Why the “Mushroom House” is Rooted in Pittsburgh History
Designed by noted local architect Frederick Scheibler Jr., the home along Beechwood Boulevard has a notable rounded roof that makes it resemble the fungi.
When Dr. Brent Cain wanted to persuade his wife, Dr. Melanie Costa, to move from Highland Park, he found a sentimental way to do it.
The big stone house he admired on Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill, designed in 1922 by noted local architect Frederick Scheibler Jr., still had most of its creator’s Arts and Crafts-inspired interiors — including blonde mahogany paneling and animal carvings, decorative parquet floors and colorful, art-glass windows and dividers. There was an acre of yard for their two girls to explore and a low wall in front for privacy.
True, it needed a good deal of work, especially replacing its steeply pitched, rounded roof (which had lost the original cedar shingles that gave it the appearance of thatch). But the roof was actually a selling point. Reshingled now, its bulging mass cascaded over the front porch and porte cochere in a way that makes the house look like a mushroom, which tugged at Costa’s heart.
“Everything for me is mushrooms. I love mushrooms,” says Costa, a dermatologist.
She keeps a picture of one a friend made her as a gift. For the couple’s first date, shortly after they met in their first year of medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, Melanie made Brent mushroom ravioli. Both admit they had not heard of Scheibler before, which is not surprising. The extraordinarily creative man never quite became famous, though in a career spanning five decades, Scheibler completed about 100 commissioned jobs, almost all residential and with the vast majority in Pittsburgh and its environs.
He also seems to have had a thing for mushrooms, reliefs of which decorate the front of his Old Heidelberg apartments in Point Breeze. Scheibler’s Parkstone Dwellings on Penn Avenue go even further with their exterior ornamentation, with tilework mimicking elaborate oriental rugs draped below the second-story windows. That complex was conceived the same year as the house on Beechwood Boulevard, which also features decorative tiles throughout and is built of the same eastern Pennsylvania schist.
Cain, an anesthesiologist, says his favorite feature is the almost cavernous arched stone fireplace and hearth, which is 8 feet high and dominates the living room, its stones shimmering with mica. Like the rest of the house, it is packed with custom additions, including a clock, mirrors, colored glass and carved wood light fixtures.
The couple it was originally built for, Scheibler’s friends Eva and Frank Harter, apparently quibbled over the flourishes, which Frank encouraged but Eva derided as “doo-dads.” The showpiece home was the first to be built when that block of Beechwood Boulevard was being developed near the then-new Frick Park.
Frank Harter was a Russian Jewish immigrant and had Scheibler put a wall mosiac in the foyer of his mother dipping candles back home. He had prospered as a liquor importer and owner of a bar on the South Side. Prohibition brought problems, and in 1920 state troopers pulled over a convoy of four trucks outside the Old Overholt distillery near Scottdale, seizing 1,275 cases of illegal whiskey and arresting the men inside — including Harter, his brother and another relative.
The U.S. Marshal sold the condemned booze in 1922, valuing the lot at $100 a case, which presumably represented a sizable hit for Frank and Eva. They moved to Europe, along with their young children.
Harry Bitner, publisher of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, and his wife, Evelyn, owned the Mushroom House for a while. So did nightclub manager Emil Steiner and his wife, Gizella. For two decades it was the home of Lillian and Julius Halpern, another Jewish immigrant who built a successful toy and novelty company and then started a bank.
Somewhere along the way, the fireplace was hidden behind a large mirrored wall and the wood floors covered by deep pile carpeting so thick it required shaving off the bottoms of the wooden doors to let them swing. But a large carved eagle remained perched on the stairway newel post. It became almost like a pet for the boy who grew up there next — Malcolm Harter, Frank and Eva’s grandson.
The family had not stayed long in Europe. Their middle son, Earl, was a piano prodigy and played a recital at Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall in 1933. Their oldest, Miriam, ran one of the city’s first intimate cocktail lounges, the Casbah in Shadyside, with her father in the 1950s. Earl and his brother, Leo, became surgeons, and both purchased several prominent historic properties in the city.
That’s how Malcolm, Earl’s son, got to grow up in his grandparents’ house. The next generation of Harters tore out the mirrored walls and pulled up the carpeting. Malcolm’s grandmother Eva eventually moved back in too; so did Miriam, who stayed there the rest of her life. When Malcolm sold the property to Cain and Costa in 2013, he says he thought about keeping the eagle, since it symbolized so many memories. He decided not to, and is relieved to hear the current owners have preserved it.
“It’s good to know the eagle is still there on the banister,” Harter says. “I wanted to take it with me, but it belongs with the house.”