Houses are like people in many ways. They tend to get better with age as they develop character and the rich patina that comes from living, and being lived in. Up to a point, that is. And then they start to require maintenance, and eventually, if they last long enough, more serious renovation.
Such was the case with this 1917 Colonial in Edgeworth, a gracious, sprawling home that sits above a lawn so expansive the Quaker Valley girls’ lacrosse team used it for practice when they needed real grass instead of turf.
Twenty years ago, the Wilson family was returning from an expat assignment in Brussels, Belgium. “We had spent a bit too much time in Europe,” Liz says, explaining that school was about to start and they had to get a house, fast. They looked at three houses and the one they chose, just a few blocks from where they had lived before moving to Europe, ticked all their boxes. Dan wanted a big yard, a big garage and his own study. And they knew the house well, having passed it many times.
“The architecture always appealed to us,” Dan says. “We looked at this house and I remember thinking, ‘We’ll never get that house.’ It had not been updated in decades. It’s like every house we ever bought; it needed everything.”
But on the bright side, Liz interjects, “We weren’t paying for someone else’s renovations that weren’t our style, not what we would have chosen to do.”
The clapboard house also retained most of its original charm. Designed by Pittsburgh architect William Boyd for Royal Goldsbury and his family, the site they bought from Mrs. Jimmy Oliver required that one of the largest chestnut trees in Western Pennsylvania be cut down. With its arched doorways, leaded glass fanlights, well-proportioned rooms and numerous fireplaces, it was classic Williamsburg. There was even a secret compartment in the paneled den where Mr. Goldsbury could hide his gun.
But the day the couple did their walk-through, there were huge amounts of plaster under the bedroom windows. “The real estate agent thought she would die and we wouldn’t buy the house,” Liz remembers with a laugh.
And that was just the beginning. The couple put on a new roof, replaced all 65 windows and redid the galvanized steel plumbing. They removed radiators and added air-conditioning. The third floor had been staff quarters, though there hadn’t been staff since 1968. Since there was no real place for their three children to hang out, the Wilsons added a bathroom and game room up there, giving the kids a nice piece of property to call their own.
A major priority was a new kitchen, and the couple brought in an architect to accomplish that wish. He suggested an addition, but their contractor had a better idea — if they took down the 4×8 chimney that divided the small kitchen from the maid’s sitting room they could create one large space while gaining 32 square feet of floor space.
“It had six flues and nothing vented into it. We felt a little bad but we had three big stone chimneys,” Dan explains.
DennyCampbell architecture + design handled the renovations on the third floor and the master bath, a large, luxurious space complete with a soaking tub and airy new windows. When it came to the furnishings, Liz took the helm. As a designer at The Antiquarian Shop in Sewickley, she was well-positioned to do the heavy lifting on a large house that had numerous requirements.
For starters, the couple enjoys shopping for antiques, especially when they travel. “We collected a lot of furniture in upstate New York when we were first married, we bought antiques in Europe, and we inherited treasured period pieces when my dad passed away,” says Dan.
But incorporating antiques into modern life is not as easy as arranging furniture.
“The scale has to be appropriate for the room as well as the people who are going to use the furniture,” says Liz. “If you have family pieces or antiques it’s important to have a mix of old and new. I always tell people to get new dining chairs because 100 years ago people were smaller and they will never be comfortable for people today.”
Liz loves fabric and color and jokes that she has to restrain herself from using too many patterns in a room. But most important is using the best fabric for the purpose — good-looking, durable and performance rated, especially for upholstery. She waited more than eight months for just the perfect hand block linen print for draperies.
Her love of color extends to the gardens outside, which the Wilsons have cultivated through the years. To the existing foundation plantings they added perennial beds and a shade garden. Giant, diseased trees were removed, opening up new vistas. And everywhere there are pots filled with flowers, especially on the stone terrace that runs the length of the house.
“I love the yard and being able to garden at will, with the exception of deer. I’ve learned every plant that is deer resistant,” Liz says. “And at the end of the day we love having a cocktail on the terrace.”
Sitting there looking over the great, sweeping lawn, which the front of the house faces, it could almost be 100 years ago. Mr. Goldsbury probably did the same thing, maybe sipping a sherry, in his beautiful new home.