Work of Art

At Blackwood, two Pittsburgh art experts have created a paradise of their very own at Rainbow's End.



Looking east from the top of the clock tower at Blackwood, visitors can see a paved pathway winding through the trees to the main house.

Photo by Laura Petrilla

Ask partners Don Fink and Ben Robertson why they're adding yet another building to their sprawling property and Robertson smiles. "We just wanted to do another project," he says, gesturing across the estate, Blackwood, toward a small house-in-progress. The "projects" they've completed so far - the grand main house, the stunning four-story clock tower, the picturesque pool house, the serene reservoir and springhouse - look like the work of skilled architects and craftsmen.

But Fink and Robertson have actually built each of these gorgeous structures themselves with no architectural training, from collaboration by the two and sketches by Robertson on graph paper. They don't refer to any plans as they build, says Robertson: "Don keeps all the plans in his head and we just start building."

They bought a portion of the 35-acre property - a scenic expanse of slender trees, grassy hills and natural springs in northern Butler County - in the late 1960s and more in the early '90s. By day they ran Blackwood Gallery, a popular art gallery and framing shop on Babcock Boulevard in Ross Township. On evenings and weekends, they would design and build. They started small, with a simple building to live in while the larger construction was under way. By 1976, they'd built the main three-bedroom brick and cedar house with a cathedral ceiling in the living room and skylights along the sloping roof.

The house feels both grand and informal, and that's a trait their other buildings share. The dimensions of the living room and dining room aren't huge; they're proportioned perfectly for a family of two. But these rooms are filled with more treasures than you'd expect in a space twice the size, including three Rembrandt etchings, lithographs and drawings by Francisco Zuniga and a bronze statue by Richard MacDonald. During their years as art dealers, the collection at home would change periodically. Today it is a stunning mix of traditional and contemporary art.

Each room reveals unexpected surprises. The dining room has plaster crown molding with gilded edges, which Robertson gilded by hand. An upstairs bath has built-in storage that uses the space behind the walls that most contractors would leave empty. In the kitchen, a tiny fireplace is nestled high on one wall. "We thought it would be great to have a bit of extra warmth," Robertson says.

In 1981, a new phase of construction was inspired when they bought a spectacular Wurlitzer pipe theater organ. Originally the organ was housed in their barn, and that became the site of their first fundraising concerts. The couple began inviting well-known organists from around the world to play, and hundreds of visitors flocked to hear the music. Fink soon began designing an addition to the main house - a large music room, which includes a homemade elevator hidden beneath the parquet floor.

At the press of a button, the floor opens up and the glittering theater organ rises out of the floor as if by magic. The room can seat 100 and is packed during concerts, which they've now been hosting for 19 years. The most recent concert, a benefit for the Make-a-Wish Foundation in July, raised more than $19,000. Along with hosting these fundraising concerts, the couple also offer music scholarships for high school students. Auditions are held each year at Heinz Hall, and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony assist with judging.

More music was added to their property when they acquired a carillon from Slippery Rock University and also purchased, around the same time, a restored 1907 Seth Thomas tower clock. These items needed a home, so Fink designed a clock tower, which includes two guest bedrooms and a full kitchen. On a clear day, they estimate that music from the carillon can be heard for a 2-mile radius. Each hour, as the clock strikes, soft music fills the air along the winding, tree-lined paths of the estate.

With all of this sophisticated equipment to maintain, they began working with Jason Wiles, an audio specialist. He became the in-house expert on the carillon and theater organ, and quickly learned to install and maintain the enormous vintage clock. Wiles also works on various design and construction projects around the property. Fink and Robertson are nearing completion on a lovely brick house on one end of their property for Wiles and his wife, who were married last year in the music room.

Projects at Blackwood are a team effort. Fink is quick to point out that friends and family have always pitched in and still do. An 80-year-old friend, Bob Emery, drives from Penn Hills most Mondays to help with mechanical issues, and Wiles' parents often lend a hand as well.
A spirit of cooperation and generosity infuses the entire estate. It feels a bit like a collage that's always developing. "All of this," says Wiles, glancing around during a walk through the gardens, "they built not to hoard, but to share."

Fink, 73, and Robertson, 67, retired from the gallery business last year, but their schedule of construction projects and fundraising events can hardly be called "retirement." Their energy and optimism are palpable. During a recent stroll through the garden, Fink mentioned that they've planted several giant sequoia trees. "In 5,000 years," he says with a twinkle in his eye, "we'll take a look at it again. See how it's growing."

Fun Facts about Blackwood:

  • The roof of the clock tower weighs 8,000 pounds. It was constructed on the ground and lifted into place by a crane.
  • The elaborate elevator and sound system for the theater organ includes a smoke machine. But it's rarely used, because it tends to set off the smoke detectors in the house!
  • The clock tower is named Rainbow's End. They chose the name because Robertson's mother, who passed away recently, always thought of the estate as a wonderland found over the rainbow.
  • The music room, including the unique homemade design of the elevator and the storage areas for the organ pipes, took five years to complete.

Scholarship for Gifted Musicians

Know a high school student who is a gifted musician-in-the-making? If so, check out blackwoodmusic.org for details about the scholarships that Robertson and Fink award each year. These scholarships offer between $3,000 and $5,000 to students planning to pursue a career in instrumental performance. Applicants are chosen based on several factors, including a personal essay and their performance in an audition that is held each year at Heinz Hall.
 


Melissa Rayworth writes about American culture, sexual politics, home design and parenting for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press and Babble.com. Her work regularly appears in publications and on Websites across the globe, including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and CNN.com. She also covers Pittsburgh's philanthropy and nonprofit community for Pop City Media. A Long Island native, she now lives in Hampton Township with her husband and two sons.
 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Review: Salt of the Earth

Review: Salt of the Earth

Brandon Fisher is the latest chef behind Salt of the Earth’s modern-American dishes.
2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

Sharing the DNA of the father of children’s television, the Fred Rogers Company reinvigorates a beloved legacy while creating new hit characters and content that help children to grow, giggle and learn.
Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Jamie and Ali McMutrie were PM's 2010 Pittsburghers of the Year after airlifting 54 youngsters to safety. Now, they have forged a relationship with a major global player to continue their work to prevent struggling Haitian families from surrendering children to orphanages.
PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

Four ways to make the city even better in 2015.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Destined to be a Classic: Pittsburgh Penguins 'Christmas Vacation' Parody Video

Destined to be a Classic: Pittsburgh Penguins 'Christmas Vacation' Parody Video

Evegeni Malkin is priceless at the end.
This Weekend: Chris Jamison & the Steelers, Pens & Ugly Sweaters, Mayor Undercover

This Weekend: Chris Jamison & the Steelers, Pens & Ugly Sweaters, Mayor Undercover

Some cool things to watch out for this weekend in the ’Burgh.
#Oops — Or, About that Headline . . .

#Oops — Or, About that Headline . . .

Once in a while, no good deed goes unpunished.
Now Online: Two New Cameras to Keep an Eye on Pittsburgh’s Bald Eagles

Now Online: Two New Cameras to Keep an Eye on Pittsburgh’s Bald Eagles

A Murrysville security company has installed the new cameras, which provide sharper images of the Hays eagles.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Review: Salt of the Earth

Review: Salt of the Earth

Brandon Fisher is the latest chef behind Salt of the Earth’s modern-American dishes.
2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

Sharing the DNA of the father of children’s television, the Fred Rogers Company reinvigorates a beloved legacy while creating new hit characters and content that help children to grow, giggle and learn.
Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Jamie and Ali McMutrie were PM's 2010 Pittsburghers of the Year after airlifting 54 youngsters to safety. Now, they have forged a relationship with a major global player to continue their work to prevent struggling Haitian families from surrendering children to orphanages.
PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

Four ways to make the city even better in 2015.
Penguins Profile: The Fearless Patric Hornqvist

Penguins Profile: The Fearless Patric Hornqvist

The Penguin winger fits in easily with the team, thanks to his infectious personality and his mad dedication to confounding opposing goaltenders.
Rev It Up: This South Side Pittsburgh Loft is Unique and Unusual

Rev It Up: This South Side Pittsburgh Loft is Unique and Unusual

This three-story home melds all of the comforts of home with the sleek look and efficiency of industrial design.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags