Artist uses striking paint job to draw attention to Wilkinsburg home
A bell once hung in Mary Marcotulli’s corner grocery store in Wilkinsburg.
Today the shop is boarded up. Trash litters the two-story family home above; the roof is on the verge of collapse. The bell that announced customers’ arrival is gone.
Like so many abandoned homes in Western Pennsylvania, the building at 1404 Swissvale Ave. soon will be demolished. Unlike the others, it will not die a silent death.
Artist Dee Briggs, who wanted to make a statement about society’s throwaway tendencies, and a team of volunteers recently painted the crumbling home, from top to bottom, with 32 gallons of gold paint.
“Gold because I wanted to emphasize that it still has value,” Briggs said. “This is not just a vacant house; it’s a place. People grew up here. Everybody in the neighborhood once had a relationship with this house. I want people to identify with it again.”
Briggs purchased the property last year through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program. Renovating the 139-year-old house was not feasible, Briggs said, so she focused instead on honoring the home before tearing it down.
To do so, she developed a website — house-of-gold.com — where she details the structure’s history in story form, as if narrated by the home itself.
“I’m the house on the corner of Park and Swissvale Avenues,” the website reads. “Most houses can’t talk but thanks to people who care about me I have a voice.”
Its voice was developed with help from Charles Rosenblum, a historian and architecture critic at Carnegie Mellon University who compiled the house’s history through records.
He learned that Caroline and David Richmond built the home in 1875.
“Back then there was a stream that ran down Water Street, now called Swissvale Avenue, and over to Montier into a pond,” the website reads. “In the winter, the pond would freeze and I remember that David’s (ice) company would chip away at it and make ice for everyone in Wilkinsburg.”
The Richmonds had four children. The youngest, Davie, was born in the home — a deeply personal fact that might have been buried with the home’s destruction if not for Briggs’ project, Rosenblum said.
“It’s a reminder that the extraordinary is hidden in the ordinary everywhere,” Rosenblum said. “Just driving by, you don’t realize it. But you start to dig into the records and you get vivid portraits.”
Henry and Martha Daugherty purchased the home in 1906.
“Henry was a house painter,” the website reads. “I think he would have loved seeing me gold.”
In 1934, a family of Italian immigrants moved in and stayed nearly 60 years, longer than any other tenant.
Joseph Marcotulli built a little shop in the basement with a door that opened to Park Avenue. His wife, Mary, ran the grocery, which neighbors came to know as Mary Marcotulli’s.
Decades later, memories of Mary linger in a neighborhood that has more empty lots and vacant houses than occupied homes.
Passers-by shared memories with Briggs while she and her friends painted the house during Memorial Day weekend.
One person recalled the kindhearted Marcotulli accepting coupons in lieu of cash when times were tight.
Another told Briggs about the little bell — how children in search of penny candy would rush in, jingling the bell and producing a comfortable, enduring sound that became synonymous with Mary Marcotulli’s.
“I never would have heard that story,” Briggs said. “People are driving by and gawking; they’re going to the website and commenting. It’s exactly what I wanted.”
Nearly 5,000 people have visited the website, Briggs said. Dozens have posted comments sharing their memories.
The Marcotullis, whose surviving family could not be reached for comment, sold the house in 1991.
For several years afterward, owners came and went.
County records show that the last owner, Dean Alston, bought the property in 1996 for $6,305. In time, he moved out, locked the doors and never returned.
“I’ve been pretty much abandoned,” the website reads. “When I was full of people and children I was a happy house, most of my parts were handmade and lovingly cared for. Now it’s time for my life to end.”
Briggs has not set a date for demolition. Construction Junction and others will remove as much recyclable material as possible, she said.
Before it comes down, Briggs and Rosenblum hope people will view 1404 Swissvale Ave. not as an eyesore, but as a home that once sheltered families, was the birthplace of a baby boy and became the centerpiece of a once-vibrant neighborhood.
“This thing which was abandoned and condemned is in fact worthwhile and interesting and a sign that our visions and values need to change,” Rosenblum said. “It is somewhere. It’s a place that had community, a place that many people cared about.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or [email protected].