Artist transforms old Troy Hill home into house of curiosities
The house's exterior gives nothing away.
From the sidewalk, 1812 Rialto St. looks like many other Pittsburgh homes: Yellow brick exterior, two stories with an attic, wide porch and white picket fence. The front window displays an American flag.
Then the front door slowly swings open. A bell tolls and visitors step into a dreamscape.
“Like going through ‘The Looking Glass,' ” said Holly Coleman, 36, who has visited Pittsburgh's first art house three times since its October opening. “You feel like a kid again. I absolutely love the feeling of it being an adventure, a secret adventure you never would know existed because it looks just like a normal little house.”
It is anything but normal.
The little house in Pittsburgh's Troy Hill neighborhood is blight transformed into art.
“La Hütte Royal” is the work of German artist Thorsten Brinkmann, who spent parts of two years recasting the once vacant house.
“I like the idea that you can create a new location for the viewer, that he gets that feeling of being somewhere else as soon as he enters,” Brinkmann told the Tribune-Review in an email from Hamburg. “With La Hütte Royal, it is really the case, that as soon as you go into the house it starts, and as soon as you go farther up or down you are losing your original feeling of where you are. ... You don´t know anymore that you are actually on Rialto Street.”
A 9-foot bell hanging in the entry hall greets visitors. They sidle past into the living room, where Brinkmann covered walls with old album jackets he found in the house.
“The house was full with stuff that people left there,” Brinkmann explained. “It was a really rough atmosphere.”
That's why Evan Mirapaul bought the house in 2011. An art adviser and “recovering professional violinist,” Mirapaul moved to Troy Hill in 2010 after 11 years in Manhattan. He immediately took an interest in nearby homes that others chose to ignore.
“As in many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and other transforming cities, there are structures that people want to renovate or gentrify, and there are structures that people don't,” Mirapaul said. “In my neighborhood, I'm not worried about the homes people want to renovate.”
Inspired by the Art House Project on Naoshimi Island in Japan — where artists use abandoned homes as an unorthodox canvas for large art installations — Mirapaul bought the building from the city for $9,000, brought it up to code, and called Brinkmann.
He created a beguiling series of dimly lit rooms, tiny hallways, secret crawlspaces and otherworldly quarters that provoke a sense of childlike wonder.
“Art always give you some sort of a feeling,” Councilwoman Darlene Harris said as she presented a proclamation to Mirapaul to honor La Hütte Royal. “When I was in the house, I sort of felt like ... like I was back in the ‘50s. It was so wonderful.”
Visitors can choose their path through the home.
In the basement, an old bicycle was taken apart and put back together with items found in the house — leather belts, baseball bats, a metal bedpan. A child's softball trophy, honoring the 1997 Troy Hill Ponytails, sits on a shelf.
A second-floor hallway is nothing but doors. Some do not open; others do.
One reveals a small closet where a child's trigonometry homework, left behind in the house, is taped to a wall.
Another door opens to a room with a red area rug and green couch.
“Here is where it gets interesting,” Mirapaul said, explaining that the visitor cannot exit through the door he entered. “How would you leave this room?”
There are no other doors, only a window with a 10-foot drop, and a small fireplace.
Mirapaul smiled as the visitor dropped to his knees and peered into the fireplace, where a carpeted, secret crawlway stretches deeper into the house. The true adventure had begun.
“I love to see people's reactions,” said Anne Stone of Aspinwall, who helped Brinkmann install the art, “especially when it's their first time.”
Stone recalled Brinkmann obsessing over details.
He wanted the home, built in 1812, to retain its gritty smell, she said. When Stone cleaned the upstairs bathroom one day without permission, “the blood drained from his face,” she said. “ ‘It smells clean up here,' he said. ‘You've ruined the smell of my house.'
“He was smiling when he said it, but he still used three layers of painter's tape to seal off the door so the clean smell would not permeate the rest of the house.”
Another day she walked into the basement as Brinkmann worked on a sculpture. He had this way of standing, Stone said, with his legs slightly apart and his head cocked to the side. She watched him reach out and make adjustments, moving a piece two inches here or two inches there, “and it changed the complete look of the piece,” Stone said. “To be able to stand there and watch his art be created in real time ... it was a gift.”
More than half of the materials Brinkmann used were in the house, Mirapaul and Stone said. Others they found in thrift shops and Construction Junction in Point Breeze.
Some spaces appear to be untouched. A closet in the basement, for example, contains tools and other items stacked with no apparent pattern.
The squatters did not leave it that way, Mirapaul explained; Brinkmann did.
“It's very difficult to make something look like it wasn't put together,” Mirapaul said. “It looks like he just threw all this stuff together, but in fact, it's all so deeply considered. Everything is made to look happenstance, but everything is there for a reason.”
The exhibit ends in the attic, where a short film projects on a wall.
Brinkmann is the star. He wears a red cape and holds a wooden staff. His head is covered with a white pale — as it is in framed photos throughout the house — and he sits in a chair. Seconds pass, and he changes positions. The scene plays out for several minutes, with Brinkmann trying every conceivable way of sitting on, or even lying across, the chair.
It feels whimsical, inspired perhaps by Monty Python.
Not so, said Mirapaul.
“It is the creative process,” he said. “He's trying every angle. That's the definition of creativity.”
La Hütte Royal is a permanent installation that Mirapaul will maintain as long he owns the property.
Visits are free, by appointment. Mirapaul's goal, he said, is to beautify his neighborhood and attract visitors. Since the art house opened, about 1,000 people have come, he said.
He plans to add art houses within walking distance of each other. Last year, Mirapaul bought another house on Rialto Street and commissioned Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski. His work has begun.
In time, Kusmirowski may be as transformed by the city as the house is by his art, Brinkmann said.
“I never expected that this time would have such a strong impact on me and would leave such a strong impression,” Brinkmann said. “In the beginning, I just saw the house and that big art installation.
“But the longer I did stay and work on it, I met the people. They were all asking me what I am working on and were very helpful. It is still sometimes strange for me, that there is La Hütte Royal now so far away. It is like I did build a house, for more than two years, and when it was ready I did not move in.”