Highland Park mansion takes a bow on house tour
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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette photosFor more than a century, white paint covered the red brick on the Alexander King mansion, one of 11 houses on today's Highland Park House Tour.If you go ...
WHEN: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. today
TICKETS: $20 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, 5801 Hampton St.
INFORMATION: www.highlandparkpa.com or 412-654-4707.
Gilding on the molding and furniture prompted the King family to call the parlor the Gold Room. When its ceiling mural couldn't be saved, homeowners Frank and Maura Brown had muralist Celeste Parrendo re-create it on canvas.
Frank Brown found an 1875 Brunswick Monarch pool table for the King mansion's billiard room.
Walls can't talk, but the words and images we leave upon them can reveal us, sometimes long after we're gone.
At the Alexander King mansion in Highland Park, the most telling walls are not the gilded plaster ones in the parlor, nor the Bradbury & Bradbury-wallpapered ones in the billiard room -- not even the burlap-covered ones in the library, once more hand-painted with golden griffins.
In this Second Empire palace, a mostly blank wall speaks loudest, decorated with carpenters' pencil drawings of a balustrade that remains and an ornate mirror that's gone. There are also signatures, children's drawings and messages dated 1880, including "Annie is a monkey!" a reminder that kids' teasing knows no century.
One other note, taped to the bare plaster, is more revealing of the house's current owners, Frank and Maura Brown, who have spent 11 years restoring it. Above a bull's-eye are the words:
"Anti-Stress Kit: Bang Head Here."
"You have to have a sense of humor to do this," said Maura Brown, a pharmacist who moved here with her physician husband and one of their two children nine years ago.
The King mansion is among 11 houses on the Highland Park House Tour, which runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today. The Browns offered to open the house for such events when they bought it from the city in 1994. It's one responsibility that comes with owning what has been a neighborhood landmark since 1880 and a Pittsburgh historic landmark since 1992.
"This is a house that could have been demolished," Frank Brown said. "We take pride in saving a piece of Pittsburgh's architectural history."
King, an Irish immigrant and glass manufacturer, built the house after an earlier one burned down. He named it Baywood for reasons lost to history, which also apparently misplaced the name of the architect and the building permits (if there were any).
He and his second wife, Cordelia, raised four children here, sharing its 51/2 bathrooms, five bedrooms and 8,375 square feet of living space with servants (including Annie?) who inhabited the third floor. Their daughter Jennie married Richard Beatty Mellon and was the mother of Richard King Mellon, adding the family name to that famous Pittsburgh line.
The house stayed in the family until the 1950s, when youngest son Robert Burns King managed to fight off an eminent domain attempt by Pittsburgh to raze it and build an amphitheater. He died in 1954, leaving the house to the city with the proviso that it could be torn down if the city couldn't maintain it.
Painted white and stripped of much of its architectural glory, Baywood was housing art exhibits and classes when the Browns first saw it in 1987. They had outgrown an 1875 townhouse in Shadyside and were looking for something equally interesting. The house wasn't for sale, but city officials apparently realized it was a way to unload a white elephant they couldn't afford to keep up.
Of course, everyone didn't see it that way. Some Highland Park residents wanted the King mansion to remain in public hands, for public use. At meetings stretching over six years, opponents heckled and shouted down Frank Brown as he described their plans.
Yet they persisted. Frank Brown even bought Victorian antiques to furnish this house he might never own. The furniture accumulated in storage units, their townhouse and the homes of relatives.
"It was a little delusional," Maura Brown admitted.
He bought pieces appropriate to the style and scale of each room -- Eastlake and Renaissance Revival for the dining room, Rococo for the gilded parlor. Finding pieces that wouldn't be dwarfed by the first floor's huge rooms and 12-foot, 9-inch ceilings wasn't easy, but he combed auctions in Pennsylvania and Ohio and later eBay.
In March 1994, the couple finally bought the house and nearly two acres for $150,000. Suddenly, Frank Brown was feeling overwhelmed. Sitting dejectedly on the stair one Saturday morning, he was buoyed by Richard Pelino, the first general contractor.
"Don't worry," he joked. "It's just 10,000 little jobs."
To make an immediate impact, they started with the exterior.
"Because it was so controversial, we said, 'Let's show people we mean what we said,' " Frank Brown recalled.
Glass slides and stereoviews from the turn of the 20th century helped Pelino and others re-create the balconies, trim and 16-foot-high finial that had disappeared. The couple found evidence that the red brick had been exposed until 1896, when a west wing was added and the entire house painted white. Tom Case of National Surface Cleaning spent many months stripping a century's worth of paint from the brick.
On the interior, demolition came first, followed by rewiring, new mechanical systems and major plaster repair. The family lived in Shadyside for the first year and a half, then moved into "a war zone."
In addition to writing checks, Frank Brown developed expertise in stripping the layers of black and white paint city workers had used. Spending hundreds of hours on weekends and vacations, he used heat guns, chemical solvents, even duct tape and single-edge razor blades. Woodwork in the library and paneling on the front hall's walnut staircase are mostly his work.
Much of the other refinishing was done by George Starz of Starz Interior Restoration. He led the Browns to other craftspeople, including woodworkers Wilson & McCracken, plasterer Dan McClelland, gilder Joseph Youss Kadri, muralists and restorers Boris Brindar and Celeste Parrendo, and her father, Nick, a stained-glass artist.
The Browns found some workers on their own. Check out paper hanger Ken Kennedy's almost seamless application of Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper in the billiard room. When Pelino died several years ago, they hired Brian Darrah and Fisher Renovation as general contractors.
"This house demanded skills that are hard to find these days," Frank Brown said. "The good news is that all these people are here, in Pittsburgh."
The Browns, who have invited the contractors and craftspeople to attend the house tour, are quick to credit them as they lead visitors from room to room.
But it was the Browns who insisted that Celeste Parrendo exactly re-create the cherub-filled sky mural in the Gold Room and the griffins in the library. It was Frank Brown who found the old Heinz crocks for the kitchen, an 1891 Regina music box for the parlor and an 1875 Brunswick Monarch pool table for the billiard room. It was Maura Brown who planted 1,000 tulips and dozens of elephant ears out front after seeing them on an old glass slide. And of course it was the Browns who have written the checks. They have never tallied the total cost; Maura Brown simply tells people they have spent "all that we have."
The couple's dedication to a faithful restoration has made the King mansion a nationally recognized success story. They won second place for exterior rehabilitation in the 2005 Great American Home Contest sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Old House Journal.
So, if you happen to see them on the house tour, don't be afraid to gush.
"After 10 years, when you're in the trenches, you lose the 'wow factor.' " Frank Brown says. "It's still nice to hear someone say 'Wow!' " when they walk in the door."
First Published October 1, 2005 12:00 am