From Confectionary Supply Store to Contemporary Home: Couple Renovates Mexican War Streets House
Feb 29, 2020 10:51AM
By Hilary Daninhirsch
When passersby stroll past Leslie Vincen and Dan Wintermantel’s row home in the Mexican War Streets and glance into the large picture windows facing the street, they sometimes think the home is a commercial business.
If they had been walking by early last century, they would have been correct.
In 2013, the couple began renovating the former site of J.C. Reed Confectionary Supply, which had been abandoned for many years. They had been living in the house next door for 13 years, and when they learned the condemned building would be demolished by the city, they jumped at the chance to save the property and transform it into their dream home.
Vincen and Wintermantel are originally from rural upstate New York but wanted to move to a city. “We looked at Rochester, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh won, hands down,” said Vincen.
They visited Pittsburgh frequently, and friends would show them around the city. When they came across the Mexican War Streets neighborhood in Central North Side, something clicked for them. “We were really taken with the unique, beautiful and historic homes; we thought this would be a pretty cool neighborhood,” said Vincen.
This was 20 years ago, and while people had been rehabbing homes in the area for a while by then, the neighborhood has blossomed even more today. When the couple moved in, the neighborhood was still slightly sketchy in terms of safety, but Wintermantel said that those concerns have completely dissipated.
“You’ll see your neighbors while sitting on your stoops, and before you know it, they’re inviting you in; it’s a very congenial neighborhood, like a small town,” said Vincen. And Wintermantel said that he loves the proximity to downtown Pittsburgh.
When they first came to Pittsburgh, Vincen and Wintermantel originally bought and flipped a few houses in the neighborhood, and their timing was impeccable. Vincen said that 20 or so years ago, dilapidated homes could be purchased for $25,000 to 30,000; today, those fixer-uppers are likely to cost six figures.
The 18th-century row houses that characterize the Mexican War Streets district are as far away from “McMansions” as you can get. The architectural styles, predominantly Victorian, range from Romanesque to Gothic Revival and Italianate. Located in the Central North Side of Pittsburgh, the Mexican War Streets were named after the battles and generals in the Mexican-American War.
According to Vincen, the Mexican War Streets neighborhood is unique in that it is one of only a few pedestrian-friendly row house neighborhoods in the country. And because they are predominantly narrow row homes all packed together, people are often surprised at how large some of the Mexican War Street houses are inside.
According to the couple, learning about the history of the house added to the appeal of the renovation process. They hired a house historian, Carol Peterson, and learned that only the first floor of the building was used by J.C. Reed Confectionary Supply. The top two floors were used as apartments, several housing large families.
“J.C. Reed was one of the first commercial businesses in the city to start using motor driven trucks rather than horses,” said Wintermantel.
Working with architect John Francona and builder Dave Menk of Premier Renovations, the project went smoothly. Although virtually everything else was gutted, the couple was able to significantly reduce the footprint from 8,000 to 2,400 square feet to make the project affordable. Terracotta parapet tiles preserved the structural integrity of the late 1800s building and kept the facade intact. Bricks from the original walls were used to fill in the courtyard.
Inside the elegant, contemporary home, it’s hard to believe that it was once a commercial business, or that the roof had caved in, or that the old safe had fallen into the basement. The renovated home features an open concept layout, with the dining room in the front of the house, the kitchen in the middle, and the sunken living room at the back, leading to a private courtyard. The back of the home has three stories of windows. There are two bedrooms on the second floor and a TV room and office on the third floor, with an exterior spiral staircase leading to a rooftop deck that overlooks the city of Pittsburgh.
The couple’s home has been on the annual Mexican War Streets home tour twice, and in fact, Vincen is involved with the Mexican War Streets Society to help organize this event held each September, while Wintermantel, a graphic designer, creates the posters.
“The most interesting aspect of this home for me is that we made the most of the space that was here and configured this condemned warehouse building into something that is really livable, cozy and beautiful,” said Vincen.
“In spite of the openness of the floor plan, it still has the feel of the houses of this era,” added Wintermantel.