fter flying across the country, children’s author and editor Kate DePalma knew within 15 minutes that Mt. Lebanon was where she wanted to live. “It was like it was constructed out of my dreams,” she said. “I love trees and space and old houses. Where we live now there are just so many old-growth trees. It’s beautiful.”
The DePalmas, Kate and her husband, Nick, were living in San Francisco, but were looking to raise their 6-year-old daughter, Sasha, in the kind of community they had lived in as children growing up in Nashville, Tennessee. “My husband and I have known each other our entire lives. We met when we were 12. But our education took us all over.”
The overpopulation problems in California had started to wear on them. “We didn’t like how crowded it was,” DePalma said. “From housing to parking to the last avocado at the grocery store, there was so much competition for every little thing.”
DePalma, the senior editor for independent children’s publisher Barefoot Books, already had a flexible career working full-time remotely. When her husband, a robot scientist, had an opportunity to take a job on the East Coast with Facebook, they leapt at the chance to move closer to their families.
A whirlwind tour of Pittsburgh ensued. “What wound up drawing us to Mt. Lebanon is that it felt more like a community,” she said, noting the walkability factor, from the young families out with their dogs and strollers and the trees that give Mt. Lebanon accreditation under the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program.
“And we just couldn’t believe that there was a community full of these gorgeous old Tudor homes,” she said. When they saw the home they have dubbed The Magic Castle, at 1401 Pueblo Drive, a 1930s Tudor-style brick complete with a turret-front entrance, it seemed like it was just meant to be.
“There’s a storybook feel to it. It’s just magical,” she said, describing the detailed art nouveau stained glass windows throughout the house. The largest, at the top of the staircase, features a castle with the strumming bard, or as DePalma said, “a castle within a castle. Obviously it’s a magic castle.”
As with any good fantasy quest, getting to their new Magic Castle wasn’t easy. The pandemic threw up roadblocks along the way. The DePalmas decided on the house in December and closed on it in January 2020. But the lockdown across the country meant that they weren’t able to move in until four months later.
They had a dear family friend, Stephanie Thomas, move with them during the pandemic, and that has made their transition easier. DePalma said, “I have no idea how we’d be surviving right now without her.”
Ironically, as the country began locking down and home bakers’ ovens started heating up, DePalma’s 10th children’s book was on its way to print. The Bread Pet, a story about a little girl whose gift of a sourdough starter quickly grows out of control, was published in August 2020.
It was a very lucky coincidence,” DePalma said of the book she started working on three years prior. “It was inspired by a true story. My friend Jeremy left me with his bread pet when he went on vacation but he failed to tell me how to take care of it.”
That is where the stories diverge. While in the book her character’s starter is overly successful, and she has to problem-solve her way out of chaos, DePalma confessed with a laugh that in real life she accidentally killed her friend’s “pet” and had to get him a new one.
DePalma spent a year learning how to make sourdough bread, and was already an old hand at it when thousands of home bakers bought the grocery stores out of yeast last year.
Her neighbors have been very welcoming, and the self-proclaimed neighborhood “Kid Squad” has taken to using their corner lot for their group projects, like building a play castle out of cardboard.
DePalma is excited to be part of a vibrant community, after spending time in Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California. “We’ve hopscotched around so much for our education. I’m all about getting in here and starting to do stuff.”
And between days spent assisting her daughter with virtual school and book writing and editing, DePalma has taken to scouring the local antiques market online as she slowly decorates the Magic Castle. Her design style is quirky and charming, with early to mid-century modern lines that have taken on touches of medieval revival.
“The house definitely sets the tone. It’s clear about how it wants to be decorated,” DePalma said. She described how one day she told her husband she had an errand to run and then returned home with a full-fledged knight in shining armor.
“To his credit, his eyes just widened and then he [rolled with it]. We named the metal sculpture Sir Lance Bass-a-Lot. But if you had asked me a year ago if I’d be buying a knight the size of my six-year-old I would have told you no.” Sir Lance Bass-a-Lot stands proudly near their front entry, as documented in DePalma’s architectural Instagram account dedicated to decorating and upgrading their 90-year-old new home.
“Houses have a history, a story. This house has seen two different families grow and change over the years and now it’s going to see a third family do the same.”
And what else would a children’s book author call her home? “Being here is better than anything we were imagining,” she said.” “I could live here forever.”
A Model Home
by Bob Batz Jr.
It’s not every day that you have a chance to inform a Mt. Lebanon neighbor that someone else is selling their house on eBay— for $69.95 or best offer.
One of my hobbies is hunting in the online flea market for interesting items. One night my regular “Mt. Lebanon” search landed on an odd find: A seller in North Port, Florida, had listed an “HO SCALE MT LEBANON HOME”—a 1:87 scale model railroad home—a new “unassembled kit,” made of plastic, measuring 10 inches long by 4 1/2 inches wide by 3 inches tall.
The seller noted “This model home is very, very detailed. It is modeled from a real house at 1401 Pueblo Dr, Pittsburgh, PA.” And in addition to a half dozen photos of the model house, the seller posted a photo of the real red brick one.
I didn’t recognize the address or the house, which is a beauty. I immediately sent a message through eBay’s message system, asking, “Have you contacted the current owners?”
The response: “No I have not.”
I just had to. One reason I look for Mt. Lebanon is the snowball’s chance that I might find an old image of my house. I once scored an advertisement featuring one of my favorite homes, the rectory at Southminster Presbyterian Church.
It was easy to look up that the Pueblo casa’s owners are Kate and Nicholas DePalma. It wasn’t so easy to find contact information for them. I considered just stopping by the house, but that would be weird, right? So I contacted their real estate agent, Howard Hanna’s Sabrina Geraci, who sold them the house. She called me right back, saying the couple would be delighted to talk, and before long, I had an email from Kate that opened, “I think we have much to discuss!”
She told me that she bought the model home “the moment I saw it.” She, too, was “dying to know the story here” on the origins of the replica, but the seller hadn’t yet replied to her message, either. (Coincidentally, that very day Kate had been interviewed by Sarah Core for a Mt. Lebanon Magazine story.)
I tried again to reach the seller, who was selling about two dozen other model railroad buildings, but none of them described as replicas of real homes. He—the seller seemed like a he—had updated one of the listings saying that two buyers had given feedback that he hadn’t including model building instructions. “I have been in this hobby since I was 6 and now I am 73. Any model I have built I never have used the instructions, but I said that’s me so I had my 15-year-old grandson assemble one of my kits. With no instructions and just the pictures on my eBay page he had no difficulty.” I didn’t get a reply from him.
I did receive a reply from Ms. DePalma, who also noticed that her model was unassembled and that the seller seemed to have listed a second one. “So this guy sells multiple HO scale kits of my house??? How does this somehow get weirder with every new fact uncovered?”
After the box arrived at her real house and she opened it, she emailed me a photo of clear plastic pieces. She also sent me the name of the seller, who I was able to reach and who agreed to answer some questions via email.
He explained, “HO scale modeling is my hobby along with 3D printing.” So he pulls photos from real estate and other websites and using SketchUp software and its PhotoMatch tool, he can recreate the walls and roof, the dormers and doors, complete with their textures, and print them in plastic on a 3D printer. Then he sells them to other modeling enthusiasts via eBay, who put them together and paint them.
He’s working on making a model of a Sears, Roebuck & Co. Queen Anne kit house, which is another area of interest. Does he ever make models for home owners? “I have had many people wanting me to do their home or building,” he says, but, “It takes quite a bit of time to do that and I can hardly keep up with just printing the 33 items I have for sale on eBay.”
One of his creations is the Stratford Inn, the Vermont inn (real name, Waybury Inn) that was in the 1980s Bob Newhart TV sitcom, Newhart.
Another is a reproduction of the St. Ulrich Roman Catholic church in Vienna, Austria, built in 1721.
Can you imagine what people back then would think of making a miniature version from plastic pieces?
He has a massive computer file of photos he’s saved. With the Pueblo Drive house, he said, “I deleted the basement, back deck, and guessed at the garage end. How did I do on the garage end?”
Kate says she noticed that the model is missing the window over her garage but otherwise, judging from the photos he posted, “He did a good job.” But as she headed into the winter holidays, the couple hadn’t tried to build it yet. “I’m really not at all good at that kind of thing,” she said, musing that she might hire a retired model railroader to build and paint it.
Interestingly, when she and her husband were living in San Francisco, she’d been captivated by the same real estate site photos of their Pueblo Drive place.
She’s looking forward to displaying the little house in their real house, The Magic Castle.
Discovering this miniature version “feels absolutely perfect” for it, she said with a laugh as well as the feeling, “The strangeness in this story isn’t done yet.”