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Stunning structures can be seen throughout Penn Hills

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
The sides and back of Joe Perri's Saltsburg Road home look like many other houses. But the facade on the front, built by marble- and stonemason Frank Leone, is unique among Penn Hills properties.

(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on architecturally interesting or eye-catching properties in the Penn Hills area.)

Interiors of several standout Penn Hills homes were showcased at a house tour last fall hosted by the local community development corporation, but plenty of properties have eye-catching appeal from the outside, too.

The first temple

The Sri Venkataswara Temple on McCully Drive, the first Hindu temple built in the U.S., probably is the most unique of all the buildings in Penn Hills, if only due to its ornate exterior.

Anywhere one looks along the outside, there seems to be a decorative sculpture, portico or frieze. Artisans from India created the intricate trappings, according to temple trustee S.K. Reddy of Murrysville.

“There are specific guidelines as to how you must build a temple,” Reddy said.

Constructed in 1976 and expanded in the years since, the temple bears the same name as one in Tirupati, part of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, although the design is different. Renowned Indian architect Ganapati Sthapati designed the temple.

Reddy said the white exterior is common among Hindu temples, but the change of seasons in the U.S. makes it difficult to maintain, both in color and strength.

“In India, there are temples built 1,000 years ago which do not leak,” Reddy said. “I cannot say that about this one. The freezing and thawing cycle here makes it more difficult.”

Quite the facade

As a boy growing up on the 6000 block of Rodi Road, Joe Perri decided he wanted to live in the castle up the street.

From the side, 6381 Saltsburg Road appears like many suburban homes, two stories of yellow-tan brick broken up by the occasional window. Viewed from the front, however, it could be mistaken for an Italian villa or even a small medieval castle, thanks to a dark stone facade with several prominent archways.

The home was built over a 10-year period, between 1950 and 1960, by original owner Frank Leone, Perri said.

“I always admired the house,” said Perri, 55, who bought the house from Leone's widow in the early 1980s. “It was really something to look at.”

Leone was a marble and stonemason, and when Perri moved in, he discovered a stash of leftover, fine Italian marble just sitting in the backyard.

As a young man, Perri would help Leone move stones or the marble. Perri said leftover marble from Leone's other jobs was used to build a marble staircase, which leads to a five-room second-floor apartment, where a friend of the Perri family has been a tenant for more than a decade.

Leone originally built it for his daughter to live in after college, but she opted to move out, and Perri said Leone's rules for tenants were so strict that he rarely had one.

“He was very old-world Italian: ‘You will not drink in this house; you will not party here.' And he lived right downstairs, so he was able to enforce those rules,” he said.

The house retains many of its former owner's trappings, from a stone greenhouse on the front porch to the original pulley that Leone used to haul and place façade stones.

The work is custom, sometimes to a fault, Perri said.

“Nothing is perfectly square,” he said. “He was a master mason, but none of the windows or doors are standard size … when I wanted to replace the old, wooden garage doors, I had to have them special-ordered.”

But Perri would not have it any other way.

“As a kid, I used to cut the grass for Mr. Leone and say, ‘One day, I'm going to live here,' ” he said. “And now it's happened.”

The cement church

One building on the 2000 block of Universal Road, or Main Street, stands out: a church whose design appears inspired by buildings in the Southwest, or possibly even the Spanish missions of California.

The United Presbyterian Church of Universal building will be 85 years old, and the congregation will mark its 100th anniversary, in 2015.

The church was designed by Emmert F. Harchelroad, who was manager at the Universal Atlas Cement Company at the time.

“While he was (at the plant), he got a degree in architecture from Carnegie Tech, which is now Carnegie Mellon,” said Pastor Roger Stuart. “That was one of his projects at the time.”

Stuart said the church's exterior, which at first glance resembles adobe, actually is cement veneer.

Harchelroad also was one of the organizers of the Penn Hills YMCA.

Patrick Varine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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