It’s human to dwell on the one who got away. Especially when the object of your affection has gone nowhere.
Eight years later Ramsey Lyons and her financier husband moved from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, they still couldn’t afford a house they had considered buying out of their heads. A red-brick Tudor that dates back to Pittsburgh’s industrial heyday, the fortress-like property was one of Steel City’s few marquee historic homes. But it took a lot of work, more than the couple – with two children then under the age of two – weren’t feeling at the time.
Yet they never forgot the house. When they ran into him a few years later on their way to their son’s friend’s birthday party, they knew it was time. Lyons phoned a local real estate agent and set him a challenge: persuade the old couple who had been quick to take it off the market to sell it, while finding a buyer for the Lyonnais home, all in the space two weeks. Mission accomplished, the next challenge was hers: taking a 1,200 square meter home whose barony vibe evokes an Agatha Christie murder mystery and transforming it into a modern home for a family with two children (now tweens) , a pair of dogs, and two pet rabbits.
Design has always been in Lyons’ blood. During her first decade out of college, while working ungodly hours as an investment banker in New York City, she relaxed in the townhouse her friends were decorating. “I would go and rearrange the tissue samples in their basement,” she recalls. “It was my happy place.” Once settled in Pittsburgh, she began working as a designer. When she and her husband bought this house, she had a dream team of craftsmen and builders on her speed dial.
Built in 1907 as a Victorian house, the house was extended and extensively remodeled in the Tudor style in the 1920s. Faced with heavy window treatments and an eyesore of a staircase hall, Lyons considered ripping it all out and start from scratch. But the idea of scrapping the original craft was unthinkable. So she decided to do something much harder: bring it all up to date in a respectful and innovative way. “What Ramsey has done is completely off the beaten path,” says Jon Gluck, the decorator painter she enlisted to infuse a new sense of lightness. “It’s an old world estate house completely reimagined to be timeless.”
Using whitewash and tinted wax, Gluck transformed the quarter-sawn oak panels that cradled the first-floor walls into surfaces you’d never associate with a moldy library in a private club. The original leaded windows and stained glass have been restored and installed, sometimes in new spaces. Piece by piece, Lyons reduced the darkness and prepared the structure for another century of use. “She’s a designer, but she’s also the guardian of this house,” says David Duncan, the owner of the eponymous New York studio from which she obtained vintage pieces and lighting fixtures of her design.
Today, the house’s traditional yet fresh spirit is in keeping with Pittsburgh’s history as the original epicenter of American troublemakers. (Yes Succession was set at the turn of the 20th century, it would have taken place here among the city’s railroad and steel magnates.) Take the cloakroom, a testament to Lyon’s commitment to understated livability. The busy hallway features a mural that Gluck based on a 1933 painting by a Japanese artist Zenzaburo Kojima. He envisioned a tree-lined landscape with an underwater feel, where jellyfish-like shapes float in a palette of blues and greens that, along with purple, take over the rest of the home.
The house’s mix of contemporary and vintage furniture reinforces its adventurous spirit. There are Frances Adler Elkins loop chairs and Cloud chairs by Art Deco designers Harry and Lou Epstein alongside more recent pieces by Chairish. Contemporary paintings by artists such as Hunt Slonem and Damien Hirst have been selected by an exclusive acquisition committee. “Everyone in the family gets a vote,” Lyons says. “Kids always steer us towards more colorful pieces.”
Three years and counting into the project (a small crew of carpenters still work in the basement), she’s pulled off a nearly impossible feat: Preserve a historic home but make it fun. Craftsmanship and pedigree are separated here from pomp and formality. “All of my kids’ friends want to be here all the time,” Lyons says. “I created a space that speaks of joy.”
Stylized by Howard Christian
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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