this old house
What homeowner hasn’t tackled a home improvement project only to find the job requires a professional’s touch? Unveiling a home’s hidden beauty and creating a harmonious aesthetic often require masterful strokes that elude the do-it-yourselfer.
Design Center Pittsburgh (DCP) has been working with Mt. Lebanon residents for more than a decade, offering interior and exterior architectural consultations. The program gives homeowners the flexibility of doing a project in stages, on their own time, while connecting them with professionals who will design and/or execute the more challenging aspects of the job.
“Mt. Lebanon residents appreciate the value of good design; they are supported by an extremely effective municipal government which connects residents to our Design Consults program (formerly the Renovation Information Network), and they are the beneficiaries of an exceptional housing stock which allows property owners to preserve the integrity and historic character of their neighborhoods,” says Steve Glassman, president and CEO of DCP. “We appreciate the support they have given to this program.”
The Johnson-Landens and the Currans, all Mt. Lebanon residents, worked with DCP on home projects this past year. The Johnson-Landens completed the initial phase of a landscape redesign for their front yard; the Currans are putting finishing touches on the remodeled kitchen and first floor of their American Foursquare.
Carl Johnson and Deborah Landen of Orchard Drive felt hemmed in by their front yard, which had filled in through the years with large shrubs that darkened their front windows. They wanted to open up the space with a view from their living room French doors to the outdoors.
“We never really liked the landscaping for the 14 years we lived in our Tudor home,” says Deborah, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Carl, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the School of Education, grew up in upstate New York surrounded by rocks, moss and conifers. He loved the simplicity of the Japanese gardens and was fond of ikebana. He imagined looking out his window to a garden that conveyed a sense of meditative peace.
“Deborah thought I would be good at the garden thing, but I couldn’t translate that into the picture of the whole front yard,” he admits. “We planted bamboo, which did very well, but it wasn’t aesthetically arranged.”
Through DCP, the couple enlisted the services of Mark McKenzie of Landscape Architectural Services. McKenzie spent two hours inspecting their yard and discussing an overall plan for an initial fee of $150.
“The key was putting the fundamentals in place so we could create the garden,” says Carl. This involved bringing in several large boulders and placing them strategically in the yard. Everything else in the design works emanates from the rock formation.
People who sign up for design consults do not get formal drawings; they can ask as many questions as they like and take as many notes as they wish, and following their consult they get a 1-2 page “Action Plan” that serves as a renovation roadmap and will help the homeowners make good decisions.
The homeowners then are free to do the suggested work themselves, hire the DCP consultant, hire another architect or contractor or do nothing. In this case, the Johnson-Landens were so pleased with McKenzie’s ideas, that they hired his firm to draw up plans and bring in the stone. “The project is very open-ended, allowing us to add landscaping as we wish over the next few seasons,” Carl says.
McKenzie suggested encircling the bamboo, a mountain variety that grows very well in our region and remains bushy and green all winter. The garden includes small hemlocks, low azaleas, a bird’s nest spruce, witch hazel, bayberry and a delicate Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.
They added a Japanese lantern and small waterfall and pool. “I call it our Japanese Pennsylvania Mountain Garden,” Carl says.
The shrubbery and wrought-iron railing on the ground-level front porch were removed, which achieved the sought-after connection between the interior and exterior of the home. They had never used their front porch before, but they now find themselves settling in on the porch swing, enjoying the view.
“Watching moss grow,” says Deborah.
A stone path eventually will wind through the garden to the front door, and they plan to add a small retaining wall by the tree. An American wisteria climbs one side of the porch and a white hydrangea frames the front door.
On Lyndhurst Avenue, Jennifer and TJ Curran have tackled phase one of their whole-house plan—the renovation of the kitchen and first floor of their five-bedroom American foursquare.
Jennifer, from St. Paul, Minnesota, and TJ, from Penn Trafford, both CPAs, moved to Mt. Lebanon from Atlanta to be closer to TJ’s family. Their daughter, Nora, was eight days old the day they moved into the house. She is now almost 2. Her brother, Joseph, is 4.
They wanted a “fixer upper,” and immediately began making plans, beginning with knocking out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. They needed a first floor powder room, too.
TJ and his father were confident they could remove the interior wall themselves, but it soon became apparent that they would need the help of a carpenter and a bricklayer.
They learned about DCP through information about Mt. Lebanon provided by their real estate agent and wasted no time making an appointment for a Design Consult with Michael Dwyer of Devlin Architecture.
During their meeting, they discussed ways to return the home to its classic American glory including how to treat the wood floors, moldings and kitchen cabinets. They did not need an architect to oversee the project from start to finish but definitely needed to be pointed in the right direction.
“We knew what we wanted to do but didn’t know where to start or who to talk to,” says Jennifer. “He gave us a starting point and helped us with a list of contractors.”
Dwyer suggested lifting the ceiling and replacing the dining room window with French doors that overlooked the backyard. Restoring the wood floors to their original hue and replacing the dark kitchen cabinets with a classic white were planned. He also was able to carve out space for a first floor bathroom.
Although the footprint of the house hasn’t changed, the new kitchen is spacious and bright, thanks to the removal of the wall. The center island countertop is white quartz, large enough for both a prep area and breakfast bar that seats three.
They fell in love with white Craftsman-style cabinets, which they found at Ikea, and added silver pulls. To that they added brushed nickel pendant lighting and recessed lights from Home Depot. Stained butcher-block countertops and stainless steel appliances finish the look, a major improvement over the older appliances, pink-speckled sink and matching Formica counters. They chose a soothing gray paint for the walls.
“Now that we have a working kitchen, we feel we can move ahead with plans for the second floor at a leisurely pace,” says Jennifer, who is also thinking about spring and working with a landscape designer.
“The [Design Consults] process works well, if you have a bigger project in mind,” says TJ. “I would highly recommend it as a relatively cheap way to work with a professional and get started.”
The program is “perfect for Mt. Lebanon residents,” adds Jennifer, “because it focuses on the [good design for] old houses, of which we have a lot.”
To learn more about the Design Center Pittsburgh’s Design Consults, visit www.designcenterpgh.org/design-consults. To arrange for a consult, call program director Cate Rassman at 412-391-4144. Costs for consults originally were $150, but the program has been restructured so that clients pay from $25 to $250, depending on their ability to pay. Most Mt. Lebanon people would pay in the $200-$250 range.