This Handsome Stone Manor in Highland Park Has a Very Pittsburgh Story
Before being completely restored into a single-family home, the seven-bedroom property had been subdivided into three apartment units.
Beth Littleton got her first glimpse of her home-to-be in Highland Park via video from a Sony Camcorder.
The year was 2001, and Littleton was living in Virginia and expecting her second baby, when her then-husband, Chris Schunn, accepted a job as a professor with the University of Pittsburgh. He went to visit Pittsburgh with one mission — finding a home.
“I flew in for the day,” Schunn recalls. “I had given parameters to the real estate agent: five bedrooms, sizable back yard, off-street parking and a level lot — and it had to be in the East End.”
By the time it came to tour his last house for the day, he was losing faith he would find the right home for his family. Then he pulled up in front of 836 N. Highland Ave.
“It was a pretty impressive stone structure,” he says. “When I walked through the front door and saw the woodwork, I was obsessed.”
Soon after, Littleton received her video of the property.
Built in the late 1800s, the home was bursting with original details such as panel wainscoting, beautiful door casings, pocket doors and inlaid wood floors.
“I asked myself, ‘Why can I afford this house? Where is the disaster?” Schunn says.
The answer was that the property had been divided into several apartments, although that didn’t seem to bother Littleton.
“I did not mind the fact that it was chopped up,” she says. “The thing that worried me the most was I knew I was going to have to clean it; it had six bathrooms and three kitchens.”
It would take the former couple almost 11 years to restore the home’s footprint, plus several more to shepherd it back into the showpiece it once was.
The finished result is now on the market for $875,000 (MLS#1614968, Emily Fraser, The Fraser Team at Piatt Sotheby’s Realty, sothebysrealty.com.). An open house is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 22.
After being restored to a single-family dwelling, the 4,800-square-foot home boasts seven bedrooms, 3½ bathrooms and a detached garage on a ¼-acre lot.
Despite being turned into apartments, the property’s original stone exterior, porches and dormer details were all intact when Schunn and Littleton bought it, something that’s almost as remarkable as the home’s history.
According to the owners, the property’s early chapters opened with three men whose influence on the city remains to this day—William Flinn, Christopher Magee and Edward Bigelow.
Flinn was principal in the large-scale construction firm of Booth and Flinn. The company constructed trolley lines, streets, bridges and tunnels, including the Liberty, Armstrong and Wabash tunnels in Pittsburgh and the Holland Tunnel that connects New York and New Jersey.
Flinn was politically active and also intricately connected to Christopher Magee, whose cousin, Edward Bigelow, became a benefactor of what was then known as the “Highland Park Zoo.”
Flinn had a large parcel of land in Highland Park and made his move there when the city committed funds to the Schenley and Highland parks project in 1895. With it, came a commitment to improve streets and trolley lines that needed to be built to reach these new attractions.
Flinn quickly built and sold his 836 N. Highland home to Samuel D. Ache. Flinn then built a palatial Classical Revival home for his family at the entry to Highland Park. The design was done by the same architect who submitted plans for the original Highland Park Zoo buildings.
Ache’s son, Paul Smith Ache, was raised in the home and went on to become a prominent lawyer who represented Nora McMullen Mellon when she divorced Andrew Mellon in 1912. The legal action was notable because Andrew Mellon used his considerable influence to change the state’s divorce laws in his favor to be held before a judge instead of a jury.
Sometime around the late 1940s is when Schunn and Littleton believe the single-family home was converted into three units.
“The walls were covered with wallboard, some of the paneling was there,” Littleton says of when she first encountered the building. “Two thirds of the way from the first floor to the second had to be redone.”
Today, the revived entry is dramatic. A geometric walnut inlay border on the floor gives way to pocket doors that access the flanking rooms. Straight ahead is the back staircase and hall, which needed to be completely restored after it was removed to create an apartment.
Replacements for the missing wainscoting, railings and balusters were all fabricated from old growth oak found at Allegheny Millwork on the South Side.
After Littleton and Schunn removed the drop ceilings, they discovered the original plaster crown molding, now accented with a gold band, on the 11-foot-high ceilings.
The original fireplaces were intact in all of the rooms. The parlor, which has a plaster rope-and-vine detail on the ceiling, leads through a set of pocket doors to the dining room, where the floor has a Greek Key border in walnut.
“The dining room was being used as a bedroom when we bought the house,” Littleton adds.
The renovated kitchen has classic lines, hardwood floors and modern appliances married with some of Littleton’s favorite touches, including an apron-front sink and specialty tile from Tile & Design in Shadyside. The room is painted in a historical shade of green.
Upstairs, a marble basketweave floor anchors one of the second level’s two bathrooms. The white subway tile with a black border is a classic touch, but the real star of the show is a clawfoot tub. The other bathroom has green tile on the floors and ceiling.
The second level’s large bedrooms all have hardwood floors, including Littleton’s favorite space.
“The red bedroom; it faces North Highland and Jackson [with] windows looking over both,” she says. “The light in there is gorgeous.”
The third floor has three more bedrooms, including Schunn’s favorite space, a luxury bathroom.
“It has huge windows that face the back yard with the Sycamore trees,” he says.
Schunn and Littleton say local craftsman Thomas Lafferty was responsible for restoring and renovating nearly every space in the house.
“He just came every day and chipped away at things,” Schunn says. “In some ways, this became the house that Thomas rebuilt.”
Littleton says her hope is the spacious home will once again be filled with children who can create their own play areas, like her children did. Schunn adds he has fond memories of parties hosted there, including gatherings for the music programs at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.
“Our boys were in the choir. We were always the host for those parties,” he says. “It was so much fun.”
Drawing on her years of experience covering the region’s real estate industry, Rosa Colucci’s Hot Property takes an inside look into unique and historic homes currently on the market. Each week, Hot Property goes behind the For Sale sign to share the story of a special Pittsburgh area home. And four times a year, Hot Property will give an in-depth look at the region’s real estate market in Pittsburgh Magazine HOME, track housing prices and sales and detail where the hot properties can be found. Rosa can be reached at email@example.com.