All the trimmings: Catholic 'steward' and his Jewish husband do Christmas right
December 2, 2016 12:26 PM
A view from the second-floor landing of some of the Christmas decorations in the 1870s North Side home that will be on the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour on Dec. 9-10.
By Kevin Kirkland / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hal Dixler didn’t learn his first Christmas carol on the piano until he was 28, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his house. Every fireplace mantel is festooned with ribbon and garlands, nearly every door has a Christmas wreath or swag and the ornaments are so thick on four artificial trees that you can barely see green.
Credit his husband, Nick Duerlinger.
“I’m Jewish and grew up in an Orthodox household,” Mr. Dixler says. “Nick is in charge. He’s the steward and I’m his helper.”
On Wednesday, their North Side house was only three-quarters decorated but was already the most festive on this block of North Lincoln Avenue. They’ll have the rest done in plenty of time for the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour on Dec. 9-10.
This will be one of six stops on tours that leave every 12 minutes between 5 and 8 p.m. Dec. 9 and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 10. Tickets must be reserved in advance and are $35 per person, $15 more for a model train exhibit.
The Allegheny West Civic Council has organized the tour for 35 years and this house has been on it seven or eight times. Tour regulars -- and there are many for the city’s biggest holiday house tour -- will recognize many of the decorations. But Mr. Duerlinger, a Catholic who grew up in Milwaukee, is always moving things around and adding more.
“My main motivation is to put a smile on people’s faces,” he says.
Mr. Duerlinger, 66, a math professor at nearby Community College of Allegheny County, gets lots of exercise in November and December carrying 70 bins of decorations up from the basement. He started the week before Thanksgiving.
He’s also the chief interior designer in this relationship. “But I have veto power or suggesting power,” says his husband of three years.
Mr. Dixler, 72, a retired IT computer consultant in the healthcare industry, moved to Pittsburgh for work in 1970 and did minor renovations on an early 1900s house in Highland Park. Mr. Duerlinger, 66, arrived three years later. They met in 1974 at a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performance.
In 1977, they paid $60,000 for this three-story, 3,000-square-foot building separated into 14 apartments.
“The furnace broke the day we closed. We found three of our tenants standing with electric heaters in the foyer,” Mr. Dixler recalls.
The house was actually two houses built in the 1870s and bought in the 1890s by two brothers, William Henry Singer Jr. and George Harton Singer. When William, an artist, left to pursue his muse in Europe, his brother combined the two into one Georgian Revival-style manse in 1907. A new layer of red brick and a columned portico disguised its split identity on the outside. But the inside remained divided neatly in half, with two front parlors, two dining rooms and a cut-up series of kitchen spaces in the back.
Mr. Duerlinger and Mr. Dixler worked with a series of contractors, doing a little at a time. They created four living spaces -- theirs on the first and second floor, apartments on the second and third floors and one in the carriage house. For five years, they lived with a spartan kitchen and one working bathroom.
“We were young and we were having a great time,” Mr. Dixler says.
They made major renovations in the early 1980s and early ‘90s. One involved the gentleman’s smoking parlor, which became a library. Mr. Duerlinger created a fireplace mantel and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves from IKEA shelving and oak, cherry, pine and poplar molding he found at Home Depot. The carved lion’s heads? $9.99 at Marshall’s.
“My friends know me as the Kmart of interior designers,” he says.
They also knew him for singing in the Sacred Heart Parish choir in the East End. Mr. Dixler, who sometimes attends Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, has played piano at several Christian churches and for many years at the North Hills Unitarian Universalist Church in Franklin Park.
“I like playing Christian hymns,” he says. “Last year, I asked if I could add in a Hanukkah song.”
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.
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