Thursday, June 13, 2013

Starr Houses: 1715 and 1717 Denniston Street

Wow! Get ready for a photo tour of another positively stunning house!

I am re-writing and re-posting this entry, because I got to explore the inside of one of the Starr Houses: 1715 Denniston in Squirrel Hill. You might notice that my photos were taken in two different seasons. Also, a few of them were found on a realtor's website.

This truly was an act of exploration, because while I'd budgeted 30 minutes of my day to walk through the house, I accidentally lost track of an hour while roaming around inside. The incredible details and unique floor plan were conducive to exploring -- back stairs took me up to a half-floor with mini bedrooms, and more stairs led to a stunning master bedroom or sprawling attic. Even the basement was rich with rooms. Then, there were all the beautiful details to appreciate!

Let's start at the beginning.

The Starr Houses are twin homes tucked behind all the action of Forbes and Shady in Squirrel Hill, at 1715 and 1717 Denniston. They've been standing since 1927.

This pair, built for Albert Q. Starr and his family, ushers in a period of work that Martin Aurand describes as "up-to-date and familiar" because, he writes, it nods more to the "banal present" than the historical past. When I read that, I assumed that the houses must be somewhat straightforward or plain inside. I was wrong.

These beautiful homes, which suggest medieval castles, were commissioned to straddle a pre-existing driveway and common space.

The Starr Houses

1715 is currently for sale. (The asking price for the 5-bedroom, 3.5 bath home is $639,000.)

The realtor told me that Mr. Starr worked in the concrete business, so his solid homes were made out of concrete -- they're never going to creak! She also let me know that the home was formerly owned and inhabited by famed Pittsburgh boxer Billy Conn. (He died in 1993 and the home was sold in 1998.)

Let's go in!

1715 Denniston

1717 Denniston

1715, which we're going to explore!
The garage was originally described as a "two-car garage." Those two cars would have to be Model T's!

1715. Stunning.

The first thrill in my visit to 1715 was discovering that the front door is curved. This heavy, solid door and the glass inside it are curved, which sets the tone for a house that just spills from one airy space to the next. The whole first floor is filled with circles, from a ring-shaped foyer with a slightly domed ceiling to a kitchen that seems to enfold you in a hug. The patio and driveway, too, are playfully devoid of straight lines. 

Unmistakable Scheibler window in the curved front door!

Stunning, round foyer

This photo shows a built-in coat closet in the amazing round foyer. Its doors, too, are curved and hold stained glass.

Stained glass light in the foyer. There's a similar one in the entrance to the Old Heidelberg.

Be still, my heart.

View from the living room into the foyer, with dining room yonder.
When I walked in, I was immediately blown away by this -- a mosaic, log-burning fireplace that is flanked by two purple glass panels. Sunlight illuminates the panels with a gorgeous purple glow. 

The realtor told me that one of the previous owners of the home completely --and inexplicably-- walled over the purple stained glass, the lanterns inside, and the incredible fireplace. A subsequent owner was working on the outside of the house when they discovered the stained glass and had it uncovered. That family had the mosaic fireplace reproduced. (Read more about this in the comments below!) The lanterns, she said, are Scheibler's original pieces, which were just covered over inside the walls.

Purple: my favorite color!

Let's move on to the dining room, where you can see the floors, which are made out of cork. I don't believe I'd ever had the pleasure of walking on cork floors before--at least not that I was aware of--and I loved the gentle, almost-imperceptible bounce under my high heels.

The dining room
Dining room opening into kitchen

That's when I discovered a back stairway out of the kitchen! I know Scheibler intended for visitors to explore the house from the main, grand staircase, but this secret staircase beckoned. 

The back (servant's?) staircase took me to a sub-floor between the first floor and master bedroom floor. It held two mini bedrooms, each with a crawlspace for storage, and it also held a black-and-white bathroom. 

This bathroom reminded me of the black-and-white bathrooms in the Old Heidelberg, which makes me suspect that they look the way they do because of Frederick Scheibler, and not the landlords, Mozart Management! (More on this in the comments, too!)

Apologies, but my friend Ken and I were having too much fun. Also, we matched the bathroom. 

Bathroom window, which faces the twin house at 1717 Denniston.

This is the set of mini-stairs that leads to the main second floor. There were built-in storage cubbies throughout the houses, like you can see in this stairway.

This level held a larger bedroom, the master bedroom, and another room, which I could see being a bedroom or a bright, welcoming den with a window seat. Newer shelves make me think it has functioned more recently as a library or media room. Check out the stained glass inside the doors!

Second floor bedroom. Scheibler, ever progressive, offered his-and-hers closets in so many of his bedrooms!
Second floor bathroom

Here we are in the master bedroom, which faces Denniston and has more cork floors. 
The thick windows definitely made me feel like I was in a medieval castle.

There were mirrors inside the closet doors. Apologies again.

The master bedroom has its own immaculate bathroom, which looks to have been updated and redone with white and amazing iridescent green tile!

Back in the hallway, you can find stairs to the attic, which was also recently redone. It has a large and a small room. The stairs hide more discreet storage areas. 

View, from the smaller second bedroom, to the attic stairs

Smaller attic room


Now let's take the main stairs back down. They're made of a beautiful slate.

Let's head all the way down to the basement. Below is a mosaic of the floor that leads to the back door or basement staircase. Once downstairs, a hallway offers a bathroom, laundry room, storage room, utility closets and a large game room.

Finally, we took the basement stairs to the back door and out to the patio, which I was delighed to see held stars... for the Starr family. (Nope! Wrong! Read more about this in the comments below!)

And last but not least, a berry patch!

I feel so lucky to have been able to explore this beautiful home. Well done, Frederick Scheibler! You're going to make another family very lucky, a century after you conceived this place.


  1. Hi, I am the previous owner of this house, from 1998-2012. Glad you loved it as much as we did. I have some information to add.

    First, the basement and patio were finished by Billy Conn, so he was the one who put in the stars on the patio (sadly, not the Starr family). He also had a red leather bar in the basement which was taken out recently, and a very interesting carved asphalt tile floor (which we had to take out because it was crumbling after 50 years of use; the current owners put in the light colored floor) -- it was quite the "man cave."

    We restored the curved fireplace from copies of the plans that Martin Aurand at CMU has in the architectural archive. Marie Louise Conn told me that she "was too young and had too much money" when she moved into the house when she married Billy at 18. Her father thought the house looked too "old fashioned" and she took his advice and "modernized" the living room, cemented over the stained glass and ripped out the fireplace. We had her over to see the restoration in 2012 and she was very happy that we had cherished her home and restored it so beautifully. The original fireplace also had ceramic tile (some of it was left inside the wall), but, to tell you the truth is was wide-set in concrete and was a very dark blue. I just didn't like it, so I kept the theme (vines in the tile along the top, more simple tiles beneath) but updated it to the light-reflecting copper inlaid mosaics you saw. But the curve of the mantle and the walls next to it, are true to the original plans.

    We redid the kitchen and two upstairs baths you described. Both those bathrooms originally had Carrera glass, which was used in hospitals because it could be sterilized. Unfortunately, glass tile in that era were not tempered, so by the time we got the house, several tiles in each bathroom had cracked and if you leaned against the wall, the cracks would cut you and you'd come away bloody. So we had to redo the bathrooms. The black-and-white bathroom _looks_ older (like the Old Heidelberg), but I just designed it out of my own experience. I centered the design around the three-section vanity mirror that I found at Le Mix in Regent Square and built shelves into the wall behind the hinges side sections of the mirrors. Pieces of the original Carerra glass form the tops of the small side cabinets next to the sink.

    The iridescent green tile in the master bathroom was inspired by a picture of a 1929 bathroom in Arts & Crafts Home (a magazine) that had iridescent blue-and-purple tile, with the white outlines and a lovely white ceramic crown molding (I can't find the picture on-line - it was only in the paper magazine). So the iridescent tile and white outlines are authentic for the era, even though I went for green/gold instead of blue/purple, as a more restful color. When the early morning sun comes flooding in, everything turns to rainbows -- truly a joyful way to start a day. Unlike the original, we used glass walls for the shower, so when Marie Louise saw it she said "Billy would have loved this! He was always after me to do something about that small dark bathroom!" Not so small-looking or dark at all anymore.

    (see next comment - I'm limited by the maximum number of characters allowed in a comment)

  2. (continued from previous comment)

    The lovely broken-tile floor in the back entryway was done by a friend and local artist, Daviea Serbin Davis. You may know her work from the installation just beyond the security area of the Pittsburgh airport. When you sit down to put on your shoes, look up and on one side is "Pittsburgh Then" in smoky grays and fiery reds. On the other side is a green and blue and vibrant "Pittsburgh Now". The backyard of this house is immortalized in "Pittsburgh Now" -- look just to the right of the two fried eggs (commemorating Pamela's in Squirrel Hill) and find a big tree that has two blue vertical lines and a brown cross-piece. This represents the swing in the backyard of 1715 Denniston (with our brown dog next to it) -- I don't know if the swing is still in the backyard, but it was a favorite of the neighborhood kids when we were there. Back to the floor -- Daviea signed it in the corner behind the door in green-gray tile, She used triangle-shaped tiles for the Ds of her initials and three smaller triangles forming the central S in her initials. So when she becomes world-famous, that floor will be worth a mint.

    Again, thanks for appreciating this very special house we enjoyed for so many years. I'm hoping the next owners also appreciate its quality, features, and heritage.

    Bonnie (now just as happy in an 1892 apartment half a block from Central Park in NY)

    1. Dear Bonnie,

      A million thanks for your comments! I am so excited that you found my blog and contributed to this post!

      Thank you for correcting me about some guesses, like the stars and the black and white bathroom. You have a wonderful eye for design, as the black and white bathroom looks elegant and authentic and the iridescent green bathroom is just stunning.

      Thanks for all of the info. I appreciated every bit of it. If you have any photos you wouldn't mind sharing, drop me at line!

      I'll have to check out your blog, too!

      Thank you again. So nice to have crossed paths!


  3. WOW! Impressive blog about an impressive pair of twin Scheibler houses. I have seen these many times, but only from the outside. Well, Scheibler has the last laugh on anyone intending to ever do away with the curved front doors on these twin houses. You're not going to find curved front exterior doors at Lowes or Home Depot! Also, I am delighted to find that subsequent owners of these houses have not replaced those wonderful steel casement windows with their original leaded glass inserts still intact. These historic steel casement style windows are almost certainly to be, if I had to guess, Hope's or Crittal brand windows. I think Crittal is still in business. It would almost be a crime to replace these and yet I have seen it happen to several beautiful Pittsburgh homes. The interior of the house shown in the pictures is stunning! It reminds me of Eliel Saarinen's work at a house he designed for his family at Cranbrook. By the way, anyone reading my comment that have contemplated replacing their steel casement windows, please consider restoring them first. They can be reconditioned to better than original condition and the original glass can be replaced with laminated glass if energy efficiency is a concern. However, if the windows have leaded glass inserts, like these Scheibler houses, instead of steel muntins, then I would leave them as is and just simply have the frames and hardware reconditioned.

  4. The basement laundry picture is revealing in that one can see that open web steel joists were used to frame the floors instead of wood floor joists typical of the time period, even to the present day! Also, instead of ordinary basement style windows, Scheibler specified the same windows used elsewhere in the house. These twin houses must have had an extraordinarily high budget and just before the stock market crash of 1929!

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