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Lawrenceville Revival

A firsthand look at the restoration of an 1830s Greek Revival in Pittsburgh.

By Keith Cochran

Between 1830 and 1832, Dr. Peter Mowry, a prominent Pittsburgh physician, built a new house in the fashionable Greek Revival style on a 100-acre tract fronting the Allegheny River in what is now the neighborhood of Lawrenceville. At this period in Pittsburgh’s industrial history, the neighborhood would have still been rural enough to escape the dirt of the city, where iron mills, glass factories and foundries pumped a steady stream of ash and smoke into the sky.

Unfortunately, Dr. Mowry was only able to enjoy his house for a few years. He died in 1833, leaving the property to his widow, who lived there until her passing in 1871. The following year brought drastic changes, as the house and land was purchased by a group that included Thomas Carnegie (brother of steel magnate Andrew) and his business partners. The acreage next to the river became the site of Lucy Furnace and the Keystone Bridge works, while the rest of the land was divided into streets and building lots.

From the late 1800s through the 1920s the original mansion, surrounded by densely populated streets of row houses, passed through two ownerships before it was purchased in 1921 by the Slovenian Eagle Society and a predecessor organization that used it mostly for recreational purposes. The 1930 census shows that part of it was rented to an immigrant steel worker and his family, possibly as caretakers for the property. For the next 52 years the building was a cultural haven for the Slovenians, one of the many ethnic groups who flooded into the city to work in the steel and coal industries.

The next owner was the Pittsburgh Electric Club – a spinoff of a Westinghouse Electric organization chartered in 1891 – who purchased the building in 1973 to use as a social club for its members.

By the time my wife, artist Mary Mazziotti, and I acquired the property in 2004, the social club’s activities had moved to the basement of the house. Our agreement with the Pittsburgh Electric Club allowed them to lease the lower level. I had originally intended to restore the building as an office for my firm, Cochran Associates Architects, but as my wife and I searched for a residential property in the same area, we came to realize its potential as a home.

An Ongoing Process
One of the distinctive architectural features of the house is that the structure – walls of solid masonry and floor joists typically 2½ x 10 in. deep at 14 in. on center – was definitely built to last. Both interior and exterior walls are solid brick, extending from the basement to just below the level of the third floor where the tops of the interior walls are visible under the eaves. The roof framing is mortise-and-tenon pegged construction, with two large carrying beams extending the entire width of the house, tapered rafters at 6 to 8 in. deep by 3 in. wide and roof sheathing at 1¼ in. thick with widths varying from 12 to 16 in. Most framing wood is pine, likely sourced on the property. Horizontal framing is also mortise and tenon at the fireplaces, back porch floor and porch roof.

The wall and roof construction presented a challenge related to insulating the exterior envelope. After removing the plaster and wood lath on the underside of the roof, it was clear that insulating between the 6 in. rafters wouldn’t achieve the desired R-30 insulation value. Since removal of the plaster exposed the handsome wood structure, it was left uncovered – not historically correct, but aesthetically pleasing. The wood was gently scrubbed with high-pressure dry-ice pellets, which had the advantage of evaporating and leaving only the dirt and grime to be swept up.

A rigid insulation board with a top nailer and notched underside for air circulation was applied above the original wood-plank sheathing. A layer of felts was installed, then a layer of ½ in. OSB was screwed into the rafters. Another layer of roofing felts and asphalt shingles was installed onto the integral nailer top of the insulation board. R-33 insulation value was achieved without sacrificing the beautiful exposed-wood interior.

Another energy efficiency challenge was the windows. They feature wood double-hung sashes with a six-over-six, single-glass pattern, the mullions and muntins being mortised into the sash and secured by shims and pegs. Most of the original 4x8-ft. windows were in place, but in varying degrees of disrepair. Because they were such an important feature of the house, a specialist in historic window restoration was hired to make repairs, and rebuilt new windows that match the existing where required. Replaced mullions and muntins were custom milled to the original elegant profiles. Where new windows were required, mortise and pegged details were replaced by glued conditions. All of the windows were equipped with weather stripping and, eventually, minimally framed exterior aluminum storm windows will be added.

The interior doors were stripped to remove enough paint to make the molding details sharp and precise again, even though they will be repainted. The first-floor doors’ original 1830s hardware consists of amazingly detailed mortised locks with solid-brass rosettes, knobs and key escutcheons, pairs of double hinges with a dull brass working hinge with five screws behind the exposed polished brass plate with two tiny setscrews. On the second floor, the cast-iron, surface-mounted rim locks are stamped “Made in Birmingham, near Pittsburg” (now the historic Southside of the city). All the hardware is being re-plated and reconditioned.

In addition to the running trim, the house features some outstanding carved-wood detailing from 1830. These includes acorn rosette corner blocks on the interior and exterior of the front door frame, oak leaf panels at interior pilasters, and a scroll and oak leaf motif with carved keystone in the highly detailed decorative arch that spans the front entrance hall. True to the hierarchy of the period, the front of the arch, which would face arriving visitors, is more elaborate than the back. The paint will be stripped from the hand-carved details while the running trim will be sanded with steel wool in preparation for re-painting to make the transition between the two approaches as seamless as possible.

It’s likely that the same master craftsman who carved the interior details also created the Greek Doric entablature supporting the front porch roof, complete with triglyphs, metopes, mutules and guttae – the features that most significantly proclaim this a Greek Revival house. In the final scenario, the porch’s missing Doric columns and wood detailing will be restored.

Because the Pittsburgh Electric Club will continue to occupy the basement, another challenge was the separation of uses to satisfy the building code. A two-hour separation (materials that take two hours to combust) was achieved between the basement ceiling of the club and the first floor of the residence by installing two layers of 5/8-in. fire-rated drywall. Over the years the club ceilings had been dropped into curved Art Deco bulkheads and panels, and when the lowered areas were removed, it was discovered that the entire original ceiling in the basement was bead board attached to the underside of the wood floor joists. Some areas had been whitewashed, indicating areas where food and dairy processing may have occurred. The bead board was removed carefully and salvaged for use in replacing the porch ceilings and as wainscoting in the new bathrooms installed on each of the residential floors. Sound insulation in the form of high-tech fiberglass batts was cut to width and installed between the joists. A new ceiling will be added – two layers of 5/8-in. fire shield drywall, which will achieve the required rating between the uses, with the new mechanical systems for the residence above the separation.

A Rare Gem
Katherine Molnar, former historic preservation planner with the city of Pittsburgh and now an architectural historian with a large engineering firm, says of the property: “In the years I spent with the city of Pittsburgh, I became fluent in the building stock, knowing the city’s historic resources better than I ever imagined. I knew bui;ldings from east to west, north to south, but I never encountered anything like the Carnegie Street gem. There are, of course, several row houses of this vintage in Pittsburgh, but there are not many freestanding, high-style, Greek Revival mansions in the city.”

Molnar says that the cohesion of the house’s fine detailing and Classical layout is unparalleled in the Pittsburgh region.

“I came to the Carnegie Street house without expectations, and left believing it to be my favorite in the city,” she says. “Admittedly, I have a preference for this architectural style, but even so, I would defy anyone who is not impressed by its ability to remain so unchanged after nearly two centuries of ownership.”

In the end, we hope the restoration of the house will spur both a continued interest in the Carnegie-planned neighborhood and a new respect for a style of architecture and craftsmanship that is now rare in Pittsburgh.  


Keith Cochran is the principal of Cochran Associates Architects, located in Pittsburgh, PA.

 

 

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