Our new house found us, we didn’t find it. Which came as quite a surprise, as typically inanimate objects, much like my sons, struggle to locate ANYTHING.
Amber and I moved in together during the summer of ‘17. We chose our rental house after one walk-through and swiftly unloaded our modern Brady Bunch. We had hoped to buy something the following year, but life and family matters had other plans for us. The sale of Amber’s old house got tied up for a few years, so we waited impatiently in our rental. Then came 2020 and the dumpster fire that it was, and a few more setbacks for our moving plan. In the meantime, the local real estate market went absolutely bonkers.
As we knew the sale of the other house was approaching, we started to test the waters and see what we could find. It was both surprising and disappointing. Houses were hitting the market and selling the very same day. We were told multiple times, that if we were interested, we would have to make an offer on the spot, and in the best cases- by close of the business day. In a cruel twist, a global pandemic caused local real estate prices to jump up 20% to 30%.
It was a discouraging process as Amber and I realized we couldn’t get as much ‘bang for our buck’ as we wanted and the sale of the other house got delayed yet again. So we drowned our sorrows in nog and slogged our way through the holidays.
My wife and I talk a lot about place. Possibly too much. Definitely too much. Okay, it’s just me, but she always listens. We talk about how our habitat shapes the lives we lead, about how our environment dictates the friends we make and the activities we engage in. We pay close attention to how our neighborhood affects our kids and how our house and our block are playing a role in who they are becoming. We think about the ten thousand decisions we make during a day and how so many of those decisions are influenced by our environment.
We had our hopes set on a house and a block that would elevate our surroundings. A place built with quality and pride that would enrich our everyday lives. We wanted an old house that reflected old world craftsmanship, a place where you could tell that the builders were masters of their trades. Most of all, we didn’t want some shiplap bullshit Ikea renovation house that had all the charm removed from it like we were living in an HGTV dystopia.
We were growing discouraged by the process and every house we toured within our price range was only making matters worse. But being a militant optimist, I remained cautiously confident that something would come our way. I am a firm believer in setting your intentions and waiting for the good news to arrive. The method has generally worked for me and it paid off this time as well.
In January, our neighbor sent Amber a text to say she heard of a house a couple blocks away that we might want to check out. The owner had passed away and because she had no heirs, the sale of her home would be handled by an estate company. The next night we bundled up and went for a stroll. We found the place- it was stone, it had leaded glass windows, it was on a brick street, it was stunning. Oddly enough, we didn’t do anything about it for another week. Then, over a couple of evening drinks, we reminded ourselves that intentions must be followed up with action and when something falls into your lap, you damn well better follow-up.
Amber wrote a note expressing our interest and the next evening, we walked past and placed the note in the door. A couple of weeks passed, a few open houses attended, a few dozen hours logged on Zillow, but nothing was giving us the feels. Nearly two months passed when Amber got a phone call at work from the estate agent saying she had found our letter. The agent asked if we wanted to take a walk through the place. Of course we did, and we had no idea what to expect. Not at all.
Dumbfounded is a hell of a word, and the perfect word for that day. We walked from room to room in near silence, just trying to take it all in. The place was much more medieval than a person might typically expect (does anyone really EXPECT medieval?).
The leaded glass windows included hand painted swords. The textured plaster walls hid dozens of surprises- clipper ships, acorns, Scottish thistles, and multiple griffins. Honestly, I always assumed one griffin to be enough, but who am I to say. The stained glass window in the door to the porch is adorned with a knight in shining armor (from a long time ago). Tile floors with more renaissance fair scenes (is fare flair a thing?). And to top it all off… a grand hall for a living room.
This was no ordinary house. Shiplap had never set foot in this place. This was not a typical foursquare that just needed some new paint. The quirks were everywhere- the floors had coats of arms, and the bathrooms were tiled (floor and ceiling) in a watermelon color scheme. It was feeling a little difficult to picture yourself sipping morning coffee while staring out the window through a painted cactus.
It was a lot to take in, so we had some drinks and discussed. It was just so much more than what we were thinking. But was it really? Wasn’t this what we had hoped for? Wasn’t this what we had envisioned? A place with character. A house that demanded more than drywall and granite countertops. A home that was built with true craftsmanship and quality materials.
This was that place. It needed a lot of attention, but there were also so many things that we realized should never be touched. So many details and decisions that the builder made that we simply couldn’t undo. We started to get the sense that we were the right people to own this home. Amber and I talk about the concept of stewardship a lot. When something special comes into your possession, it is your job to care for it, so it can be passed along to the next person. All the great places in the world exist because the right people were willing to be stewards.
We wanted to be the stewards to a great house. We wanted to care and preserve a place that so many others would have come in and changed. It might be quirky, it might have more griffins than your typical person might enjoy, but this house came to us and we felt that we had a responsibility to answer the call. We found out the original owner was also the builder and he built most of the houses on the block. In fact, the builder, Clyde McCann had built several houses and apartment buildings throughout the South Hills of Pittsburgh. It just so happens, our cross street is named McCann, after him.
A million other things had to fall into place between Easter and Memorial Day for this to come together. So many setbacks, so much stress. A few moments of fending off the feeling that the deal was dead. Plenty of time thinking that this would never really happen. The process was so screwed up that the deal nearly fell apart right at the closing. But this is where my perpetual optimism serves me best.
I am writing this piece from my new home office. A room painted an outrageous green because I have always wanted a green office. The window behind my laptop opens up to my new neighbors’ stone sidewall and their immense holly tree. The sounds from a study playlist on Spotify drift up the 18’ ceiling in the living room and through the stained glass window to my desk. Saint Anthony looks down on me from the wall, judging every sentence I write. He is disappointed today. I can hear the kids downstairs trying to figure out what day of the week it is. God, I love summer for them. Leon just did four turns and plopped himself down by my feet and now it looks like I have a very lumpy rug.
Clyde McCann built this house in ’37. He made it his own, with all of its idiosyncrasies, and made it a home for him and his wife, Henrietta. In ’77, the house sold to James and Carole Takach. In the following years ‘Tak’ and Carole added a rose garden and a sun porch, but never changed the house. Whether they also loved a nice griffin or just respected the quirks, we’ll never know. Carole passed away in January of ’21, a few years after being widowed. Neither couple ever had any children. More people live in this house today, than lived in it for the first 80 years. There are details I find every day that still blow me away. There are views between rooms. There was thought given to how the light would fall. The stairway is framed perfectly by the living room entrance. Clyde didn’t just build a house, but crafted a work of art people can live in.
We are stewards of the house Clyde built. There are plenty of things we might like to change, but it is not our place to change them. The Italian marble tile floors in the kitchen always look dirty. They will remain dirty looking as long as we live here. There is a super weird beaker looking potion thing painted on our bedroom window. And it shall remain. We may currently own this house, but it is not ours. We get to live in it for the time being. We get to care for it. We must tend to it. Life is all about maintenance and this is our home to maintain properly until the next residents come along.
It is an honor to get to call Clyde’s house our home and to have the opportunity to take care of it fittingly. To have our everyday lives take place in such a setting is an experience we will never take for granted. It is an experience that we will preserve so the next family may experience the same. This is the responsibility we accepted when we decided to live in the house that Clyde built.