institute and became an architect because "I thought I had a knack for it."

For more than 30 years, he was chief architect for the Allegheny County department of engineering and construction. He decided to buy this century-old former grocery store-turned-bordello in 1980 because it was so close to his office. "It's 1 mile from Downtown. I could get to work in five minutes."

He also liked that the building wasn't connected to its neighbors, "so I could make as much noise as I wanted."

For the first few years, the racket was mostly construction. He gutted and reframed all three stories, living in the attic, which is now his loft bedroom. He brags that he carried all the materials himself, lifting 80 sheets of drywall through a hole in the second floor. Its 2014 county assessed value is $4,500 (www2.county.allegheny.pa.us/RealEstate/Search.aspx).

Mr. Kiss took up painting when he retired 11 years ago, but none of his work is on the walls of his home.

"I didn't want to be egotistic," he explained. "I admire other people's work."

His paintings, many of them nudes, line the walls of the old storefront. Once his studio, it's now mostly storage for his artwork, architectural drawings and a female mannequin who joins Sir Samelot on his cast-iron steed, dressed for the holidays.

Mr. Kiss bought the equestrian statue several years ago at an antique store in Duncansville, Blair County. Though the statue was out of his price range, the store's owner said the magic words: "We have a layaway plan."

The statue was installed on Mr. Kiss' birthday in 2011, with a plaque bearing his name and on a bed of steel plate and 10 inches of gravel. Mr. Kiss is close to an agreement on a new home for Sir Samelot on a nearby corner, but said he would discuss selling him to the commercial lots' new owner. He's also willing to sell some of the items in his home, which includes two Japanese pachinko machines from the 1960s and '70s and a Chickering grand piano from The Top Shelf restaurant that was once across from Heinz Hall. Andre Previn, Chick Corea and Nina Simone played it, he said.

Mr. Kiss is not selling an ornate carved desk that he bought years ago in Spain. A blind man who ran his fingers across it told him his family, woodworkers to Queen Isabella, had made it 150 years earlier. It's one of many tales that this consummate storyteller prefaces with the phrase, "This is a good one."

He could say the same for his Soho story, but it needs an ending. He hopes it's a good one.

"I had to wait 25 years. Uptown is really developing," he said.

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


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