A few blocks up from where W. North Ave. runs alongside Allegheny Commons Park is the heart of the Mexican War Streets. Like some other recently revitalized neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, the Mexican War Streets has survived an era of high crime, the push for commercialization and total demolition. In the late ‘70s there was a plan to wipe these streets off the map and build an on-ramp to I-279. Thankfully, community organizer Randy Zotter took it upon himself to fight the city and won.
Today, Victorian row houses pop with charm and color and cars are parked bumper-to-bumper on tree-lined streets. Stroll a few blocks on Monterey Street, past the pub, and you will walk by the newly restored Candy Factory, otherwise known as Dan Wintermantel and Leslie Vincen’s “House Project.”
The bricks have been washed off and its big storefront windows remain, allowing passersby to peek inside. On evenings when the seats at the counter are taken and the wine is flowing, non-locals have been known to mistake the busy kitchen for a new restaurant. Yet, as warm and welcoming as Dan and his wife Leslie can be, and as much they love to entertain neighbors and guests, 1521 Monterey Street is their private home.
It’s neighborhoods like The Mexican War Streets where the foundation of Pittsburgh is alive and well, where your next-door neighbor might be 72 or 32. In this particular neighborhood, Allegheny City Central has reported an upswing in the number of 30-something couples buying homes.
What’s the big draw to this 27-acre historic district that used to be known only for its crime? Other than the obvious—“affordable homeownership”—many couples said the same thing when asked that question: We just fell in love. And that was pretty much how it was with Dan and Leslie when they moved into the neighborhood almost two decades ago.
The couple had been looking to relocate from their home in up-state New York and ran through options: Buffalo, Rochester, Erie … Cleveland? Nope. Pittsburgh? Yes. After an open-minded search for an affordable home in several different areas of Pittsburgh, they bought a house on Monterey Street, which happened to be next door to an old candy distributor. For over a decade Dan and Leslie watched several people try and fail to save the abandoned building, which sat roofless for the past 30 years.
In 2007 it was condemned by the city, and in 2012 plans were made to demolish it the following year. Dan and Leslie could not allow that to happen so they decided to to investigate what it would take to make a home out of 1521.
There were parts of the building that were simply not salvageable. Instead of taking the route of a whole home restoration, they wanted to see if they could preserve the existing exterior and build from the inside out. All they needed to do was buy the property, acquire a building permit and find a team to help with the project.
It was 2012, just four years after the burst of the housing bubble, and no banks were comfortable lending to homeowners looking to buy a structure that had been condemned by the city.
“There was a guy who worked really hard to piece together five loans, but he still couldn’t get enough,” says Dan. Before giving up, the couple was referred to the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group (PCRG), an organization with a mission to battle blight.
In 1988 a group of community leaders formed a coalition with the aim of working with member organizations to advocate for increased neighborhood investment. Since then the PCRG has grown in its efforts to bring private and public financial resources to distressed neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s urban core. Dan and Leslie’s “House Project” was right up their alley.
“This [the sale of 1521] would have never happened without the PCRG,” says Leslie. “We never could have gotten a bank loan and this would have not been possible.”
The next hurdle was acquiring a building permit, which proved to be a tedious endeavor that had Dan back and forth on the T several times a day, negotiating legal minutiae with the City of Pittsburgh. The next step was finding a demolition crew to start the restoration process. The first crew took one look and said no way, and another man left running for his truck. Finally, they found a man who welcomed saving this structure as a brick-by-brick challenge. In time, architect John D. Francona of Astorino and contractor Dave Menk of Premier Renovations, made up the team that would turn the 8,000-square-foot space into a spectacular home on a $300,000 budget.
Rather than fill the entire structure with a house, the couple’s plan was to build a 2,300-square-foot house, a courtyard and a garage, all of which would be inside the pre-existing brick walls. Dan calls this an “an adaptive restoration.”
The big windows stayed to bring in tons of natural light, extra bricks from the walls were laid down for the courtyard, and standing in Dan and Leslie’s bedroom you can see the old terracotta tiles, credited with preserving the foundation, now topping the brick walls of the courtyard.
Today the Northside is peppered with successful row house projects such as 1521. In neighborhoods such as these, innovative minds are doing what they can to work with what already exists. Not only are there possibilities to buy affordable homes, but for those who have a little creativity, tenacity and patience there is an opportunity to upcycle old Pittsburgh.
“PCRG can make something happen in an otherwise challenging market,” says Dan. Fewer people are opting to wipe out neighborhoods to create new ones, but instead people are learning to unearth the structures that have been there since the beginning and working to build from the inside out. In doing so, we can give Pittsburgh credit for preserving its original buildings and its original communities.
Next time you saunter up Monterey Street and the party is on in Dan and Leslie’s kitchen, wave hello. You might end up chatting at the kitchen counter or maybe even three flights up to check out the breathtaking cityscape from the new roof of 1521.