A lot has changed over its 35 year history, but the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour has always started on Beech Avenue at Calvary United Methodist Church.
On Friday night, tour-goers explored the renovated and decorated mansions in Allegheny West, Pittsburgh’s smallest neighborhood. Groups of 25 people toured six homes, caroling at each one’s steps before entering.
“We’re in the neighborhood all the time,” said Jen Marburger, who lives with her husband Trent across the park in Allegheny East. “We love the history. It’s also putting us in the Christmas spirit to see everyone’s decorations.”
Carole Malokoff said preparing her home to be on tour was fairly simple, since she’s Jewish, and doesn’t have much decorating to do.
Carole and her husband Bob bought the house in 1980 for about $40,000, after hearing through the grapevine that it was for sale. The house was split into six units at the time, and everything from paint to plumbing needed work.
She said her home is about 60 percent original materials, with the rest being custom designed and constructed by local contractors. They refurbished stained glass windows, opened up walls, and moved mantles, sourcing materials everywhere from Construction Junction to Craigslist.
At the time the Malokoffs purchased the property, many of the old homes in the neighborhood were for sale, but were in rough shape. Some went for as little as $5,000 to $10,000. The new buyers, many of whom still own their properties, formed a group to talk about contractors, deal with zoning issues, and share materials.
“I asked my neighbors if they had a mantle, and John DeSantis, who lives up the block, said ‘Oh, I’ve got a bird’s eye maple mantle in my basement. Come look at it. If you want it, you can have it,’” Malokoff said.
Although most of the homes’ renovations weren’t finished yet, neighbors figured enough was done to host their first Christmas house tour as a fundraiser for the local civic council. From that first year, it was a huge success.
“People like to see how you live,” she said. “Most of the people we get, the majority are women who want to come and snoop around and get decorating ideas.”
"Where do they store all this stuff?"
This year marks the third tour for sisters Kate and Mare Barr.
“There are some really big mansions on Lincoln,” said Kate Barr, who said you can’t see homes this old on any other tour in town. “It’s the beauty and seeing how people care about these places, they want them to live, they don’t want them to be torn down. It takes a lot of passion.”
Every surface in the dining room of Hal Dixler and Nick Duerlinger is covered floor to ceiling with traditional poinsettias, garlands, and ornaments.
“Oh my god, it’s amazing,” said Christy Lutz who brought her mother on the tour for her Christmas present. “Where do they store all this stuff? I could never decorate like this; I just don’t have the knack.”
But nothing beats the pure awe of the house that concludes the tour every year – the home of John DeSantis. The home was built by a wealthy widow in 1868 in the Renaissance Revival style, and DeSantis said walking into his front parlor is like walking into the turn of the century.
“And that’s because all of the furnishings in this room are original,” he told one tour. “The mantle, over mantle, the bronze sculptures on it, woodwork, shutters, doors.”
Not to mention the live 14-foot-tall Christmas tree, covered in 500 antique ornaments.
“Those big heavy balls you see up there are actually the earliest glass Christmas ornaments,” he said. “They’re from the nineteenth century, they’re called kugels, made in Germany.”
They’re silvered on the inside with mercury to give them their color, and DeSantis said each weighs eight to nine pounds.
DeSantis said his renovations started 29 years ago and included the reconstruction of hand painted ceilings, and the restoration of a full ballroom located on the first floor of his four-story home.
The future of the Old Allegheny home tour
The unanswered question is what’s next for these neighborhood homes. Carole Malokoff, who does have a daughter and son in law, isn’t sure.
“I don’t expect them to come back and live here,” she said.
While some homes will certainly stay within families, Malokoff said she thinks their home and many others will be sold to new owners. And while the new owners may love them, they haven’t put in the years of hard work in order to restore them.
Malokoff added that this year, it was hard to get some of the newer owners to participate in the tour.
“They don’t see the need,” she said. “They came in here, their house was already pretty much done, they don’t have the experiences we have. But they don’t see the need to go the extra step, extra mile, and say ‘Yes, I’ll put my house on tour,’ even if it’s just once every five years.
But in talking to tour goers, it’s clear that as long as there are open houses, there will be visitors buying tickets to see them.
“I’m glad we did it,” said first-timer Cristy Lutz. “I want to come back every year now. I’m going to bring my kids back, because they’d enjoy this totally.”
*UPDATED: 3:01 p.m., Dec. 15, 2016. Editor's Note: This story has been re-edited for purposes of clarity.