Cory Cope and Jennifer Owen spent 10 years renovating a former power station on the North Side into their dream home.
photos by cory morton
When Cory Cope and Jennifer Owen first laid eyes on the more-than-century-old former power station in Perry South, it was hardly anyone’s idea of a dream house.
The empty brick building was painted a heinous shade of green, a previous mudslide had filled a back room with dirt, and water from the surrounding hillside flowed into the building like a stream before emptying into a drain in the floor. Most of the windows were either boarded up or missing. There were holes in the roof.
The couple, who own Flyspace Productions, an event management and production company that produces events such as the Three Rivers Arts Festival and Picklesburgh, weren’t turned off, though. In fact, they instantly fell in love with the place.
“We pulled up and I said, ‘We’re buying this place,’ without even seeing the inside,” Cope recalls. “After seeing the inside, it should have deterred us, but it did not.”
That was 10 years ago. In the decade since, Cope and Owen have spent nearly all of their nights and weekends, every moment they could spare — and some they couldn’t — making the commercial building, which once powered the Federal Street trolley and later spent time as a print shop, into a home.
Last April, the couple finally moved into the 3,000-square-foot building, which is on track to become Platinum LEED certified as a single family home, the first in Pittsburgh and possibly the first adaptive reuse project registered in the state, according to Owen.
Most of the features that make it LEED certified, including insulation and sealing that make the home airtight, cannot be seen, but it’s the home’s more obvious attractions, such as the original exposed brick, ductwork, sleek modern kitchen and overall industrial-chic aesthetic that catches the eye, including those of Pittsburgh Magazine’s panel of judges, who named it Best Renovated Home for 2018.
“You could just tell what was new and what was existing,” says Stephanie Schill Hayden, an architect at Schill Architecture and a designer at House of L Interior Design. “They made them harmonious together, but they didn’t try to cover up what was already there. They used the structural walls. It was neat.”
When Cope and Owen bought the building in 2008, they thought they would spend a year, maybe two, renovating it. Never did they imagine it would take a decade, but the couple — who married in 2010 — did everything themselves as time and money allowed, even as friends and family called them crazy.
“I think both of us have always just been the type where when we decide we want to do something, we put our heads down and do it,” says Cope, a 2012 Pittsburgh Magazine “40 Under 40” winner. “If there are bumps in the road, we keep going.”
Partway through the process, the couple, who ended up purchasing a small house in nearby Marshall-Shadeland to live in as they renovated the house on Federal Street, also decided to go for the Platinum LEED certification. This caused them to rethink their plans for the property.
“We had to put the brakes on for a second and re-evaluate everything we were doing,” Owen says. “So not only did it take a minute to replan our building, but we also had to add a whole lot more to the process.”
One of their first steps was to repair and add a new roof to the building to stop the numerous leaks. They also began the arduous process of removing the paint, which Owen describes as a “hospital green” color, from the bricks.
The couple briefly considered hiring someone to sandblast the building, which only would have taken a few days, but after finding out the high price, they decided to do it themselves — by hand.
Using angle grinders, Cope, Owen and Cope’s dad — who traveled in from Johnstown on weekends to help them throughout the renovation — spent six months grinding paint from every single brick in the home.
“It was extremely time consuming,” Cope says. “You could only do it for so long before you couldn’t take it anymore.”
Breaking things into systems, the couple also ran electrical into the building, which had no outlets, and added plumbing. The home’s downstairs living room retains its original concrete floor, but Cope and Owen were forced to tear up the floor in what would become the kitchen and bathrooms to run water lines.
“We tried to keep as much of the character of this place as we could,” Cope says. “We didn’t try to hide some of the rougher areas of it because I think that’s why the building is so cool.”
The industrial feel carries into the first-floor master bedroom and bathroom. Where there once was a garage door, the couple added a giant window. Just outside is an outdoor patio, which used to be the building’s boiler room, and the space still retains the original chimney.
A walk-through closet leads to the master bathroom, where Cope and Owen added radiant heating under the concrete floors. Concrete also was used to create the sink and a giant, 40-inch-tall corner tub the couple poured in place themselves after building the molds from wood.
“You can float in it,” Owen says. “My stipulation for a tub was I didn’t want to have to choose between my knees and my shoulders being underwater.”
The open-concept bathroom doesn’t have a traditional shower. Instead, a giant shower head, called the "Pipe” by Italian company Boffi, stands in the middle of the room.
“It’s pretty luxurious,” Owen says of the oversized fixture, which the couple purchased shortly after buying the house and waited nine years to install. “It was our big splurge, really, for the entire house.”
Judges praised the couple’s style choices, which carry throughout the house.
“The plumbing fixtures enhance the industrial modern aesthetic,” says Jodi van der Wiel, an associate design director at Cleveland-based Vocon architecture and interior design firm. “It fits really well in the space.”
The bathroom ceiling also is covered with custom wood panels created using 100-year-old redwood that was pulled out of an old hunting cabin in Ligonier; the couple ran it through a planer to restore it to its original beauty. Most of the wood found throughout the home, including bookshelves built from an old stage, are pieces the couple found and repurposed.
“We would search Craigslist and Construction Junction,” Cope says. “Any time we thought there was something we could use, we’d buy it and stick it in a storage trailer that we had out front until not long ago.”
The couple designed all of the home’s doors, which have a custom metal skin or wood inlay fabricated by Technique Architectural Products in Wilkinsburg. The company also created the home’s indoor and outdoor railings and made the custom indoor bent steel staircase that leads to the second floor.
Room to Entertain.
The sleek and modern kitchen, which has concrete floors the couple poured and then covered with a white epoxy paint, features floor-to-ceiling maple cabinets, stained a dark grey smoke color, for ample storage space. There’s also a wine cooler and built-in coffee maker for the self-confessed caffeine addicts.
The giant, white quartz island has a five-burner cooktop and a retractable down draft hood centered in it. There's also a speed oven and a steam oven located next to a convection oven, all by German brand Miele, placed in the walls. There’s a built-in refrigerator and freezer that spans 6 feet across and two dishwashers. All of the sleek black matte brass fixtures are by Brizo.
Above the island, where a hole in the roof once was, is a lengthy clerestory. Light also filters through the kitchen via LED lighting placed above translucent plastic sheets that most often are found in greenhouses.
Cope and Owen, who both have degrees from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama — Cope’s in technical direction and Owen’s in production management — built the lighting themselves.
“Coming from a theater background, we’re often making things look like other things, and I think that’s part of the reason why where, if we couldn’t find the light fixture we wanted, we built it,” says Cope.
“We got a lot of quizzical looks at Home Depot,” Owen adds.
Although they’re hard-pressed to pick a favorite room, the couple say they particularly love the kitchen.
“It’s where we spend most of our time,” Cope says. “We both love to cook and bake, and we love to entertain in the kitchen. That’s how I was raised. We would cook all day and hang out in the kitchen, so we knew exactly how we wanted our kitchen to be.”
Room with a View.
Upstairs, the expansive hallway, which leads into the home office and library, features oexposed ductwork and giant chestnut ceiling joists, which Cope sanded by hand. The overhead lighting is strips of LED lights in different lengths, again built by the couple.
The upstairs den, which Owen calls their comfy, cozy TV room, has a view of Downtown — although that wasn’t always the case.
When the couple bought the property, there were several neighboring derelict buildings, some of which burned down in 2010. Although the fires were enough to send the couple, worried their home would catch fire as well, into a panic, the aftermath revealed a stunning view of Pittsburgh’s buildings.
Now, the room’s design makes the most of the vista. A series of small, square windows, designed by architect and CMU professor Jason Morris, draws the eye to different views of Downtown. Where two walls meet, there is a cornerless glass window.
“We tried to make everything point toward the city to capture this incredible view we have from up on the hill,” Owen says.
The floors, which look like wood, are actually cork, and the walls, which look remarkably like cork, are OSB wood, which typically is used as an underlayment for walls and roofs.
“It’s like a substructure, but we liked the pattern that you could get from it,” Cope says. “We installed and sanded it by hand for about three days.”
The upstairs also features a second bedroom, as well as a guest bathroom that is just as luxurious as its master counterpart. In fact, Owen and Cope joke family members have asked if they can vacation in the spa-like space.
“We didn’t want to feel like we didn’t do the same level of finish on the guest bathroom as we would have done on our bathroom, so we put the same level of design into it,” Owen says.
That bathroom, which had only a single moldering toilet, features a spacious walk-in shower with built-in stainless steel canisters for shampoo, conditioner and body wash.
There’s also a deep, stand-alone tub. Both the floors and the walls, as well as a door designed by Cope, are covered with dense Ipe hardwood, which usually is used for decking and is resistant to rot and mildew.
“I know everyone says we’re crazy for putting wood in a bathroom, and we may be in five years,” Cope says. “For now, it’s holding up pretty well.”
After 10 years of work, and three hundred thousands of dollars on top of their original $60,000 investment, the couple can hardly believe most days that they’re living in their dream home — and that it’s complete. It’s only in the last six months that Cope and Owen began finishing rooms and moving in their furniture.
“It’s just unreal,” Cope says. “Looking back on it now, it makes any frustrations or delays or years of work pale in comparison to what we got.”
And while the couple is done with their house, they aren’t done with their plans.
They’ve embraced living on the North Side, which, on nice days, is within walking distance to their office in the Cultural District. Early on in the renovation process, they became involved with the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council. “We wanted to make sure that we knew who our neighborhood committee was and that we were working with them to make sure we were doing everything properly,” Owen says.
The couple also has purchased 16 plots of lands adjacent to their property that once held homes that either burned or were torn down. There still is one building left, which the couple hopes to turn into a rental unit.
As for the rest of the open space, the couple is making plans for an urban farm.
“Our goal is to work with the groups to do an urban orchard that the whole community can be part of,” Owen says. “If you need an apple, come grab and apple. It would be a community space that we would help maintain and manage.”
Kitchen Cabinet and Tile Installation: Pittsburgh Remodeling Co.
Kitchen and Laundry Appliances: Don’s Appliances
HVAC: Trigate Mechanical
Gas: Bartolomeo Plumbing
Lighting fixtures: Cardello Electric Supply & Lighting
Excavating: Mullen Excavating
Roofing: JL Robinson, Inc.
Landscaping: Lawn Sense
Concrete: Pittsburgh Mobile Concrete