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McCook mansion in Shadyside returns to 'Millionaires' Row' glory

| Sunday, April 25, 2010

When Richard Pearson noticed a "for sale" sign six years ago on the former Willis McCook mansion in Shadyside, he didn't see a massive edifice scarred by fire and broken windows. He saw potential.

"I came and looked at the place so many times. I drove by every day," said Pearson, 59, of Shadyside, a preservationist.

Convincing his wife, Mary Del Brady, also 59, that they should plunk down $1.5 million to buy the 20,000-square-foot home was another story.

"I'm sure it's beautiful, but you're nuts," she told him.

The house was built in 1906 for McCook, the personal lawyer for industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The cost to convert the Fifth Avenue mansion into a boutique hotel and renovate a smaller home built for McCook's eldest daughter has reached $8 million, said Pearson, who has done historic renovations in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but nothing as large -- or complex -- as the McCook property.

The McCook mansion is one of the last great houses on the so-called "Millionaires' Row," a section of Fifth Avenue so named because the prestigious address included the financiers and industrial titans of the era.

"It was an age of affluence and a small, closed society," said Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. "They surrounded themselves with well-ornamented, well-designed architecture."

The main McCook house will include 13 rooms and suites. The smaller house, built in 1917 for Bessie McCook-Reed on part of the property that faces Amberson Avenue, is about 8,000 square feet and will include 10 rooms. A September opening is planned for what the couple calls the Mansions on Fifth.

"It's a beautiful setting that honors the past and provides modern conveniences and very personal service," said Brady. "It's for those looking for an experience, as opposed to just a hotel room."

The three-story limestone mansion was built by the Pittsburgh architectural firm of Carpenter and Crocker for McCook, his wife, Mary, and their 10 children. It reflected a world of opulence with oak-paneled walls, stained-glass windows and a grand staircase.

"It was a beautiful house," said Martha Perego, 83, of Oakland, granddaughter of Willis McCook. "I remember I was 15 or 16 ... I would go to very elegant parties in evening clothes."

Perego, who kept some furnishings from the house, last visited the mansion in the late 1930s. She and a cousin, Edward McCague of Fox Chapel, are the last remaining relatives in the region.

The family lost the property during the Great Depression. Emil Bonavita Sr. and his wife, Margaret, purchased it at sheriff's sale in 1949. They lived in a first-floor apartment and rented the rest of the house to college students. In the 1960s, they bought the McCook-Reed house for their son, Emil Jr., and his wife, Marie.

Margaret Bonavita had a lengthy interview process for tenants, who included artists, actors and musicians as well as architects and scholars.

"One guy lived in the chapel. We called him Father Charles," said Mark Rosen, a designer known for his package designs for the fragrance, cosmetic and fashion industries, who lived there while he attended Carnegie Mellon University.

When Bonavita wanted to get rid of a tenant who lived in the attic, she told him Willis McCook had a relative who went mad living there. One night, Rosen helped her drag chains through the halls. The unwanted third-floor tenant left soon after.

Living in the house "was an incredible experience for me," Rosen said.

Albert Brooks, Shirley Jones and George Peppard are said to have lived at McCook. Brooks attended Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon, in 1966-67. Peppard attended Carnegie Mellon and made his acting debut in 1949 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Shirley Jones studied at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and performed with the Civic Light Opera.

The renovation project had its share of setbacks, but Pearson remained "steadfast in the face of endless difficulties," Ziegler said.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks provided a bridge loan of about $1 million to save the buildings, develop a restoration plan and secure full funding.

"I've never seen such tenacity," said Ziegler, who called the mansion part of the gateway to Shadyside. "We thought it was a really important preservation project."

The project cleared a number of hurdles, from zoning issues to neighborhood concerns over parking, traffic, landscaping and hours of operation, said City Councilman Bill Peduto.

At one point, another developer proposed bulldozing the house to build condominiums.

"It was not a simple process," Peduto said. "There were times I didn't think it would happen."

In the middle of it all, the bank crisis hit, forcing Pearson to look for nontraditional sources of money: ERECT Funds, the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, private investors and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks.

"We had to make adjustments as we were going along," Pearson said.

There were concerns about how the project might impact the neighborhood.

"I think it was the intent of everyone in Shadyside to preserve that property ... to restore something we all wanted to see restored," said Peggy Ott, president of the Shadyside Action Coalition.

Pearson met with the group at least 10 times over three years, Ott said. In the end, all of the concerns of nearby residents were resolved.

"So often, great treasured buildings get saved by people with a great passion ... a lot of times, these projects are not easy," said Wendy Nicholas, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's northeast office.

The project has become a source of pride for those working on it.

"Our landscaper, it's like it's his. ... Everybody falls in love with this place," said Brady, who met her husband in first grade in McKeesport.

His family moved away when the two were in third grade, but they reunited in high school, becoming best friends.

"He was cool; I was a nerd," Brady said.

They married after their 25th high school reunion. Their daughter, Jennifer Pendleton, got married in the McCook mansion in December.

They had about 175 guests in the great hall, and the ceremony was performed in front of a semicircular bay of stained-glass windows, which Pearson said have been traced to the Ruby Brothers, Pittsburgh craftsmen.

The Young Preservationist Association of Pittsburgh listed the McCook mansion on its top 10 list of preservation opportunities in 2006.

"It was one of our premier sites," said Dan Holland, president. "It's just another example of how preservation is impacting Pittsburgh. It's a great ending."

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'Row' homes

In addition to the McCook mansion, three other great houses from 'Millionaires' Row' remain on Fifth Avenue:

Negley-Gwinner-Harter House: Built in 1870 for attorney and Civil War veteran William B. Negley and his wife, Joanne, and remodeled in 1911 by Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling for contractor Edward W. Gwinner. The Second Empire house is the oldest on Millionaires Row.

Moreland-Hoffstot House: Built in 1914 for Andrew Moreland, who held various positions in the iron and steel industry in the early 1900s. Moreland lived there through 1926. Henry Phipps bought the house in 1929 and lived there until his death in 1967. He served as vice president of operations of the Pressed Steel Car Co. from 1918 to 1933 and president of its subsidiary, the Koppel Industrial Car and Equipment Co., from 1918 to 1936. His son, Henry, extensively restored it. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Hillman House: Built in the late 1870s as a red brick, three-story with 10 rooms for James Rees, a prominent boat- and engine-builder. In 1919, John Hartwell Hillman Jr. bought the property and commissioned Benno Janssen to design a new house. But Hillman eventually decided to remodel the house instead. E.P. Mellon, architect for Renaissance buildings such as the Forbes National Bank and the Falk Clinic, encased the old house in limestone. It remained in the Hillman family until 1975.

Source: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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