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Restoring Freshwater Cottage VI

Details Make Perfection, and Perfection is Not a Detail

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Restoring Freshwater Cottage is a series documenting one Architectural Historian’s endeavor to restore his house in Bellevue.

Details…

Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable.

– Louis Sullivan, Architect

Column Capital, Guaranty Building, 1896, Sullivan & Adler, Architects, Buffalo, New York. Photo: J. Greenawalt

Time for an architectural history lesson.

[Hark! What’s that sound? It’s the sound of hundreds of people desperately clicking away to find something more interesting to read. Ha. No. I’m joking. Hundreds of people aren’t reading this…]

But seriously, you thought I was going to write a blog about restoring my house and not try to indoctrinate you? Oh, my sweet, sweet summer child…

But that quote up there? It’s true, you know. Louis Sullivan was right. Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable. Individual. Unique.

I idolize Louis Sullivan. Of all of the late 19th and early 20th century American architects, I think he was among the most brilliant — slightly crazy, but brilliant nonetheless. (Read his book Autobiography of an Idea. It’s just him shouting into the void for nearly 400 pages. And. I. Love. It.)

Wait. You’ve never heard of Louis Sullivan?! I’ll bet you’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, right? Well, Sullivan taught Wright. Don’t get me wrong. Wright was amazing. But had it not been for Sullivan, who knows if Wright would have become such a visionary.

I admire Sullivan because he saw the sublime in the smallest detail. (Just look at that column capital!) He once said, “…the building’s identity resided in the ornament.” This observation, in particular, has always resonated with me. I’m obsessed with details.

Christopher and I were very fortunate when we bought Freshwater. Whereas the house needed some love, most of it was intact. Most of it. Remember the husband and wife team who bought Freshwater in 2011?  I really have to give them a lot of credit. (Jeff? Lana? Kudos.) They’re the ones who started the long and arduous process of putting this house back together. And all things considered, I must confess that they did a pretty good job. But there were still critical things that needed to be addressed: light fixtures, furniture, hardware. There was carpet everywhere. And there was paint on eeeeeverything. 

As mildly annoying as these things were, many people aren’t so lucky. As a real estate agent (because I do that, too), I’m often dismayed when I walk into houses that have been completely stripped of their original, historic detail and character. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to speak directly to all the would-be renovators out there. Come closer to the screen. Closer. Not too close. Don’t hurt yourself. Eye-strain is real. Okay. Ready? Historic detail and character = $$$.

If you’re fixing up an old house to sell, aside from adding a few modern conveniences and services, completely “modernizing” the house isn’t necessary. It costs you time, it costs you money, and it changes the character of the house forever. Trust me. I know old-house people. Old-house people are looking at old houses because they want to buy an old house. Weird, right? And in this market, finding an old house with minimal changes is getting harder every day. 

Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable. I’ll never understand why we would want anything else.

Research Tips

house details

Perhaps you’re reading this thinking, “Okay. I bought an old house. It’s been changed. I’d like to restore it. What do I do?” Or, as the late, great Whitney Houston once said, “How will I know [what my house used to look like]?!”

Well, maybe Whitney didn’t say those exact words, but whatever… close enough.

First, go you! (*golf claps*) Second, research. You gotta do your homework. But the really great thing is that you’re thinking of doing a little restoration work. Or maybe you’re just curious. That’s cool, too. 

Over the course of writing these posts, I’m going to divulge some of my most top-secret sources for historic house research–one at a time. So lock the door, lower the blinds, and tilt your screen away from the uninitiated.

 

Historic House Research Tip: The Works Project Administration (WPA) Home Survey.

The Home Survey was conducted in Allegheny County between 1936 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It put unemployed architectural draftsmen back to work while collecting all kinds of data on the built environment.

It’s important to understand that not every house was included in this survey. But if your house was built before 1935 and it’s located in Allegheny County, there’s probably a good chance that the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society has the goods. There’s a nominal fee involved with getting a copy of your survey card, but it’s a couple bucks. Nothing crazy. 

What can you learn from these survey cards? Lots of things!

The typical survey card includes a physical description of the house along with a sketch. Now, these are not artistic renderings. They’re sketches: basic and informational. But if you’ve got nothing else to go on, they can be an absolute treasure trove. The cards will tell you what kind of heating system existed, what the woodwork was made from, and what the bathroom (generally) looked like — among other things!

Below, you’ll see Freshwater’s survey card. There were several things that came as a surprise to me. The house was originally heated with coal. I have no idea how they got it up the hill, but more power to them. Most of the woodwork was yellow pine and the first-floor is oak. Oh! I also learned that the house had an Instantaneous Water Heater! Oh la la!

One word of caution: not everything is going to be 100% accurate. The WPA draftsmen were working off the information that was provided. You’ll notice that the survey card for Freshwater says it was built in 1919. Nay, nay. I’ve done my own research. It wasn’t. So, take it with a grain of salt. But in my opinion, the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society is still one of the most incredible, frequently overlooked resources out there. Visit their website (link above) or give them a call! They’re super friendly and helpful. 

Until next time, enjoy, yinz guys!

 

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Justin Greenawalt

Originally from Connellsville, Pennsylvania, Justin relocated to Pittsburgh in 2004. In 2008, he moved to New York City to pursue his M.S. in Historic Preservation. After completing his studies, the allure of the Steel City brought him back. In 2015, Justin discovered Bellevue and decided to call it home, along with his partner Christopher and their menagerie of cats and chickens. Professionally, Justin is an Architectural Historian in the Cultural Resources Department of Michael Baker International, Inc. He is also a Licensed Real Estate Professional with the Sewickley Office of Howard Hanna. Justin also serves as a Director of Preservation Pittsburgh, the President of the East Liberty Valley Historical Society, and a Real Estate Educator with the REALTORS® Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh.

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