When snow was on the ground and a "For Sale" sign hung on the blighted little canal-era duplex at 406-408 Foreland St. in Deutschtown, its future looked bleak. The Historic Review Commission had denied a proposal to demolish it, but I wondered if anyone out there would plunk down $40,000 for the honor of spending however much it would take to bring it back to life.
A tour in January heightened by worry. One of the city's oldest buildings, it was so small and in such disrepair. Architectural historian Carol Peterson determined that it was built as housing for workers involved in commerce generated by the Pennsylvania Canal -- around 1830.
Thanks to Sarah Sims Erwin, who credits family members for her appreciation of history, its future looks sunnier.
She grew up in the Pittsburgh area and is coming back after 17 years in New York City. She and her husband, Dominick DeGennaro, will more than double their living quarters when they move into half the duplex from a 460 square-foot apartment in Manhattan. They intend to rent the other half.
"I saw this property for sale online," Ms. Erwin said. "When I was here for my sister's birthday [in February], I got to see it."
At the time, it was painted swimming-pool green, and a metal awning hung askew from one doorway. Since then, the siding has been removed to reveal the original cedar, which is soot-gray.
"This building is solid; it was built to last," said her architect and contractor Page Thomas, who showed me through the property on Monday. "There are 30-foot beams running from front to back. That's unusual. The studs are 4 inches."
The interior will be gutted and the roof replaced. Mold that has collected in the crawl-space basement will be cleaned and the stone whitewashed, Mr. Thomas said. Two dumpsters have been filled with household contents from 408 and another dumpster was due Monday to take on debris in 406.
"It doesn't smell too bad in here," Ms. Erwin said, leaning into the kitchen of 408.
"It's had a couple days of airing out and lots of baking soda," Mr. Thomas said.
By the end of summer, he said, the bulk of the work should be completed.
So many happy outcomes in Pittsburgh can be traced to at least a thread of serendipity, and this one began when Ms. Erwin, a graduate of Chatham University, met Mr. Thomas at a party in Allegheny West 14 years ago.
"We have stayed friends and kept in touch," she said, adding that their association was the link she needed. "I wasn't going to research for architects and contractors, so I probably wouldn't have done this if I didn't know Page."
A month before the property caught Ms. Erwin's attention, architect Bob Baumbach, who represented the building's owner, Al DePasquale, told me of the challenges besides mold.
"It could be charming," he said, "but it's hard to sell a 9-foot-wide living room. The market for that is small, but it's out there."
It was out there in a 46-year-old graphic designer and disc jockey who has been thinking a lot about her hometown in recent years.
"This feels right," she said. "Forty thousand was a lot better than any apartment in New York for $700,000," Ms. Erwin said. "I have only lived in dorms or apartments" as an adult, "so this is my first house."
On the sidewalk after our walk-through, she elaborated on her enthusiasm for coming home, not just for herself but for her New York friends "who want to make a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh," she said, citing "the George Romero thing," the Warhol Museum, PNC Park, Jerry's Records and great public art. "I realized I could bring them here and turn them on to all the stuff you wouldn't find if you stay at the Marriott."
Accustomed to not needing a car, she chose the North Side for the amenities she can walk to.
"When I looked at my list" of places to recommend to visitors, she said, "I saw that half are on the North Side."
"Moving away helped me appreciate Pittsburgh more," she said. "My husband is leaving New York, but I am returning to Pittsburgh and I am serious about my stewardship of this property. What is small to some is big to others."