McKeesport couple restores old home to its former glory
There are many storied homes in McKeesport, but years of economic decline in the city has rendered many of these once majestic houses into the equivalent of great books with most of their pages gone.
Homeowners Duane Turnbull and Marlene Fait Schmalz are trying to reverse that with their home on the corner of Jenny Lind and Soles streets. For the past three years, they have been bringing back the former glory of the structure, which once housed a funeral home and dates to the early years of the 20th century.
Schmalz, whose parents ran what once was the Richard L. Fait Funeral Home, spent a portion of her formative years living in the house. She, her parents and two siblings called the second and third floors of the building home, while the funeral business occupied the first floor and basement.
Many of the current furnishings date to Schmalz's childhood. Chairs her mother Mildred Hagel Fait embroidered and ceramic switch plate covers she had hand painted are among just a few of the home's interiors that Schmalz received from the estate of her mother, who died in 2008 at the age of 99.
“It's a mystery how she saved it all,” Schmalz said of her mother's collection, which also includes larger items such as a bedroom set. A yellowed scrap of the New York Times in a drawer reminds her that her mother special ordered the set from New York.
The front section of what the couple now calls the Mildred Fait House has a formal feel about it, containing as it does so many period pieces. Inlaid hardwood floors and a wood staircase are some of the built-in features Turnbull has carefully restored. He's also refurbished heavy wood-framed arches and stripped away years of paint that covered marble around the base of fireplaces in the home.
There were once six functional fireplaces in the 14-room house. They are all decorative now, but Turnbull said high-efficiency heaters keep heating bills relatively low, even with the old-fashioned water radiators.
Turnbull indulges his enthusiasms farther back in the less formal passages of the home. He's constructed an impressive model train layout in what once was the funeral home chapel.
The couple is skilled at showcasing their lives through old saved items and photos. There is a love note Turnbull once passed to Schmalz in the hallway at school – they both graduated from McKeesport High School in 1962 – plus reminders of the many years they were apart from each other.
The couple dated in their teens but went their separate ways. Turnbull went into the Air Force, then on to college and a career writing proposals for Naval projects as an independent contractor. Schmalz went to college and became a school teacher. Neither stayed in McKeesport; both got married and raised children.
Turnbull, who dated Schmalz when her parents separated in the late 1950s, never knew she once lived in the old funeral home.
The property had been abandoned by the time he returned to the city three years ago and Schmalz was living around Wilkes-Barre, still teaching school. Turnbull and Schmalz, now single, reunited via Classmates.com. At about the same time. Turnbull discovered the house was on the market and also learned that it had been an old girlfriend's home. Initially he didn't think much of the house could be saved except for maybe its garage.
Upon closer inspection, Turnbull recalled, “I said, ‘Gee, I can restore that house.'” He bought the property and began a campaign of major repairs. He replaced the roof, painted brick exterior, replaced old windows and fixed a broken water line.
“It was a much larger project than I originally thought it would be,” recalled Turnbull.
Schmalz moved back to the city about 18 months ago after retiring and bought the house from Turnbull, thereby putting her family name back on the property title.
The couple shares their home with their cat, Mr. Busy, and dog, Nicki.
Richard L. Fait ran an ambulance service out of the funeral home — a photo of the coral and white Cadillac remains in the family collection — and he also kept a helicopter at the Allegheny County Airport for emergency medical transports. “My father was always an innovator,” Schmalz said.
Turnbull, who grew up in Christy Park, credits his boyhood friend and current state Constable Joe Clemente with helping him bring the house back from the brink of destruction.
Clemente said Turnbull sees the house as being symbolic of McKeesport as a whole. If it can be brought back to its former glory, so can the city.
“He has vision,” said Clemente. “He's hoping to see McKeesport turn around.”
Indeed, Turnbull does have big plans for his hometown. Drawing on his skills as a project planner, he has created a $20 million proposal to tear down much of the city's dilapidated housing, rebuild along the riverfront and create new townhouses along Jenny Lind Street.
Turnbull gave his proposal to city officials a few months back, but said they have yet to respond. Though he admits the price tag is high, he thinks federal grant money might be available for at least a portion of the work.
For now, Turnbull and Schmalz hope their house will inspire others to reinvest in the city.
“This isn't the only house like this,” said Turnbull. “There are hundreds of houses here where people could do this.”
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.