A Retro Retreat
North Belle Vernon's "Good Ol' Days House" offers a unique mid-20th-century getaway
Photo by Renee Rosensteel and Jonathan Wander
Victorian guesthouses may be popular destinations, and there are certainly hundreds of charming, authentic examples, especially in our half of the country. But what if your taste is more jukebox than Victrola? More poodle skirt than parasol? If your idea of fun is more mid-century groovy than turn-of-the-century formal, then Western Pennsylvania boasts a one-of-a-kind destination for you.
The "Good Ol' Days House: America's First Nostalgic Guest House" is the brainchild of Melanie Patterson. Located at 914 Broad Ave., in North Belle Vernon, Westmoreland County, the "Good Ol' Days House" is a three-bedroom guesthouse that is, says Patterson, "a trip back to yesteryear." The amount of memorabilia and detail is astounding, with working rotary telephones, televisions that show anything from "The Three Stooges" to "Happy Days," a kitchen ideal for baking fresh chocolate-chip cookies and beds with soft vintage linens.
These are accommodations that comfort not only the body but also the nostalgic soul.
For Patterson, the "Good Ol' Days House" is much more than a business venture. It is a transformation and a sharing of a beloved family treasure. The house was built in 1928 and has been in her family since 1949, first owned by her grandparents Guiseppe and Guiseppina (Joseph and Josephine) Stringile, who emigrated from Calabria, Italy, and later by her Aunt Janie Stringhill Mitchell. Often, Patterson and her siblings would walk to the home for lunch during school days at St. Sebastian's Catholic School or after school while their father was at work at the local steel mill or her mother operated the Wee Wonder Pizzeria, a family pizza shop.
Patterson has rich memories of the home, and when she bought it after her Aunt Janie's death in 2007 at age 89, she didn't give a thought to not keeping it in the family. "This house is almost as much a part of the family as all of us are," she says. "In Western Pennsylvania it's a tradition that when family comes to visit from out of town, they stay at the family homestead; they gather around the kitchen table or relax in the living room or on the front porch and play a game together. I didn't want to lose that."
But visits from out-of-towners are infrequent, and that's why Patterson decided to expand the idea. "I began to realize that other people, baby boomers who grew up in the same era or who are interested in those times, would love to stay in a house like this. This is a visit to a fun time, a simpler time."
So Patterson did some research to find similar guesthouses with a mid-20th-century theme. The result surprised her. "I looked everywhere, scoured the Internet, called people in the travel business. There just wasn't anything like this. I did find one '50s-themed bed-and-breakfast in a beach community, but to me that seemed too contrived with the reproduction decor. It wasn't authentic, and didn't have the hometown history and the mix of decades like I wanted to do."
This struck an entrepreneurial chord in a woman with an entrepreneurial background. "My father was an entrepreneur," Patterson says. "He worked in a mill but he also owned a paint and tile store and a pizza shop." Patterson herself invented and produced Pibs, which were soft, absorbent, disposable baby bibs on a roll that were sold in Giant Eagle and Wal-Mart. A former Mrs. USA (1993), Patterson made crowd-pleasing personal appearances promoting the product and all was going well. Until, that is, Proctor and Gamble released its own version of absorbent, disposable bibs and that, as they say, was that.
So Patterson approached her husband, Bob, for his thoughts on converting the home into a themed guesthouse and won his encouragement. "I knew it would be a tribute to Aunt Janie, whom I dearly loved, and I know what successful drive Melanie has. I knew she could really carry it off," he says.
After closing on the house in March 2008, the Pattersons went to the home with a bottle of wine to celebrate and found that their parade had temporarily been rained upon by 2 inches of water in the basement. When interviewing contractors for clean-up and renovation, Patterson became convinced that her idea was a good one. "The contractors would get excited. They'd go from room to room and say, 'My grandmother had this!' or 'My mom had that. How cool!' These guys see all kinds of old houses, but this one was really frozen in time, and I knew from their reaction that I was on to something."
Patterson did much of the restoration work herself, including the exhausting task of stripping the woodwork, but also had family help, including from her husband; siblings Valerie, Kimberly and Chuck; her son Cody and her mother, Judy Stringhill.
Choosing contractors and getting decorating advice weren't always easy. "Some contractors wanted to gut entire rooms, which I didn't want to do because I wanted to preserve the authenticity," Patterson says. "And every decorator I spoke to for advice said I shouldn't mix the decades. They said I should choose an era and use it everywhere. But I wanted to appeal to different ages, and from what I'm seeing, I made the right choice."
Although the official grand opening of the "Good Ol' Days House" was only this spring, Patterson has had an overwhelmingly positive reaction. Her first overnight guests, a family from Sarasota, Fla., stayed at the house this past Christmas, and an enthusiastic thank-you note from them is framed and displayed in the living room.
Bob Patterson also had his office Christmas party at the house. "That was a great learning experience for me," Melanie Patterson says. "I watched where people gathered, the items they marveled over and those they didn't. If something didn't make people giggle, laugh or catch their interest or emotions, it was gone."
Patterson has had many requests for tours, and she offers them for groups. "Some people get goose bumps because the memories are so strong; others, the younger ones, are just amazed and say, 'I've heard of these things but have never seen them. It's so cool!"
"Each room has developed its own personality," Patterson says, and despite the authentic accoutrements, Patterson notes how the modern amenities are designed for comfort, including two full baths, new showers and a commercial water heater to keep the hot water flowing.
Outdoors. From the outside, the "Good Ol' Days House" is the All-American home, painted a cheerful pale blue, with Stars and Stripes flying, a glider on the front porch and a patio where guests can hold what Patterson calls a "Picnic in the Past."
Living Room. Guests are first greeted by old family photos and a welcome to the "Good Ol' Days House," displayed above a telephone stand with attached seat. Patterson found a treasure trove of authentic, perfect-condition 1960s furnishings, lamps and accessories from model homes that were part of the Columbus Homes store on Route 51 in the South Hills. These are used extensively here and throughout the house. A 1960s television has been retro-fitted to show vintage (or modern) shows.
Dining Room. The 1940s portion of the "Good Ol' Days House," the dining room, features an antique dining set and serving pieces, lace tablecloth and curtains made by Patterson's mother from vintage fabric.
Kitchen. A true showpiece, the kitschy kitchen features a Big Chill refrigerator (the same kind as in Rachael Ray's TV kitchen, Patterson says), Kromex spun-aluminum and Bakelite canisters, and vintage tableware and cookbooks. On the wall, just above the yellow rotary dial phone, is a framed page from a vintage catalog from her father's paint and tile store - showing a kitchen almost identical to this one.
The Bedrooms. Each bedroom has a theme and is designed with girls or boys in mind. Everything's authentic, from the lighting and linens, toys, TV and phones (including a Princess phone). On each dresser is a framed description of the room with its history and stories behind some of the objects.
Bath. Above the original claw-foot tub, Melanie has set the mood by painting "Rubber Ducky, you're the one, you make bathtime so much fun..." The bath is highlighted by antique cut-and-beveled mirrors, chandeliers and creative touches like a toilet-tank lid used as a radiator shelf for candles and accessories. Next to the bath is a former walk-in closet converted to a modern laundry room but accessorized with boxes of vintage laundry goods.
Rumpus Room. Perhaps the highlight of the home, certainly the spot for the most boisterous activity, is the basement "Rumpus Room."
There are almost too many fun highlights to name, but they include a working 1949 Keeney's Shuffle Pin Boy Bowling game and 1969 Williams Doozie pinball machine, a built-in bar with glass top (under the glass are lyrics to songs for sing-alongs), an old wringer washing machine converted to hold ice, an unplugged vintage red refrigerator stocked with old board games (including Mystery Date), a working candy vending machine, 1957 phonograph with period 45s and LPs, authentic 1950s dinette seating, an HDTV with a selection of classic movies and TV shows and seating that includes vintage Kohler barber chairs, original seats from the Liberty Theater in Donora and seats from Three Rivers Stadium, one of which (No. 9, of course) is signed by Bill Mazeroski.
Patterson plans to personalize each guest's stay and to add a bit of theater. "When guests arrive, I plan to greet them dressed as a June Cleaver- or Annette Funicello-type character, with fresh brownies baking in the oven, and welcoming treats like mini-cheeseburgers and root-beer floats ready to serve," she says. "At night, instead of a mint on the pillow, I'll have nostalgic candy. I want to appeal to all senses." She also plans to customize the decor. "If we're hosting a reunion for the class of '78, for example, I'll have magazines from that year and TV shows and music ready to go," Patterson says.
The main house is phase one of what Patterson plans for her "Good Ol' Days House." Behind the house is a small cottage used by her Aunt Janie for her beauty-salon business, and for phase two Patterson plans to convert it to a "Getaway Cottage" for couples done in a 1930s/'40s style with a kitchenette, art-deco-style bathroom and Murphy bed. For the third and final phase, Patterson plans to turn the attic of the main house into a gallery with historic memorabilia related to her family and the Belle Vernon area. "Considering the work I put into renovating this house," the energetic Patterson says, "I'll be able to do those with my eyes closed."
Patterson clearly takes pride in her "Good Ol' Days House," not only as a unique destination for guests to "step back in time to the mid-20th century," but also as a preservation of a family home and a tribute to those who lived there. "I have my own memories that were created here, but visitors bring their own because they relate these familiar objects to their own youth," she says. "Even more important, they're creating new memories during their stay that they'll be able to share."