Modern Revival 

Finding a Modernist gem in an unlikely place

In most cities, if you want to find compelling mid-century Modern residences, you generally have to go to the suburbs. That's where the exponential growth happened after World War II, and where the era's restrained rectilinear architecture looks especially good, with lush green settings and the dream of open land.

The rules operate a little differently in Pittsburgh, though. Our steep hillsides, which lead to isolated green thickets and long vistas, lend themselves to city neighborhoods that feel suburban. And just when you think you've found every Modern gem in Stanton Heights, Swisshelm Park or the city's other wooded enclaves, another one emerges, hidden in plain sight.

Michael Walsh, a thirty-something creative force with projects in sculpture, interiors and architectural design, made such a discovery three years ago when searching HUD foreclosure lists for a quirky but restorable house to suit his artistic inclinations. He was surprised to find a residence in the form of a loose concatenation of wood-and-masonry boxes arranged at the edge of a hillside to capture the sun throughout the day.

Perched at the end of Olivant Place, the densely wooded site seems like it's out in the country, while actually in the under-examined Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood. The house, too, had long been overlooked, suffering from a not-so-benign neglect.

"All the wooden siding was peeling off," Walsh recalls. "The roof had holes and it was raining inside."

Working largely on his own and occasionally with collaborating subcontractors and artists, he completely renovated the structure. On the outside, he resealed the house from the elements and returned it to its original appearance, restoring a brick driveway and carrying in nearby boulders to complete the landscape design. Inside, a thorough campaign of replastering and painting removed physical damage, as well the aesthetic assault of a red and green palette left by the last owner.

Now, more subtle touches -- such as two tones of hardwood in the floors and a custom cast-concrete sink in the newly retiled bathroom -- indicate Walsh's personal aesthetic within the neutral palette. (He also points to a colorful constructivist renovation of a house on Wyoming Street in Mount Washington as a more forceful example of his architectural style).

Just as Walsh was revitalizing the original structure, the original owner and designer re-emerged. Joseph "Yac" Yacoboni was born in the neighborhood 82 years ago and had a career working with his father as a high-end landscape contractor. He happened to visit the house for the first time in 26 years while Walsh was finishing the renovation. The two found they had much in common -- an irresistible impulse and palpable talent for building houses, despite a lack of formal training.

Yacoboni began the house in 1960 for himself, his wife and their young daughter. Like Walsh, he did most of the work on his own, with some help from family and friends. The loose composition of the building reflects the incremental construction, essentially a room at a time. Yacoboni calls the structure "the tree house," because the living room to the east was originally built, Frank Lloyd Wright-style, around a tree with a two-foot-diameter trunk. "The insurance company ruined that," he recalls, and the tree eventually had to be removed.

Meanwhile, Yacoboni and his family moved to Florida in 1972, to ease his wife Millie's recovery from cancer surgery. There he developed a patented design for hurricane-proof, steel-framed, dome-shaped residences, which form yet another chapter in his diverse career. Despite being in his 80s, Yacoboni is working on a solar-powered version of this design, which he still hopes to build.

After decades away, Millie Yacoboni is wistful about Pittsburgh: "Our big mistake was moving to Florida," she says.

Michael Walsh agrees that this is the place to be: "For people who are resourceful and want to work with their hands, there are plenty of opportunities." You just have to know where to look.

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