Arts » Architecture

In Fox Chapel, a couple restores one of the few finished constructions of a half-forgotten but influential local architect.

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It's always a pleasure to find a distinctive modern residence hidden in the woods. The real surprise comes when the truly engaging structure is hidden within the house that's hidden in the woods.

Industrial designers Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica knew that they wanted to live in something mid-century and modern -- America's unencumbered post-War optimism distilled into hard-edged and expansive design. Sure enough, about three years ago they found an appealing house for sale on a wooded site in Fox Chapel. "It was just this rectangle in a meadow," Kasabach recalls enthusiastically. They didn't imagine that the process of buying and restoring the house would result in a series of unexpected revelations of both architecture and history.

The first treasures emerged when they inquired about the house with Fox Chapel Boro, which unexpectedly had a set of early blueprints on file. Kasabach and Sica invited architect Gerard Damiani, of Studio d'Arc, to have a look at the house and the drawings. Damiani is the architect of Downtown offices for Body Media, where Kasabach is a founding principal, and Sica is a consultant in charge of industrial design. For this house, Damiani became both restoration architect and historical researcher.

The original structure, built in 1951 for Fox Chapel physician Lucian Gregg, was simpler and more elegant than what had accumulated through years of changes. Sunscreens and shallow balconies departed significantly from the original designs, as did an extended patio terrace. Also, the passage through the main body of the house at ground level had been unsympathetically enclosed. Other, smaller changes were pervasive. "Two later owners tried to undo this house and turn it into something other than what it really was," Damiani laments.

These alterations seemed especially disappointing with the discovery that the house was designed by John Knox Shear. Hardly a household name now, the architect was a significant figure in the 1950s. A Carnegie Tech graduate in 1938, he earned master's degrees at both Tech and Princeton. He headed the Tech School of architecture from 1949 to 1955, and lectured widely on the then-fresh topic of Modern architecture.

Shear's greatest claim to fame, though, was as editor of Architectural Record from 1955 until his untimely death, in 1958, at age 41. This made him a tastemaker in the field and a valued colleague to essentially all of the great architects of the era. A collection in the Carnegie Mellon Architecture Archives includes original letters of sympathy to Shear's widow from Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, Walter Gropius and even Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Shear had had a vociferous public feud over the design of the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Shear actually built very little, but the Gregg house shows how he worked in the idiom of the best practitioners of his day. Damiani sees the structure, which is nestled into the hill on one side and supported by a garage on the other, as an analogue to contemporary designs by Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Charles and Ray Eames. Equally importantly, Damiani emphasizes Shear's collaboration with landscape-architecture firm Simonds and Simonds as especially pivotal. John Simonds' 1961 book, Landscape Architecture: A Manual of Site Planning and Design, a classic in the field, is still in print. It is dedicated to John Knox Shear, whom it quotes, saying, "Ideally the world would be a beautiful garden with structures interspersed."

Because Damiani's research has helped uncover John Knox Shear's legacy, a similar treatment of the house was in order. The renovation has removed superfluous pieces, regraded some surrounding earth and reconstituted the window treatments to be as close as possible to their original expansive configuration. The latter now recapture what Sica says are "amazing views from the living room to the sweeping back yard."

As for the passage through the house, with its all-important connections to high Modern architecture and landscape design, Kasabach and Sica hope to replace the current enclosure with larger, clearer sliding glass doors to recapture Shear's open framed view in good weather.

While restrictions of budget and practicality preclude a nut-and-bolt restoration to absolutely original conditions, architect and client agree that recapturing the house's original spirit is their ultimate goal.

Damiani explains, "I want people to go to this house and not know that I had a hand in it." What they'll see is a dramatic and rigorous iteration of Modern architecture in Shear's name -- a legacy that architect and client are happy to perpetuate.

Mid-century modern: the house by John Knox Shear, in Fox Chapel. Photo courtesy Gerard Damiani, Studio d'Arc.
  • Mid-century modern: the house by John Knox Shear, in Fox Chapel. Photo courtesy Gerard Damiani, Studio d'Arc.

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