By Brian D. Coleman | Photos by William Wright
Nineteenth-century Pittsburgh certainly had its share of millionaires—Carnegie, Frick, and Mellon, among others, called the Steel City home. When Letitia Caldwell Holmes, a wealthy young Victorian widow, decided to build a suitable home for herself and her daughter in 1868, she made sure it reflected her position among Pittsburgh’s elite. Named Holmes Hall to honor Letitia’s late husband, the house was set on two city lots facing the Allegheny Commons Park. (Across the river, Allegheny was a separate town until it was annexed in 1907).
The opulent Renaissance Revival-style residence boasts 18,000 square feet and features 14′ ceilings, carved black-walnut paneling, even a ballroom. Letitia, a prominent citizen and philanthropist, entertained in style, and had room to house comfortably her 14-member staff.
After Letitia’s death in 1915, her children’s families stayed on in Holmes Hall. With the dawn of the automobile age, it was no longer necessary to live downtown, and so in 1934 the families moved to the suburbs. Under the terms of Letitia Holmes’s will, the house became The Holmes Hall for Boys, a Christian home for young men living away to attend school. In 1954 “the old pile” was sold and became a funeral home. In 1979 it was sold again, this time to a developer who envisioned condos; his plans were stalled.
By the time John DeSantis saw the once-stately house, it had been vacant for nearly a decade. Plaster and painted ceilings lay in heaps on the ruined floors. A leaking roof wasn’t the only culprit. Much of the black walnut woodwork had been painted sea-foam green in the 1950s, and the elegant dining room was covered, top to bottom, in battleship gray. During a Colonial Revival update in 1915, canvas was glued clumsily onto the dining room’s masterfully decorated ceiling. There was no functioning kitchen; floors were laid in moldy carpet and linoleum. The funeral parlor’s fiberglass awning stretched from the front door to the sidewalk. The place reminded John of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
But the passionate preservationist wasn’t deterred. John had been living just two blocks away in a neighborhood of 19th-century row houses; the opportunity to rescue one of Pittsburgh’s remaining grande dames was too good to pass up. The house had never been divided; its sweeping grand staircase welcomed visitors into an interior with the original layout, black walnut overmantels, and 1870s hardware. A pier mirror remained in the ballroom.
Thus began a decades-long restoration effort that continues. Plumbing and electrical services required complete overhauls, no easy task in a house built to be “fireproof” with brick interior walls. The floors are 3″ x 16″ timbers on 16″ centers with a 4″ tray of poured concrete spanning the joists below the floorboards: no surprise that plumbing work took 12 months and rewiring 14 months, full-time; John made sure decorative woodwork and remaining ornamental plaster were not disturbed.
A mammoth old furnace was replaced with three boilers to more efficiently service the big house. Next came plaster repair and paint stripping, floor refinishing , and finally, restoration of the painted ceilings. Artists had documented the original patterns with tracings and color-matched each detail on large cartoons, and they used these to guide application of oil paints directly to the plaster, as had been done originally. The dining-room ceiling, saved by the glued-on canvas, was 80 percent intact. Gilded plaster buttons removed in 1915 were replicated; molds were made from original buttons found in the basement.
After four years of full-time restoration, John DeSantis and his family celebrated their first Christmas in the house in December 1992. Slowly, a collection of Renaissance Revival furnishings grew; most pieces were local, having been deaccessioned from neighboring mansions. In came a Herter Brothers parlor set that originally belonged to the Mellon family; huge bronze andirons by Caldwell & Co.; an intricately carved rosewood dining table, sideboard, and server that once belonged to Henry J. Heinz. For the ballroom, John bought a pair of bronze chandeliers with full-bodied swans, which were made in 1840 for an iron baron. Lucky finds include the newel post light, a 5′-tall bronze maiden found at an auction in Atlanta. John recognized her from early photos of the house. When she came home, the fitting screwed right down onto the long-vacant gas pipe.
Holmes Hall changed John’s life—and Pittsburgh. He helped lead the fight when the city planned to tear down the neighborhood for a freeway. It was instead rezoned as a City Historic District with protections. John has served for more than a decade as Chairman of the Historic Review Commission, which has helped protect more than 4,000 buildings.Published in: Old-House Interiors January/February 2012