Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Hidden Gem, and It’s Right Here
by Mike Crawmer
Research can be work, or it can be fun. For me, seeing how other people live is both work and fun. Pittsburgh has more than its share of neighborhood house tours, and I’ve been to most of them. But nothing beats touring a home that has been called “one of the finest private estates in America.”
If you’re thinking Fallingwater, sorry, that’s not it. This estate—which I visited last week in a rare tour—is north of Pittsburgh, on a forested hill in the small mill city of Butler (who knew?). The homes of the nouveau riche and the landed gentry feature in my WIP. Since I’m not a part of either of those two groups, I figured this tour would fill in for my lack of knowledge and imagination when it comes to describing how the wealthy live.
It did more than that. It left me awe-struck.
Consider this: The caretakers, a middle-aged couple who tend to the mansion’s dust and plumbing and such, live on the estate in their own 10,000-square-foot, pink marble “house.”
The main house—a sprawling mass of limestone, leaded glass windows, peaked roofs and lead (yes, lead!) gutters and downspouts—was built for a local oil and gas producer at the outset of the Great Depression for $1 million. Its current owner—whose other homes are in Monaco, Salzburg, and New York City—added a $20-million underground extension sometime in the ‘80s. This addition features a 24-seat theater, a library with a Gothic arched ceiling, and separate rooms for part of his vast photography and music collections. And let’s not forget the fireplace in one sitting room that the original owners salvaged from the former home (palace? castle?) of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife.
Other interesting details: A butler’s pantry as big as my living room with a walk-in silver safe. Two Tiffany stained glass windows in the photography room. One of only four exact replicas of the Eros statue from Piccadilly Circus, London, perched high atop an column at one end of the vast, impeccably manicured pool terrace. Exquisite hand-made wrought iron railings, sconces, and fire screens throughout. A wood-paneled room where a flick of a hidden switch opens the panels to reveal a secondary library. A long, narrow English oak table that can seat 44 for dinner. Immodest marble and bronze statues of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, nymphs and satyrs throughout (no fig leaves here).
And, yet, despite the exquisite workmanship, the romantic Tudor-style ceilings and the crystal (we guessed Lalique) chandeliers in the powder rooms, the mansion felt like a home, not a showplace. It was warm, welcoming, even cozy. It was a house to be lived in—even if the owner (whose personal wealth is estimated $650 million) only stops by for brief visits in the spring and fall.
I don’t aspire to a home like this (though I wouldn’t mind spending a week or two there). But I would like one of the characters in my WIP to live in one. Now that I’ve seen how the top one half of one half of one percent of the population live, I think I can describe it.