Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Closing and First Projects at Woods Cottage: June - July, 2015

In June, 2015, I closed on my first major scale preservation and renovation project: a small 1880s frame house in the Woods Run section of the North Side of Pittsburgh. I named the house "Woods Cottage" in reference to the name of the street it's on, and the size of the house.

Clearing away yard debris and dirt that was piled against the back wall of the house.
As I surveyed the scene upon arrival to the house the first evening after closing, I noticed countless potential repairs that were needed. It was overwhelming, to say the least. At the same time, I was filled with excitement and optimism as I considered the adventures that were to come, restoring what was in essence my dream house.

My obsession with urban, working class, industrial, labor, and immigrant history all converge in the history of this little house. The Woods Run section of Pittsburgh (originally Allegheny City) was an urban industrial neighborhood which was mostly populated by European immigrants. It was seemingly always a low income district, as newspaper articles from the turn of the century report the slum conditions and poverty present in the neighborhood at the time. Much of the poverty may have been relegated to the original neighborhood, surrounding Western Penitentiary, which was demolished during a mid-century urban renewal project.  Still, the further east portions of the Woods Run District, closer to Brighton Road, were populated and built up during this time. This is the area in which my little house has withstood over a century of urban decline and neglect.

The living room and ornate staircase.

As I considered the significant expenses involved in the restoration of the house, that day after closing, all of these thoughts crossed my mind. In spite of the costs involved, the house deserved to be saved and cherished, rather than thrown away, like so many other modest older homes in Pittsburgh.

Original shutters

Original wood four-panel door and hardware

Like homes that I have seen on city demolition lists, Woods Cottage was in a marginal state of repair. If it had been neglected for just a few more years, the roof would have inevitably failed, and potential repair costs would have drastically increased. Home renovation costs are sometimes higher than the after-repair value of a home, particularly in depressed neighborhoods. This means that many homes are consigned to demolition lists, if their after-repair value or value as a rental property is not sufficient to make a profit. I have hope that I have caught this house in time, and that repairs now will be sufficient to preserve the house for the remainder of my lifetime and beyond.  I also believe that the house has not reached the point where its after-repair value is less than the cost of a sensible and practical restoration.  More importantly, the house is historic, and deserves to be restored for reasons other than profit! 

View showing the cliff and landing, after it was cleared of trees and overgrowth.
My first step was to prioritize needed repairs. The roof on the house was at least 30 years-old. While the front portion was intact, the rear side of the roof had been compromised by debris and leaves falling on it from overhanging trees. This debris was not cleaned off the roof for many years, and caused some rot.  I immediately hired a contractor to install a tarp over the back of the roof, until I could address other problems and have a new roof installed.

Next priority was a huge Oak tree overhanging the house. Behind the house is a small cliff, with many trees sitting on the edge. There were numerous branches hanging over the house, some with vines hanging down and touching the roof.  I intended to have the Oak tree pruned, as there appeared to be some dead branches.  This proved to be a daunting task. As I met many tree experts, each one told me of the dangers the tree presented. Many told me that the tree was unsafe and needed to be taken down.  I was given quotes to remove the tree, which were above $4,000.  According to inspectors, the tree had two trunks, which meant that the tree could fall at any moment. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I had received quotes from unscrupulous tree guys, who were perhaps looking to make money and cut down a tree that did not need to be taken down. This was my hope, anyway, as I really did not want to spend a fortune removing a tree!  Needless to say, this became a huge dilemma, and my stress levels were already high.

 I was fortunate to receive advice from an arborist who worked for the city, thanks to a friend who provided a referral on my blog. I was assured that the tree was healthy, and removal was unnecessary, although trimming was advised.  This eased my fears for the time being, and I was confident enough to move on to other projects. 

Of paramount importance, aside from the tree and roof, was removing the large amount of dirt and yard debris which had been piled against the back wall of the house. This was necessary in order to prevent and discourage rot, moisture, and wood destroying insects from attacking the house.

A friend helping me clean up yard debris near "the cliff." These steps go up to a landing adjacent to the cliff behind the house, which connects to a rear porch on the house. The landing was completely overgrown with trees and brush.
Brick walkway and patio discovered underneath decades of dirt!

The interior of the house was also filled with junk. I was told that the previous owner was a hoarder. Sadly, there was little of value among the many items stored in the house. As a collector of vintage items and antiques, I was hoping that there would be some valuables hidden in the junk, which would have offset restoration costs. I was not so lucky!  I did salvage some 1950s metal kitchen stools, a small maple end table, a vintage Sears vaccuum, and assorted small, kitschy items. Friends also came to take some of the things I did not have use for. The junk hauler took the rest.  Within a couple weeks, the house had been emptied, except for the basement, and the yard cleared..Underneath decades of dirt piled behind the house was a beautiful brick walkway and patio.

The junk inside

There is still junk to be removed from the basement, as the basement stairway steps are in disrepair. This is a small project that my dad will help me with. He also agreed to help me repair the toilet, replace the exterior doors with antique wood four-panel doors, and other assorted repairs. My dad has always been a huge help with old properties I've purchased. He is a true handyman, skilled in almost every form of building repair, and always taught me to do things right.

Close-up of trim profile and fiber cement siding.

This last evening, noticed some carpenter ants around the exterior of the house. I was able to find some ant traps at Home Depot, and placed them around the perimeter of the house. Hopefully, this will be sufficient until I am able to have the house completely treated for potential insect pests.

As I look forward to tackling the two biggest projects as of now, the roof and the tree trimming, I am also aware of the looming electrical inspection. The utilities have been off for some time, and I will soon be turning them on, one at a time. First will come the updating of the electrical. Next will come inspection of the (newer) furnace, and the plumbing system, which is fortunately intact.

I will continue to provide updates here over the next several months, until the house is up and running. I hope to have this project mostly completed by next summer, but if expenses run over-budget, I may not meet that goal.  Either way, the house is saved, and I love it.

Woods Cottage, circa 1880s, is my first major preservation project. It is the first property I've bought that has needed complete rehab.  It was originally owned by a teamster, Philip Shoup, and his wife, Maria. They lost it at Sheriff sale in the 1890s. It was later owned by a German immigrant bartender, Edward Buehn, who purchased it in 1896. It had many other interesting owners and occupants throughout the 20th century. 


  1. Roof is definitely the most important thing to fix first on a house. If you have a bad one it will destroy everything else in just a short time. The staircase is lovely and I like the name. What an unusual backyard. I'm thinking "Hanging Garden of Babylon" or in this case "Hanging Garden of Woods Cottage". You are lucky to have both a friend and your dad to help with your project. Good luck. Looking forward to the rest of the story. Also, want to mention the great pictures to get a really good look at the project.

  2. Ryan in SeattleApril 12, 2016

    Any updates on your progress? It's a fun project and I wish you good luck!

  3. Well, I wonder if the original tongue and groove hides under that fiber (Asbestos?) tile. I may have to drive by and see what you've done, since this hasn't been updated. Lol.

  4. I'm familiar with your your photography work, your passion for preservation and this house from my time as a long time lurker on City Data. I often drive through Brighton Heights on my way home from work and took the time several weeks ago to see the complete work on this house. It looks wonderfully homey.