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Artist who painted Wilkinsburg house raises funds for ‘gentle demolition’ | TribLIVE.com
Allegheny

Artist who painted Wilkinsburg house raises funds for ‘gentle demolition’

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, September 13, 2014 9:00 p.m
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Justin Lacey, 28, of East Liberty (left) and Adam Lackett, 30, of Wilkinsburg (right) on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, stand on the porch of the 'House of Gold' with Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg, the owner of the house, which she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program. Because the property cannot be feasibly renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, walks through the 'House of Gold' she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program. Because the property cannot be feasibly renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, walks through the 'House of Gold' she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program. Because the property cannot be feasibly renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg walks through the 'House of Gold,' she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program, Wednesday, September 10, 2014. Because the property cannot be feasible renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
ptrGoldHouse06092114
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, walks through the 'House of Gold' she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program. Because the property cannot be feasibly renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
ptrGoldHouse05092114
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Adam Lackett, 30, of Wilkinsburg (left) and Justin Lacey, 28, of East Liberty (right) on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, talk with Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg, owner of the 'House of Gold,' which she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program. Because the property cannot be feasibly renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg shows off the handmade nails recovered from the 'House of Gold,' she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program, Wednesday, September 10, 2014. Because the property cannot be feasible renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dee Briggs of Wilkinsburg shows off the original transom recovered from the 'House of Gold,' she purchased last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program, Wednesday, September 10, 2014. Because the property cannot be feasible renovated, Briggs is focusing on the 'gentle' demolition of the house.
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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Artist Dee Briggs and a team of volunteers used 32 gallons of gold paint to cover the house at 1404 Swissvale Ave. in Wilkinsburg.

Joy Nelson-Peters stood on the corner of Swissvale and Park avenues in Wilkinsburg, recalling a time when the old, crumbling house before her was a home.

“I was pointing out to my husband where my room was — the middle one upstairs that I shared with my sister — and that big old kitchen,” said Nelson-Peters, 57, of Lake Ridge, Va. “Things started fluttering back, and I got really emotional. … I grew up in that house. My family and I had a lot of happy times there.”

The vacant house that she and others in the neighborhood once adored nearly died a silent death.

Then a local artist stepped in.

Dee Briggs, who lives and sculpts in the renovated firehouse next door, covered the structure from top to bottom with 32 gallons of metallic gold paint. She started a website to document the 140-year-old structure’s history — a reminder that it was not always an empty eyesore but sheltered families in a once-vibrant neighborhood.

Briggs intends to write the final chapter.

She aims to raise money for a “gentle demolition” of the house, in which she would take it apart as it was built: piece by piece, by hand, with care.

“I began meeting with demolition contractors, (and) I asked, ‘How would you do this?’ ” said Briggs, who purchased the property last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program for $1,200 records show. “He said, ‘I would start at the top of the house and crush it.’ I wanted to cry. I can’t do that to this house.”

Seeking an alternative, she gathered friends who work with reclaimed materials and pitched her gentle demolition concept.

They decided that with time, planning and money, it could work.

“As it stands, it’s not a very useful structure,” said Justin Lacey, 28, of East Liberty, who makes furniture from reclaimed materials. “But it’s made up of components that could be useful.”

Briggs calculated the costs — including demolition, asbestos removal and wages — at $25,000. She started a Kickstarter campaign, which has until Sept. 25 to raise $30,000 (Kickstarter keeps a $5,000 fee). Work would begin immediately and finish before the first snowfall.

“Two-thirds of the material would be saved and reused,” Briggs said. “Otherwise, it will have to be demolished in the traditional way, where it gets smashed into bits and tossed into landfill. I don’t want that for this house.”

Neither does Nelson-Peters.

She lived at 1404 Swissvale Ave. throughout the 1970s and returned last month to attend her cousin’s funeral.

“We had just buried her, and I was standing there, looking at that house, and I thought about how she loved to visit my mom, her aunt Helen,” Nelson-Peters said. “She’d come over after church; everybody came over to my mom’s house. It was where everybody wanted to be.”

The site might again become a gathering spot.

Briggs wants to use salvaged materials to build a small, neighborhood coffee shop. She will incorporate items into her artwork, including thousands of hand-made nails holding the house together.

The house would live on, Briggs said. “And I’ll feel like I did something good.”

Nelson-Peters has not met Briggs but talked with her about saving something from the house — a tile, perhaps, from the kitchen where her mom taught her to cook, where she and her siblings talked for hours at a time on the phone mounted to the wall.

“The dining room mantel, those big, beautiful windows in the living room — I’d forgotten about that stuff, how we’d stand there for hours and look at the street and watch the cars go by, and sometimes see my mom get off the bus from work,” she said, unaware that the mantel and mirror remain, but the windows long ago were broken out and boarded up. “It’s funny the things you remember, the little things.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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