2016 Home of the Year: Renovation
Acting as her own general contractor, interior designer Lauren Levant puts her personal spin on a century-old row house in trendy Lawrenceville.
Previous owners had moved the kitchen to the second floor, but Levant and her husband moved it back to the first floor and created a sleek, open-concept design. Photos by Dave Bryce
Lauren Levant was a little uncertain when her husband, Drew Bland, told her he was considering a new job as a consultant with PNC in Pittsburgh.
After all, the Connecticut native and interior designer had spent years refining her craft in her home state and New York before taking a position with a design firm in Washington, D.C. — where she met and married her husband and where they lived at the time. She had never been to Pittsburgh.
“I was lucky,” she says. “My work was starting to get attention and do well.”
Still, she encouraged her husband — who wanted to live closer to family in Youngstown, Ohio, where he grew up — to take the position. They planned to buy a fixer-upper, which Levant would remodel while starting her own design firm, Lauren Levant Interior.
That was nearly two years ago. Since then, Levant, 33, has established a design firm — which included creating the interior for Station restaurant in Bloomfield — and finished an $80,000 gut-and-remodel job on the couple’s row house in Lawrenceville.
“This house was my very first design project here in Pittsburgh,” Levant says. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do. With the cost of living and real-estate prices the way they were, this was an opportunity I wouldn’t have in D.C. or New York.”
Pittsburgh Magazine’s panel of judges chose the home, near the neighborhood’s border with Bloomfield, as its Home of the Year 2016 winner in the Renovation category. Panel member William H. Childs, principal at William H. Childs Jr. & Associates, Inc. architecture firm, praised the home for its clean and simple lines. In particular, the Cleveland-based architect says he liked the intriguing feature elements Levant added to the home, including a 3-D wall-panel system in the first-floor hallway that’s made from vegetative fiber.
“I thought the texture was great,” he says. “This is a neat feature.”
As Levant and Bland can attest, taking the house from a hidden gem of a fixer-upper to a Home of the Year winner was no small task.
The Victorian-style guest bedroom is filled with antiques that Levant picked up while living in the Washington, D.C. area.
On the advice of Ryan Edmondson, a real-estate agent and friend, the couple sought a home in the artsy neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Levant recalls she immediately was drawn to the area.
“I love Lawrenceville’s dynamic and cool, creative population,” she says. “I really liked that energy, which I would compare to Brooklyn from a couple decades ago. It’s fun to be part of this little creative generation here in Pittsburgh that I think is redefining this city.”
Edmondson, an agent with Keller Williams, says he recommended a section of Lawrenceville on the other side of Penn Avenue from bustling Butler Street because at the time homes there generally were more affordable than those in other sections of Lower Lawrenceville, where many of the area’s restaurants, boutiques and pubs are concentrated. “LoLa” also is a hotspot for real-estate investments as the value of homes in Lawrenceville in general continues to increase at an exponential rate.
“It wasn’t the only area that I suggested to them, but it was one of those areas that’s kind of on the verge of popping,” Edmondson says. “This was one of the spots where you would still get a fairly decent deal, but if you renovated (a property), you could make money on it.”
Levant quickly fell in love with a century-old row house that had been partially updated by its previous owner. Worried it would be gone if she waited, Levant immediately made an offer on the home — before Bland had set eyes on it.
“I literally had to call it in to my husband at work and say, ‘We found the property. We have to buy it now, or it’s not going to be here,’” she says. “It was a huge leap of faith on his part.”
Bland, 31, took the news in stride, saying he trusted his wife’s instincts, as well as her ability to visualize the result of extensive renovations. While the former owner had taken the home from uninhabitable — Levant says all of the copper had been stolen from the building — to habitable, it still didn’t suit their taste.
“It kind of looked like a hippie hotel,” Bland says. “There were bandanas on the walls. The kitchen counters were plywood with spray paint all over them.”
The former owner also had moved the kitchen to the second floor and turned the first floor into a pair of bedrooms. That didn’t work for Levant and Bland, who, after taking possession of the house, gutted it down to the studs to start over again. Among their priorities was moving the kitchen back to the first floor.
“We ripped out all of the plumbing and the electrical, all the plaster. We took a lot of the walls away, and we built new walls,” Levant says of the five-month renovation process. “We just reimagined all three floors.”
The guest bathroom on the second floor includes a stone sink plus a sculptural faucet by Nest that Levant found online.
THE MAKING OF A DIY MASTERPIECE
Levant served as the general contractor on the remodel — a first for her — and doing so gave her a better understanding of the new-construction process for future projects, she says.
“I did a lot of sweat equity,” she says. “I put a lot of tile down. I put a lot of flooring down. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
The finished product includes many personal touches, as well as a plethora of creative DIY projects. For example, the sleek open-concept kitchen features floating shelves above the oven made from cherry wood from her parents’ property in Connecticut.
“They were a gift to us for our wedding, so we decided to use them in the kitchen design,” Levant says.
The expansive kitchen island — which includes open shelving for spices and preserves — is accented on the corners with wall studs torn from the home during remodeling. Levant also reimagined teak outdoor furniture bought at IKEA into open pantry shelving, with a loose-leaf tea bar.
In the dining room, Levant constructed a large table by layering cedar planking over steel bases she also bought at IKEA. The history of Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville is represented in the dining room with a striking wall collage Levant created using black-and-white and sepia-toned images. The photos include scenes from the city’s steel mill past, as well as shots of Lawrenceville from yesteryear.
“I thought they were so cool,” Levant says. “It’s just neat to me to see some of the people who actually walked these streets.”
Instead of throwing out discarded baseboards, the designer used them to create entryway shelving in the living room. Near the home’s original brick fireplace, Levant also built a rustic media storage unit that’s covered with slices of firewood.
“It was fun to use tools to figure out what kind of creative ways there are to design and build things when you’re doing it all yourself,” Levant says with a laugh. “I think I’m done with sawdust for the moment.”
Heading outdoors, Levant made the most of a small backyard space by adding raised wooden planters, a vertical garden and a fairytale-inspired gazebo frame heavily draped with vines. The Lawrenceville Hospitality Association featured the picturesque spot in its 2015 garden tour, Levant says.
“I think the comments from people were, ‘I wouldn’t have thought you could do anything with that space,’” she says. “Small spaces can still be good spaces.”
While Levant wasn’t able to keep the flooring on the first level of the home— she says it was too rotted — she was able to preserve the original heartwood pine staircase leading to the upper levels.
The couple’s master suite, which includes an open shared dressing room and a shower room with a view of Downtown, takes up the third floor.
Levant describes her design aesthetic as an eclectic blend of rustic, modern and traditional. It is reflected in the dressing room she created, using a combination of vintage cabinets found on Craigslist and a 1950s-era bedroom set, purchased at an estate sale, that she used to build the closets.
“They’re birds-eye burled maple,” she says. “The wood is very important. I didn’t want it to end up in a landfill somewhere.”
To Levant’s delight, she also unearthed a brass chandelier in a globe shape, most likely from the 1960s or ’70s, in the basement of the home. The fixture, now hanging in the center of the dressing room, is reminiscent of the era’s Brutalist movement, which Levant says is becoming trendy again.
“I’m seeing a lot of this stuff going for a lot of money right now on the secondhand market,” she says. “This was left here. I dusted it off and I was like, ‘Whoa!’”
Levant says she and Bland wanted the bedroom, which contains more repurposed pieces, to feel like a hotel suite or treehouse. The bedroom rug on the hardwood floors is made from recycled jeans while an antique steamer trunk from the 1920s sits at the end of the bed.
Levant created the light fixtures that hang on opposite sides of the room using copper battery clamps found at a local yard sale, stainless-steel cables and vintage light bulbs.
“The whole industrial thing — you can do it yourself if you want,” she says. “A lot of people are paying money for it, but it’s easy to do.”
Back on the second floor, there’s a guest bedroom with Victorian touches, highlighted by a romantic portrait of a bride Levant painted, as well as a bathroom, a laundry room and the light-filled offices of Lauren Levant Interior.
Levant and Bland’s shared dressing room is filled with vintage pieces, reclaimed items and other accents that have special meaning to the couple.
A VERY BIG YEAR
2015 was a big year for Levant, who was named Viking Range LLC’s Designer of the Year. Her work also was featured in the hardcover edition of “The Kitchen Bible” and on HGTV’s Pro Network, which in 2014 named her as one of its top 10 designers in the nation under age 35 as a “Fresh Faces” winner.
“The growth we’ve had is crazy,” she says. “I had very [modest] hopes for what my first real year in business would bring, but it’s safe to say that it’s been explosive, way beyond those expectations.”
Bland and Levant say they’re eager to make Pittsburgh their permanent home.
“We’re really excited about living in Pittsburgh,” Bland says. “People are proud to live here. I think it’s great to be part of a community on the upswing.”
Contrary to her fears, Levant adds she was happy to find moving to a new city didn’t halt her career but instead furthered it.
“It seems I’m still able to grow nationally in terms of opportunities and recognition,” she says. “That’s exciting for me because I love Pittsburgh.”
Levant created closets in the third-floor dressing room by reconfiguring a birds-eye burled maple bedroom set she bought at an estate sale.
Lauren Levant: Contractor
Lauren Levant: Interior Design
Engineered Oak, through builddirect.com: First-floor flooring
Cameron Property Solutions, LLC: HVAC
Lauren Levant: Landscaping
Barn Landscape Supply (installed by homeowner): PA Bluestone Patio
Home Depot (installed by homeowner): Natural Pine Planting Boxes
sportsmansguide.com; topped with custom-sized soccer net from Florida Net Company: Steel St. Lucia Gazebo
IKEA, High Pressure Laminate: Kitchen Cabinetry
White Quartz by Y&Q Home Plus: Kitchen Countertops