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Urban Oasis: Rooftop Gardening in Pittsburgh

Even in the heart of the city, it’s possible to create a perfect outdoor space — and what better place than a rooftop garden?



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Coleus, verbena and hydrangeas are a few of the many plants that decorate the rooftop | photos by John Altdorfer
 

Two major renovations have created rooftop havens for city residents.

Nachum Golan and Steve Hough extended their penthouse space in their apartment building in Shadyside to create their rooftop oasis, while Jon Withrow’s addition to his home on the North Side has provided the ideal space for a rooftop deck.

Withrow’s patio overlooks a courtyard complete with a bubbling fish pond and neighboring structures in the Mexican War Streets. Golan and Hough have created a refuge — the noise of the street is almost nonexistent, and the only hint of the surrounding city is a church steeple or two rising a few streets away. 

In both cases, the gardens are essential parts of the way they live, and both spaces exhibit the possibilities to be realized, even with a small space and lack of a yard. 
 


 

Treasured Transformation

When Golan and Hough purchased their penthouse apartment in Shadyside in 1988, the building elevator opened to a small, nondescript entryway.

Three wooden stairs led to the building’s (purely functional) roof, where maintenance workers ventured only if there was a problem. To Golan, who now is semi-retired after years of running his own interior-design business, it seemed a shame to waste the space.

“We knew right away it was a treasure,” he says.

Little by little, he and his husband began expanding their space outside and creating their own garden haven. The approximately 900-square-foot rooftop now has two sections divided by a wooden island that becomes a serving area for food and drinks when the couple entertains as well as lots of plants that Golan has lovingly nurtured through the years.
 


 

The space immediately outside the home’s double doors is an open area with a table for four, while the opposite end of the roof holds a large canopy with plenty of seating and more tabletop space underneath.

“It’s really having a larger room to live in,” Golan says. “In the summer when it’s raining, we have umbrellas extending from the entrance, and you bring a blanket and your favorite magazine and it’s heaven.

“We love our house. It’s so restful and private.”

​Golan, who immigrated to the United States from Israel, says water is very precious in his home country, so he knew of — and implemented — irrigation techniques, including hoses with different-sized nozzles to prevent water from being wasted while keeping his plants thriving. 

Most of the plants are annuals: ivy topiaries and potted hydrangeas. Along the edge of the rooftop is what Golan calls his “Christmas village:” Japanese palm, pine trees and miniature Alberta spruce trees keep the noise from the street at bay and create an illusion of a secret hideaway. 
 


 

“Once everything is in place, you have no idea where you are, that you’re in the middle of a city neighborhood,” Hough says.

Golan’s advice for anyone who wants to create a garden on his or her roof is to “make it a dream.” People should install plants they love and play around with various types to see
what works best, while paying attention to the amounts of shade and light available in the space.

“Buy one of each, and you’ll see what they like — they’ll tell you,” he says.

Furniture is important too — all-weather furniture means you can leave it outside during the harsher months, and all of the tables on the couple’s roof have granite surfaces so they can withstand the winter.

“It’s heaven,” Golan says again. “It’s my joy.”
 


Next: A Restful Rooftop Retreat
 

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