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Area homes draw praise, criticism for unusual exterior designs

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2001

Sameness often is considered a virtue in suburbs such as Cranberry and O'Hara townships, where many houses appear to have been cloned from their neighbors.

But some homes, and some homeowners, defy the pattern and call attention to their individuality.

Two such houses, on Mary Street in Cranberry and Field Club Road in O'Hara, have earned the admiration and ire of their neighbors.

In the early 1980s, what looked like a giant Conestoga wagon - made of polyurethane - rolled into Cranberry and parked at 407 Mary St.

Richard Panizza trucked the house in sections and assembled it amid the conventional frame houses that make up the rest of the neighborhood.

The unique dwelling began as a model home on display near the old Greater Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township. Panizza said the house appealed to him for practical and aesthetic reasons.

The weight of the "roof" section, which is shaped like half of a tube, is supported entirely by the short side walls, so the interior is one large, open space.

Panizza's living room has a 20-foot ceiling, and the 1,600 square feet of floor space is about 60 percent more than other houses in the neighborhood.

And at a cost of $8,000 - $3,000 for the land, $2,500 for the house and $2,500 to move it - the home was also a lot less expensive than those around it.

But Panizza loves the house for more than practical reasons.

"I like to be an individual," he said. "I just liked the novelty. I like things that are different."

Panizza admits that "it seems inappropriate, architecturally speaking, for the neighborhood. Mine is not harmonious with all the other houses on the street."

He knows not all his neighbors share his enthusiasm for what some call the "cave house." "Some of them give me grief," he said. "One housewife doesn't even talk to me."

Roy Lott, who lives right across the street, used a colorful expletive to explain what he thinks the house looks like. "I think it takes away from the neighborhood," he said. "Everybody new around here looks at it, and they say, 'Look what an eyesore you got.'"

Lott moved to Mary Street in 1976, before the wagon house rolled into town, and he said many neighbors object to the house. He also thinks it brings down everyone's property values.

"I know it does," he said. "The guy on the other side couldn't sell his house for what he wanted."

Neighbor Lettie McHale said opinion in the neighborhood is mixed.

She moved in 15 years ago, after Panizza's house went up.

"I think it's interesting and unusual," she said. "It does not bother me that it's a different house in the neighborhood." Martin Prekop's home also is different from those in his O'Hara Township neighborhood.

Prekop isn't the type to spend a lot of time working on his home - unless that work includes affixing individual mirrors to every single brick on the house.

Prekop, dean of the School of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, has altered virtually every inch of his home and property at 897 Field Club Road.

"I would never dream of just working on the house, unless it was an art project," he said. "(The house) has been the central piece that I've been working on in Pittsburgh."

Besides the mirrored bricks, he has festooned the trees with mirrors, bottles and gourds, painted the interior walls and furniture in bold black and white wood-grain patterns and turned the swimming pool into a fish pond.

The exterior of the house resembles a giant mirror ball. Inside, visitors can travel through the looking glass by gazing at a wall covered with large photographs of the house and grounds.

Prekop began altering the house soon after buying it in 1994. He started with one bathroom, with the idea of creating interesting surfaces to photograph. The exterior mirroring, now nearly complete, got under way four years ago.

Prekop, who had a show of photographs of the house at Pittsburgh Filmmakers last spring, said there is another reason he altered his house so radically.

"This house was so neutral, if not downright homely, that you don't have much to lose," he said. Prekop said reaction from neighbors has been mixed.

"A few people definitely think it's too weird for the neighborhood," he said. "The hardest part is it seems like people buy houses as investments rather than to live in, so I think people are nervous that I might be messing with the resale value of their houses."

One neighbor refused to talk about Prekop's house, but another, Linda Kratsas, said she likes the house and admires Prekop's commitment to his art.

"It doesn't offend me," she said. "I think it's very interesting. I understand he is very art-oriented with CMU, so I just look at it as a way to express what he likes."

Kratsas said she does not think living near the mirrored house adversely affects property values.

"Our house is on the market, and we've had so many people go through the house, and nobody has ever brought that up, ever," she said. "That so far hasn't affected our selling point."

Prekop and his wife, Martha, said the neighbors have adjusted to the not-so-suburban home in their midst, and most of the feedback they get is positive.

"I enjoy having a special house, and a lot of people come by to stop in, to ask about it," he said. "We get a lot of interest in it, and we like that."

Homeowners associations keep status quo


Unusual homes like the ones owned by Martin Prekop and Richard Panizza wouldn't stand a chance in most newer suburban developments.

In subdivisions built in recent years, homeowners' associations have been established to set rules spelling out what is and is not allowed.

Tracy Brockway, who lives in the Pinehurst development in Cranberry Township, said eye-catching homes like Prekop's and Panizza's would not be allowed there.

Under the rules of the Pinehurst Homeowners Association, homes must be painted in earth tones - no mirrors allowed. Garage doors cannot face the street, swimming pools must be in-ground and no boats or campers can be parked in the yard.

Brockway said the reason homeowners' associations make and enforce such rules is simple - it's all about property values. She said people in Pinehurst and similar developments tend to be corporate employees who might be transferred to another part of the country at any time.

"We're a pretty transient neighborhood, so all the corporate-moves people come here, and it's partly because they know all the houses are so similar, and they know they'll be able to resell the homes because all the standards are kept."

Brockway and her husband both work for large corporations, and, she said, "probably 85 percent of the people in the neighborhood are in the same boat."

But neighborhoods like Panizza's and Prekop's predate the advent of homeowners' associations. So, as long as property owners don't violate local zoning ordinances, they can build how they like.

"There doesn't seem to be a law against it here," Prekop said. "If it was against the law, they would have got me already."

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