Restoring Freshwater Cottage is a series documenting one Architectural Historian’s endeavor to restore his house in Bellevue.
Part I: The Little Blue House on the Hill
My name is Justin. And I’m an Architectural Historian. And yes, my job title is actually “Architectural Historian.” Like, a company actually pays me to study old buildings. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not dreaming.
For me, history and architecture go beyond mere occupation. They’re truly a part of who I am. (File that little tid-bit away for later, because you’ll find that it’s central to understanding my specific brand of neurosis.)
Some people like to garden. Other people like to bake, or to travel. These people are what my devoted and incredibly patient husband-to-be, Christopher, would call “…normal.” Me? Gardening, and baking, and traveling are all swell. But twenty-three years ago, I made the conscious decision to dedicate my life to saving old buildings. (Picture a little, 11-year old Justin — fists clenched — standing in front of his favorite building as a demolition crew reduced it to nothing. Yeah.)
In 2014, I began the search for a home of my own. As you might imagine, I didn’t exactly fit the mold of a typical home-buyer. No, really. Ask my real estate agent. I’m sure he’d relish the opportunity to tell you about what a joy I was to work with. (Stephen, if you’re reading this, you were amazing. You inspired me to become a real estate agent, myself.)
But naturally, my search criteria didn’t include granite counter tops — or quartz, or soapstone, or whatever HGTV was peddling those days. It didn’t include an arbitrary number of bedrooms or bathrooms. It didn’t even include a garage. Gasp!
No, what I was looking for was a house with a soul.
After returning to Pittsburgh from New York City in 2010, I settled back into the familiar East End neighborhood of Friendship. I had lived in the East End during my college years in the early 2000s and it always felt like home: big old houses, tree-lined streets.
Naturally, when it came time to buy a house, I wanted to stay. But it was 2014 and housing prices were getting … a little nuts. After touring countless houses, I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d need to say goodbye to my beloved East End.
“Bellevue? Where’s Bellevue?” I distinctly remember asking my agent. “Just consider it, Justin,” he said. “I know it’s not in the East End. But I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
In late November 2014, I followed my agent to a place called Bellevue, just beyond the city limits of Pittsburgh. I realized that I had been there before, but I had never actually explored the town. There was a real bakery, and a pizza shop, and, oh!, a Thai restaurant. (I mean, those are basically my primary food groups. C’mon, Bellevue. Let’s be honest. You had me a Pad See Ew.)
I turned onto North Euclid Avenue and parked my car in front of a little blue house on a hill. It was handsome, but not overstated. The same family had owned it for 71 years, but the house had fallen into disrepair.
A husband and wife team had bought it in 2011 and started the process of putting it back together. They accomplished the basics: some new drywall, windows, fresh paint, a new bathroom, a new kitchen. But the task of breathing life back into this grande dame belonged to the next owner.
As I walked up the steps, through the door, and over the threshold, that’s when I felt it. I felt the thing that all the other houses had lacked.
This house had a soul.
On that brisk November afternoon, as I stood looking at the stained glass window in the house’s dining room, I felt warm, and happy, and filled with optimism.
In that moment, I promised the little blue house on the hill that I’d dedicate myself to fixing it — that I’d make it shine again. This is that story.