Nicole Santella wasn’t impressed when her husband first showed her the rundown Yingling mansion in Wilkinsburg.
The 30-plus room house on Wood Street had served over the years as Wilkinsburg’s hospital, a convalescent home and a personal care facility.
It was abandoned for two years and a wreck when Santella and husband Brian Sieffert bought it in 2016.
“He had to bring me around a couple times,” Santella said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing to me? I’m outta here.’”
Students from Pittsburgh Urban Christian School and the Environmental Charter School tour the inside of the Sleeping Octopus house in Wilkinsburg on May 10, 2019. (Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review)
They’ve since restored the mansion built in 1907 by Roswell Gardner Yingling, the owner of a Kittanning brick company, and now permit organizations and community groups to use it for events and exhibits. They also live there and have come up with a quirky name: the Sleeping Octopus.
Santella said she conjured the name Sleeping Octopus because the sea creatures sleep curled up. When they awake their arms reach out in all directions.
“This property has great potential, and it’s just kind of asleep,” she said. “It has potential to engage the community in multiple ways. We wanted to dust it off, shine the light on and say we’ve woken up the sleeping octopus.”
There were holes in the ceiling, walls were painted institutional green and original hardwood floors were covered with vinyl tile. Hallways featured exit signs and emergency lights, the doors were made for a hospital, and the place was filled with old hospital beds.
Sieffert said it was like all the residents just got up and left. There was still food in the basement. Clothes hung in the closet. Decks of cards were left on the bed.
“It was like everybody just disappeared,” Sieffert said.
Anne Elise Morris, president of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society, said Yingling was born in 1853 and died in his home in 1922. He was married to Marion Milliken Whitehall in 1877.
“The Milliken name was well known in Wilkinsburg for being brick manufacturers, but I do not know if that’s how Roswell got his start in brick manufacturing,” Morris said. “We have some knowledge that he might have combined his brick manufacturing with another to form the Martin-Yingling brick company but we do not have that information verified.”
The Yingling mansion was built on top of what had been a lake on the 31-acre estate of another wealthy Wilkinsburg resident, John F. Singer, an iron manufacturer. The property was broken up into parcels and sold as housing lots after the Singers died.
In 1927, the Yingling family sold the mansion to a group of doctors who created the Wilkinsburg private hospital, according to Morris. The building housed the Miller Nursing Home and the Gibbs Personal Care Home after the hospital closed.
A room is seen inside of the Sleeping Octopus house in Wilkinsburg on May 10, 2019. (Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review)
Santella and Sieffert have immersed themselves in the Wilkinsburg community. Sieffert serves on the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. board of directors. Santella serves on the borough’s planning commission.
They said they fell in love with the community and its residents, who are working to revitalize the downtrodden borough. They wanted to restore the mansion as an example of how vacant properties can be repurposed without public subsidy.
Sieffert, the owner of Artemis, a design and construction firm based in Lawrenceville, said he decided several years back that he wanted to concentrate on community revitalization. He had experience in construction. Santella is an engineer with Duquesne Light and an artist.
“Specific to what we would like to help with in Wilkinsburg is sustainability, which means construction and design, gardening, food growth, bringing people together,” Sieffert said. “That’s our background and what we would want to do. When you show them that things can be done then they listen.”
Volunteers help with yard work on the grounds of the Sleeping Octopus house in Wilkinsburg on May 10, 2019. (Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review)
The house has become a hub for community activities, according to Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp.
“I don’t know that people do what they’re doing any place else,” Evans said. “They have a real commitment to the community and to making change. I think their biggest piece is trying to get people involved in the community, fixing up vacant houses, and doing that in a sustainable green-type method.”
Last year, the Junior League of Pittsburgh held its signature Show House event at the mansion. Rooms were decorated by various local interior designers and proceeds benefited the organization.
Monroeville artist John Shook has hosted Art Jam exhibits, in which local artists show and sell their work and perform live art. Shook has scheduled his next Art Jam for June 29.
The grounds also serve as an educational experience for local school children. One a recent Friday, kids from two Wilkinsburg elementary schools were on hand to help prepare a pollinator garden for the season.
Students from Pittsburgh Urban Christian School and the Environmental Charter School help with yard work on the grounds of the Sleeping Octopus house in Wilkinsburg on May 10, 2019. (Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review)
The couple also hosts pot luck suppers, teas and educational seminars.
Clifton McGill, 68, a longtime Wilkinsburg resident, is in charge of the gardens. McGill said he’s using the grounds as an example of how Wilkinsburg can be a green and sustainable community.
On June 22, speakers from various environmental organizations are scheduled appear for a public lecture entitled the “Sustainable Home and Garden Symposium: Working Together for a Greener Wilkinsburg.” McGill said they would address such topics as water management, wildlife habitat and pollinator gardens.
“We feel that Wilkinsburg is on the rise and has the potential to sort of reinvent itself and make some great strides,” he said. “In the process we don’t want environmental concerns lost. We feel that one of the greatest assets that Wilkinsburg has is the land.”