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North Side neighborhood house tour is a friendly affair

| Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004

Karl Owens developed more than a passing fondness for the North Side as he worked on renewing 12 homes in the neighborhood.

"It's quiet, it's comfortable, we like it," he says. "This is a place where your neighbors become your friends and your friends become your neighbors."

That attitude has led him to undertake an ambitious, 18-month restoration of what is now a 13-room home along West North Avenue. It is among properties to be featured at the 35th annual Mexican War Streets Home & Garden Tour on Sept. 12.

Owen's West North Avenue home -- co-owned by Tim Ohrum -- centers on its Victorian look, but the men also have given it a heavy contemporary flavor.

The tall building had been divided into three apartments, all clustered around the staircase, which was an area common to all of them. The pair quickly started to turn the 1870 home back into a one-unit dwelling.

"We closed on it Jan. 21, 2003, and we started work on it Jan. 21, 2003," Owens says.

The first floor was changed into a living room, dining room, kitchen and mudroom, which also has a flight of stairs to the second floor. The mudroom also is connected to a three-car garage that they added to the rear of the property.

One level up, there is a large room that is the library and Ohrum's office, two bedrooms, a media room and Owens' office, which looks out the back.

"He gets the library and the view," Owens says of Ohrum's vista of West Park and the city, "and I get the deck."

The top level has a huge master suite with a multilevel bathroom and an exercise room.

The men designed the changes in the home themselves, Owens says, and have been able to accomplish most of the renewal through the work of craftsman Kris Ohrum, Tim's brother.

"I'm like part of the family now," Kris Ohrum says as he works on the front doors. Says Owens, "He's like our Eldon," referring to the apartment handyman on TV's old "Murphy Brown" show.

The house was purchased for $150,000, Owens says, and more than $200,000 has been put into the renewal.

The owners tried to make the home easy to stay in for long periods of time. Owens is a real estate broker and Ohrum a lobbyist for the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania. Both do a fair amount of their work at home, he adds, and they wanted an area "where we could stay all day if we wanted to and be comfortable."

The 21-property home and garden tour is a way officials of the Mexican War Streets Society try to show off their neighborhood, which was on the brink of demolition in the late 1960s until interest in the broad collection of old homes there saved it.

"It's a great little neighborhood," says Barbara Talerico, president of the group, which sponsors the event. "We want to help initiate people to an area that they might normally not find themselves in."

The area began developing just after the Mexican-American War in 1848 and continued through decades that saw the emergence of a range of architectural styles. When the automobile sparked the first round of suburbanization in the 1920s, many of the large houses were divided into apartments or became boarding homes.

The area's decline wasn't put into check until efforts were made by the War Streets group and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Talerico says the tour is an attempt to keep interest in the area alive. She thinks it's working -- between 1,500 and 2,000 people are expected to take part in the self-guided tour. Most of them, she says, are suburbanites, drawn to view types of architecture that they normally don't see.

Owens and Ohrum have been involved in renewing homes since 1993, but this is the first time one of their places has been part of the Mexican War Street tour. That's mostly because they were marketing the other houses as they worked on them and didn't feel comfortable telling a new owner of a house that he had to show it off to the public, Owns says.

But this one is different. While he admits "every home has a price," Owens thinks they are going to sink roots into West North Avenue.

"So we felt like we had to be part of the War Streets tour this time," he says. Additional Information:

Details

Mexican War Streets House & Garden Tour

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 12

Admission: $15 in advance, $20 day of tour, $12 group rate with minimum of 10 people

Where: Ticket booth at Monterey Street and West North Avenue

Details: (412) 323-9030 or www.mexicanwarstreets.org

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