Sep 11, 2023

Behind the Scenes of A Very Special Spring Garden Renovation


I met Chris Waraks eight years ago, when I toured a Spring Garden home he renovated that won an award for a local renovation contest. Waraks worked with investor/owner Kim Basick on that home and six others on Peralta Street.

Across the street from his renovation was a grand Victorian-style row house that was crumbling with each passing day. In his heart, Waraks knew he could not stand to see it collapse. Basick would end up buying the house for $16,000 through sheriff sale.

Waraks quickly secured the main part of the house until he could begin work on it. I got a peek at it soon after and was so enchanted I dubbed it “The Mayor’s House” because it was so stately. The front living room had the most amazing plaster crown molding I had ever seen. Waraks walked me over to the fireplace mantle and blew the dust off the facade, revealing gold decorative paint. Kneeling down, he wiped off the hearth, which uncovered a bed of colorful tiles that were waiting to see daylight again.

Here’s what Waraks told me about this special project.

CW: “[The house] was built in 1888. I found a date on the plaster molding. The late Carol Peterson did a house history on it. It was built by William M. Sauer. He started the largest mechanical firm in the nation with a little plumbing shop on Chestnut Street. His dad was a bartender on the corner. The company is still in operation today.”

My tour consisted of the front room and the entry staircase. The rest was unstable. From the side street, I could see pigeons flying into a nest they made in the back of the house.

CW: “The roof was so badly damaged over the years of leaking and it had weakened all of the floors all the way through the house. So, you could walk into the living room and had to be very careful and stay on the outside wall to walk through the dining room. The back section of the house that had the kitchen and bathroom above, those areas were almost completely collapsed. The front wall of that had collapsed and had come down on to that section of the house.”

Waraks started renovations in 2019, nearly three years after the initial purchase. Although he was unable to save the damaged plaster molding, he installed a wood crown and a wallpaper border in its place. He also managed to restore the home’s original slate fireplaces, which have a faux marble finish.

CW: “They were all completely removed while construction was done and replaced in the end. We were able to touch up the original pattern and repainted it.”

The entire house was gutted to the studs and all the original woodwork was removed, numbered and stored. Pieces were milled and several were restored on site, including a set of pocket doors that are 10½ feet tall. The front window shutters were restored as well. Waraks’ crew salvaged trim from the house and pieced it back together to look as it did originally.

The entry was also a salvage mission. It features original leather-embossed wainscoting that was dyed in shades of green, gold and red. The staircase and newel post had an intricate ladder design on the spindles.

CW: “The embossed leather wainscoting in the hallway I left until the end. I cleaned it with Simply Green [cleaner]. I could not believe it when all of the colors appeared — beautiful. For the staircase, we were fortunate that I had to remove a section of railing that ran longways. We had all the parts needed to rebuild it. The steps are original; they were sagging, so we opened them up, lifted and secured them from underneath.”

In the dining room, new lighting, windows and a removal of a door allowed for better flow into the kitchen. From there, Lisa Ryan took the reins in decorating the property for her son, who purchased it at the beginning of 2023.

CW: “We needed to give it modern amenities, make it look and feel like the original. There was a full built-in back in the corner and the house also had a butler’s pantry that is now a powder room. It was originally built so that you walked into the kitchen through one door and loop back into the dining room. We didn’t go too crazy with the wall cabinets because originally there wouldn’t have been a lot of wall cabinets in a kitchen like that. We did a lot of base cabinets.”

Ryan made excellent use of the space, installing a free-standing island and a metal cow relief above the stove. The second floor features a large guest bathroom, a laundry room hidden behind a pocket door and two bedrooms. One is a guest bedroom, decorated with a national parks theme; the second guest bedroom is an office. Exquisite woodwork painted in contrasting dark and light hues show up on arched casing, doors and trim. The office decor features a mix of superheroes, sports and pop culture. Through the windows, views of the city skyline peek out from the rooftops.

The winding staircase continues to the third floor, where a stunning primary suite awaits. There, Ryan introduced a Southwestern theme that fits perfectly with the masculine space. The primary bathroom features a stunning shower with floor-to-ceiling tile, a custom-painted vanity and a walk-in closet.

The exterior of the house is a story in itself. Terra cotta tile accents, the stairs, sidewalks and stone were all restored. The home’s wood accents were painted a rich green to complement the deep red bricks.

The basement has been restored but not finished. Kyle Waraks, Chris’ son, unearthed a North Side mystery when he noticed a stone arch a foot from the floor surface.

CW: “The floor was kind of collapsing in that section. Kyle dropped the digging bar and it dropped 6 feet. We dug and found a tunnel that went to the yard of the neighboring house. There were tunnels coming off of the brewery he ran and we think that this linked to another tunnel. We were looking at dates; it was not old enough for the Underground Railroad.”

Every corner throughout the home tells a story — and Ryan has a story for every piece. She says 90% of her finds are either second-hand and repurposed. Among her favorites is a copy of a Rembrandt painting to hang over the dining room mantel. At the base, stone Gryphons stand guard.

Waraks and his crew also completely renovated the property’s rear house, which is used as a rental. Waraks outfitted it with loungey sectionals, fun art and even a Scrabble table.

Waraks adds he has no regrets about putting the time into saving this house.

CW: “A demo guy that I know once said to me, ‘Some of the most beautiful houses I tear down in the City of Pittsburgh could be saved and could be restored; the only bad thing is that the roof is in the basement.’ This house just fit that criteria, but to be able to bring it back up again and save it was one of the most rewarding things.”

Read more about Waraks and his Spring Garden renovations in the fall HOME issue, on news stands Sept. 26.

Read more about Waraks and his Spring Garden renovations in the fall HOME issue, on news stands Sept. 26.