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Shadyside tour benefits History and Landmarks scholarship fund

| Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ten years ago, David Brashear began a scholarship program that he hoped would foster an appreciation for Pittsburgh among younger generations.

This year, Brashear and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation are sponsoring a tour that will showcase sites to "help show the understanding of what makes Pittsburgh so great," he says.

The tour is part of the Landmarks Scholarship Celebration June 3 at Andrew W. Mellon Hall at Chatham University, Shadyside.

The event will feature the awarding of scholarships and comments from Brashear; Esther L. Barazzone, president of Chatham; and Arthur P. Ziegler, president of the History and Landmarks group.

But the focal point of the celebration will be a self-guided tour of three sites in the Woodland Road area at the heart of Chatham's campus. With wine, hors d'oeuvres and docents at each site, the tour will stop at:

• A Tudor Revival home with 11 fireplaces, stained-glass windows and dramatic woodwork. It was built by attorney Alexander M. Neeper in 1903 and is owned by Louis and Kathy Testoni.

• A home designed by Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, an advocate of Postmodern style. It was built in 1979-82 by Betty Abrams and her late husband, Irving, as their "retirement pad," she says.

• The renovated Mellon Board Room, which has replaced the swimming pool in the former mansion of Andrew Mellon, now owned by Chatham University. It was part of a $1.8 million renewal project.

The three sites are viewed as part of what makes Pittsburgh distinct.

"It is a city that is compact, yet it has a lot going on," says Brashear, a Pittsburgh native who is president of Edgewood Investors near New York City. Each year, the scholarship fund he founded awards grants to students who compete by writing essays that display their appreciation for the Pittsburgh area.

There have been 25 scholarships awarded since 1999. They are for $1,000 for each of the winner's four undergraduate years of college.

The celebration and tour, sponsored by the David and Janet Brashear Foundation, the Bank of New York Mellon and PNC, is, in some ways, an effort to call attention to the existence of the scholarships, Brashear says Louise Sturgess, executive director of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, says the tour shows off some of the city's hidden gems.

"We go from the very grand of the Mellon Hall, to a little less grand to the very modern," Sturgess says of the three sites.

The two homes vary greatly, but both are striking. Abrams confesses that she's a "frustrated architect" and says she and her late husband wanted to build a dynamic modern home on the site they found in the Woodland Road area.

"If we couldn't have gotten this spot, we wouldn't have built this house," she says about the home, which she hired Venturi to design after interviewing a handful of architects.

The house is at the base of a hillside that surrounds it on three sides and once was the location of a pool and creek. Abrams says she and her late husband raised the spot of construction 10 feet to be above the water, but the water disappeared after construction. A stone bridge remains, but it spans nothing.

Because of its "retirement pad" nature, the home only has two bedrooms, but it has an indoor lap pool and a large family room next to a kitchen-bar area. It is an example of the flexible-space school of design that Venturi and Abrams conceived before the notion became popular.

"I love to entertain, but I am also the cook," Abrams says. "So I wanted to be part of the party."

The home stands out in its use of color, from sky blue in the family room ceiling to the teal-inflected shades of the exterior. It is illuminated with skylights and massive side windows that allow natural light even on gray days.

The Tudor home owned by the Testonis is from 80 years earlier and has a different kind of appeal. Its entranceway, for instance, leads to a grand staircase in the center, sitting rooms all around and a kitchen with gourmet appliances.

"We sometimes sit on the floor in that entranceway with a glass of wine and just look at the woodwork," Kathy Testoni says.

The upstairs features four large bedrooms off a large area at the top of the steps. The property, just across the street from the Abrams' home, also features a carriage house that has been turned into a garage with an apartment above it.

The owners are adding a 6-foot-by-10-foot room off the kitchen that Testoni says will "allow her to look out at the garden without sitting at the island."

She jokes about being so concerned with maintaining the "integrity of the home" that it took them nine years to decide to have the work done.

Sturgess talks about how the tour came together when Abrams and Testoni, both trustees with the History and Landmarks Foundation, volunteered their homes. The use of Mellon Hall became a logical extension, Sturgess says, because of its location in the mansion of the fabled banker.

The newly renovated hall also provides a gathering spot for the event, Sturgess says, and shows off architecture in a different way. In March 2006, architect Ken Doyno began work on designing a meeting hall where there had been a swimming pool, which was rendered unnecessary because of the university's new recreation building.

Doyno, from Rothschild Doyno Architects in the Strip District, says the effort became a classic example of "project creep," with one job leading to another. He explains that it eventually was realized the room could be illuminated with tall windows below tiny light wells from the past.

Framework for those windows and nearby doorways was designed by Japanese woodworker Tadao Orimoto and made of mahogany, Danyo says. He adds that wood could be used only after it was certified to be taken from a forest area deemed environmentally unthreatened.

"The whole project had a very green nature," he says, pointing out that work on the meeting room was done without affecting the trees on the carriage entrance above it.

The project also created possibilities for masonry work on the exterior and the need for new paths leading through a nearby garden area.

Brashear believes the tour is an event that fits well with the scholarship-fund effort.

"It is a way to shine the spotlight on these great homes and on the scholarship fund," he says.

Additional Information:

More information

Landmarks Scholarship Celebration

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. June 3. Reservation deadline is Wednesday.

Admission: Tickets are $100. Sponsorships from $1,000 to $10,000 are available, each with tickets included.

Where: Chatham University, Shadyside

Details: 412-471-5808 or

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