My Preservation Projects

My passion for the preservation of Pittsburgh's historic buildings has evolved from my interest in photography and advocating for at-risk structures to actually taking on projects of my own. Over the years, I have managed to acquire some of my own properties, even on my modest income from working in the social services field. Fortunately, old houses in western Pennsylvania are cheap to purchase, and there are ample opportunities for affordable home ownership, especially in some of the more depressed communities. Many of the former urban industrial towns and neighborhoods are full of historic buildings available for pennies on the dollar. Many of these communities are also safer and more pleasant to live in than you might have been led to believe.

My first house, purchased when I was 25, was a circa 1909 yellow brick row house in the West Park district of Stowe Township (near McKees Rocks). I purchased the house for $11,000, and was able to move into it with minimal work, although it did require many cosmetic improvements and repairs.  Living in this house rent free enabled me to save money for my next house purchase.

The house was originally occupied by Irish immigrants who worked for the railroad in McKees Rocks. The house was occupied at the time of the bloody 1909 McKees Rocks Strike, and it's possible that one of the original occupants was involved in the strike.

Before and After: my circa 1909 row-house in Stowe. Before picture is 2009, and after picture is 2013. I made sensible repairs as my finances allowed, including replacing the rotted porch, porch roof, new windows, re-coated the roof, replaced the front door, and opened up the transom above the original wood living room window.

Living in a row-house in an economically depressed town was surprisingly pleasant overall, but brought some challenges as well. One of my concerns was that the neighbors did not maintain their properties. This would not have bothered me too much in a detached house, but being connected to run-down properties via a party wall is rather disconcerting, and discouraged me from spending money to maintain my own property.

Me at my Stowe Township row-house, around 2010.
In 2013, I sold the row house in Stowe to an investor who purchased another house in the row. He has maintained both very well, and I was glad that at least two of the houses would be in good hands. I then purchased a beautiful circa 1926 "four square" home in the Myer Park district of McKeesport. This house had been in the same family since the 1920s, and had always been lovingly maintained. All of the original woodwork, stained glass, and even light fixtures were intact and in marvelous condition. I was able to purchase the house for a low price, because it was in an unfashionable city, and it has been a wonderful place to call home. Most importantly, I now had yard space between my house and my neighbors' homes, which made me more at ease about being able to maintain my property.

My circa 1926 "four square" in McKeesport. The house had been in the original family since the 1920s. The original owner was a pharmacist, Alfred Kuhl. He lived there with his wife, Margaret, and their two children, Peggy and Trudy.
In May of 2015, I was contacted by the owner of a modest 1880s wood frame house in the Woods Run (North Side) district of Pittsburgh. This is a property that I had once expressed interest in by writing to the owner, but had long since forgotten about. In my travels, and during the exploration I do to write this blog, I often come across houses that capture my imagination.  This was a house I dreamed about buying and restoring. I was excited, but also apprehensive, about the prospect of purchasing a home that I knew needed complete renovation. While I had some experience fixing up my row house in Stowe, I had never owned or worked on a property that needed complete rehab before!  This was, however, something I often imagined myself doing in the future, and I knew that the house in Woods Run was the perfect candidate for my historic home preservation goals. The house was small, and it was solid. It was a Victorian (my favorite architectural style and era). As far as Victorian rehab projects go, this would be more sensible and affordable than most, because the house was so modest in scale.

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. 
I went forward with the purchase of the Woods Run house, and I still have the jitters. At the same time, I have been learning so much about home restoration, hiring contractors and tradespeople, and have truly embarked on an exciting adventure.

On this page, I will be providing updates on the progress at the Woods Run house, which I have named Woods Cottage. I will provide links here to the posts I write about the renovation process, obstacles, and adventures of my first big preservation project!  Thank you for following, and I would certainly appreciate any tips or advice you may have, as I tackle (and document) one project at a time.

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


  1. Jonaathan - I've been working on my house at 818 Westeren for years and appreciate your efforts. I also volunteer with Preservation Pittsburgh and am interested in asking you if you'd like to be a part of preservation of difficult buildings. My focus is religious architecture and the ever higher number of closing religious structures and their loss to a neighborhood. Let's talk 412-322-8223 Jack Schmitt

  2. Louise RossierApril 05, 2016

    Hello Mr Denson I purchased a home in Mckeesport Pa. I used to spend wonderful summers here in Mckeesport I love my 90 plus home, it used to belong to Auberle Im Having trouble finding reasonable contractors I've had soon work done could you help me find some good people to help me finish the work here 412-996-1537 i would ever so grateful thanks for reading Louise