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King Estate's Victorian splendor restored

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By Jill King Greenwood
Saturday, July 30, 2011

When Frank and Maura Brown bought the historic King Estate in Highland Park 17 years ago, they saw decades of neglect inside the stately Second Empire palace.

Interior walls had been haphazardly spray-painted white and black, track lighting was nailed into original handpainted artwork dating to the 1890s and water damage seeped through walls. Canopies, balconies and a 16-foot finial were missing from the Victorian mansion on Elgin Road.

But the Browns saw potential in the eight-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath mansion originally built in 1880 by Irish immigrant and glass manufacturer Alexander King. They bought the home and the nearly two acres it sits on from the city in 1994 for $150,000 and set to work.

"It was a mess in here. Uniformly disastrous," said Frank Brown, a physician internist at Veteran's Hospital. "We just approached it one job at a time."

Nearly two decades later, the exterior and interior renovation of the home to restore it to its original Victorian splendor is complete, and the Browns have put the home up for sale for $2.1 million.

"It's been a journey, and when we bought this home, it was in danger of being torn down, so we're declaring victory and moving on," Frank Brown said. "We realize it's going to take a fairly unique buyer to be interested in the house."

Alexander King and his second wife, Sarah Cordelia, raised their four children in the 8,375 square feet of living space. Their only daughter, Jennie, went on to marry Richard B. Mellon and had children including Sarah Cordelia Mellon, who became Sarah Scaife and is the mother of Dick Scaife, publisher of the Tribune-Review.

When Alexander King died in 1890, his widow -- who went by the name Cordelia -- began updating the home, adding a wing on the west and a wraparound porch. The front parlor was updated with gilded plaster, the billiard room was carefully papered in Bradbury & Bradbury, and the library was hand-painted with golden griffins.

The Browns envisioned the rooms and exterior of the home as they existed a century before with the help of a set of 28 glass slides. These, they enlarged to see fine detail, including light fixtures, walnut wainscoting and exterior red brick, which after Alexander King's death were coated in a century's worth of white paint.

During the first two years of the renovation, the couple and their oldest child, Frank, now 19, lived in a Shadyside townhouse. After moving in, they had daughter Meredith, now 13.

"They grew up in this construction zone, so this is just home to them," said Frank Brown, who spent years scouring auctions and online sites to acquire the period-appropriate furniture for the rooms, which have 12-foot, 9-inch ceilings. The home had to be wired for electricity and the plumbing and boiler replaced. The Browns may offer the furniture as a separate sale.

The Browns did some of the work, in addition to writing checks and hiring contractors and specialists, including muralist Celeste Parrendo, who re-created a ceiling mural in the Gold Room parlor featuring cherubs floating in the sky. Parrendo redid an original artwork on a wall in the parlor featuring an envelope with a Pittsburgh postmark and the words, "To my Jennie" that Alexander King had created for his daughter.

"What they've done is truly amazing," said Howard Hanna Realtor Kelly Meade. "It's a magnificent property."

When Alexander King's last surviving son, Robert Burns King, died in 1954, he left the home to the city with the provision that it be used as a facility for nonprofit arts organizations and educational purposes. If the city could not maintain it, the agreement called for its demolition. For years, the city held art camps there, used it as a polling site for voters and later the Boy Scouts and the Audubon Society were housed there.

The house was in serious disrepair when the Browns approached officials in 1988. Six years of meetings and legal proceedings followed when some Highland Park residents wanted to King Estate to remain in public hands.

An agreement was finally crafted giving the Browns the right to buy the house, with the stipulation that it remain as a single-family residence to buyers.

Ellen Botkin, 31, remembers sledding on the property's natural bowl, attending art camp in the mansion, taking piano lessons and tagging along when her mother would cast ballots there a few years before the Browns acquired the home.

"To us, it seemed like the oldest house in the world," said Botkin of the North Side. "I have so many fabulous, wonderful memories of that house."

As you enter the home, an unfinished piece of a wall to the left of the entryway is a reminder of what Frank Brown would like to see completed before he walks away from the house. The wall contains carpenter's pencil drawings of a balustrade, which the Browns have rediscovered, and an ornate, beveled glass mirror, which has disappeared.

Next to the contractor's drawings are the doodles of Alexander King's children, dating to 1880. One section exclaims, "Annie is a monkey!" and the Browns did historical research through an 1880 Census record to discover that the King family had a 15-year-old maid named Annie living on their third floor with other servants.

Frank Brown hopes to find an original photograph of the missing mirror and have it remade with hinged side panels that would open to reveal the historic writing underneath.

"The owners have showed us how we should treat our historic buildings, which is to return them to the best design of their periods," said Art Ziegler, CEO of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. "This house is a very important piece of Pittsburgh's history."

The Browns said they haven't decided what their next move will be, but they're ready to downsize.

"I think a small bungalow somewhere would be perfect," Frank Brown said. "We hope the next generation of owners will love it as much as we have and continue the work."

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The King Estate

The King Estate

The King Estate was built by Alexander King in the late 1800s and was obtained by the city in 1954. The Browns bought the house in 1994 and have invested over 17 years into restoring the building to its original state.

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