Rudolphs of Pittsburgh
Brighton Heights tour covers lots of history
June 2, 2012 12:17 am
By Gretchen McKay / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
T. Scott Frank was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, teaching undergrads the fine art of playwriting, when in the fall of 1995 he happened upon Bonnie Blink, the grand Italianate villa built in the 1850s by Hay and Janet Walker in Brighton Heights. It was a life-changing moment.
Scouting the city for a house that wouldn't put him hopelessly in debt, he'd ended up on Morrell Street, a quiet side street off California Avenue lined with late 20th- and early 21st-century homes, four of which will be featured on the eighth annual Brighton Heights Chocolate House Tour June 10. Bonnie Blink jumped out at him not because it was the oldest property on the block, or the largest or one of the best maintained. It was the prettiest.
Graced with a full-length porch and wide, overhanging eaves, the house spoke of a gentler time when Davisville, as the semi-rural area was known in the late 19th century, was populated by garden farmers and rich Pittsburghers with country estates. (Iron and steel magnate David Brown Oliver, for whom Oliver High School is named, built a house there in the 1800s, along with one for his daughter Nora on Termon Avenue in 1895.)
Mr. Frank remembers thinking, "If that house ever goes on the market, I'd like to buy it."
And that's before he saw its oak-coffered ceilings, paneled staircase and original marble fireplaces.
Six months later, the house came up for sale. And Mr. Frank, who grew up in Washington, Pa., quickly made good on his vow. He and his wife, Sarah, became only the fourth owners in more than 100 years. In the years since, the couple has filled its large rooms with an even larger collection of art and antiques. On the June 10 tour, its first floor will be open to the public. Beware: Even the sharpest eyes will have a tough time taking it all in.
"We're sort of crazy for old stuff," admits Mr. Frank, a playwright and associate professor of theater and communications at Washington & Jefferson College.
That includes the house itself, which was named "Bonnie Blink" -- a Scottish term meaning "pretty view" -- because of the lovely vista it once offered of the Ohio River.
Today, the house is tucked into a block of early 20th-century houses. But it originally sat at a high point near present-day Termon and California avenues. No one is sure why the Rudolph family moved it to its present location in 1907, two years after buying it from the Walkers, who had built a grand stone Colonial in Sewickley Heights. Or how, for that matter.
"My wife says it must have been built like a pyramid," Mr. Frank says.
The house was in remarkably good shape for its age when the couple moved there in 1996. All they really had to do was take down some dated wallpaper so they could paint the walls, which on the first floor serve as a gallery for their many pieces of art. (The secret to super-smooth walls, he says, is to paper them with liner, and then roll on an oil-based sealer so "no cracks show through.")
They also updated the narrow galley kitchen, a later addition to the house. The working Chambers stove and tall kitchen cabinets originally were in a butler's pantry that was razed when the building was relocated. Mark Purnell of Purnell Fine Carpentry in Spring Garden is the one who made the room look so remarkably square.
Some of the couple's collectibles -- handpicked over the years from antique shops, flea markets and family members' attics -- are grouped by theme. One space that's particularly delightful is a small breakfast room-turned-bedroom off the kitchen, where dozens of ceramic, wood, metal and cloth chickens roost on a shelf that runs the perimeter of the room. They're especially proud of a wooden rooster above the window, a gift from friends. It was crafted by Gerald Hadley, a Williamsburg woodworker known for his quarter-scale replicas of American Windsor chairs.
A cozy library off the formal dining room speaks to family history. A giant framed print from Pabst Brewing once hung in Monongahela House in Brownsville, owned at one point by his wife's hotelier family. That's also the origin of the stained-glass "snake" lamp on top of the piano gotten for free -- and for which someone paid a whopping $269 for in 1917, according to the framed invoice hanging above it.
In the paneled entry, an antique bookcase that was Mrs. Frank's father's "pride and joy" displays a trio of vases made by her grandmother, Elizabeth Adams Springer, along with her portrait. Local art includes works by W&J alum Keith Gruber, Ron Donahue and Brody Burroughs, whose acrylic portrait of a teenager sliding down an escalator rail mesmerizes in shades of orange and blue.
More traditional delights include original oak floors, elaborate crown molding, vintage fireplaces and electrified gas light fixtures, which vary in color and style depending on the room. There's also a pretty fabulous stained-glass window on the second floor landing, which when the sun is shining makes colored patterns on the floor. Be sure to look up as you go out the front door, where the words "Bonnie Blink" are carved into a plaque made from an old headboard.
"We're really into keeping her a single-family home," Mr. Frank says.
Other homes on the self-guided tour, which will feature a chocolate treat at each stop, include a Queen Anne-style house on Fleming Avenue, a Tudor on Termon Avenue, and a Foursquare house on Orchlee Street that boasts a collection of "Day of the Dead" and "Nightmare Before Christmas" artwork throughout.
To give tour-goers a taste of what's possible with equal amounts of patience and elbow grease, it also includes one work-in-progress. Jeff Worsinger started renovations on the 1908 Foursquare directly across the street from Bonnie Blink last fall. He expects to have it ready for some lucky new owners, complete with a new master bedroom suite and upgraded kitchen, later this summer.
"I can only do six things at once," he quips.
First Published June 2, 2012 12:00 am
Brighton Heights Chocolate House Tour
Tickets: $10 in advance at www.brightonheights.org, or $15 the day of the event at the ticket booth at the Kaut Estate at 1601 Termon Ave. Proceeds benefit the Brighton Heights Citizen Federation.
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
This Victorian Gothic at 1907 Morrell Street Brighton Heights, built in 1892, is on the Brighton Heights Chocolate House Tour.
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