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Mansion mavens

When Joel and Barbara Brown purchased their dream mansion in Hunting-don, it was the fulfillment of a mutual wish.

"A number of years ago, I thought I saw a for-sale sign in the front, but we later found out it wasn't for sale - it had already been sold," Barbara Brown, 59, of Huntingdon said of the 135-year-old, two-story, 19-room Italianate-style Victorian mansion. "That's when the owner let us in to see the gorgeous woodwork inside. We both fell in love with it right away."

So much so, that when in 2003 the mansion went up for sale again, the couple immediately purchased it. The property cost about $130,000.

"My husband called me in Portage and said, 'Something happened today that could change our lives forever," said Barbara Brown, a retired kindergarten teacher at Portage Area Elementary School, in reference to the mansion's then-sudden availability. "And it definitely has. It's magnificent. It's unique. And it's beautiful ... so different from anything I've ever seen."

Joel Brown, 67, a retired physical education teacher at various schools in the Southern Huntingdon County School District, said the couple, both of whom have a passion for all things Victorian (they've been purchasing Victorian furniture for the last 20 years), decided long ago they wanted to buy and live in a Victorian mansion. They plan to move in permanently by summer's end. For now, they reside in another Victorian home just three blocks from the renovated mansion.

"This (idea) has been in the making for like the past 20 years. ... We've talked about this type of thing for a long, long time," Joel Brown said. "What's great about it is that we both like the same Victorian design ... we both like the same things."

The mansion's Italianate style, which was the dominant American house style of the Civil War period, heralds the architectural sensibilities of the Romantic Victorian period and is patterned after the ancient villas of Italy, he said. Its structural characteristics include a wide, overhanging, low-pitched roof with ornamental brackets beneath; tall, segmentally arched windows, and a front porch supported by columns of square cross-section with beveled corners. Entry doors are double with large, glazed panels and the house's cube-shaped structure is topped by a three-story, dome-like structure that affords a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

"They used to call the tower a widow's watch," Joel Brown said. "Sea captains in old Italy often built them on tops of houses along the shore. Then the wives could go up and look for their husbands to return."

Notable features inside the house include 14-foot ceilings on both floors (oak with walnut plugs downstairs, pine upstairs), twin parlors modeled after the state capitol building's House Majority caucus room in Harrisburg and a 30-by-20 dining room that includes brass chandeliers, faux drapes, fake leather and faux marble - the latter three designed by area figurative artist John Rita and executed by Cook's Painting and Renovation Inc. in Altoona.

"I'm extremely happy with it - the design and the artwork my employees produced - just everything," said owner Chris Cook, 28, of Altoona. "This is probably the largest artistic job we've ever done in terms of restoration."

Rita, 55, of Altoona also painted a 20-foot-by-15-foot mural of the nine muses of Zeus (Greek mythology) being lowered from the clouds to earth ("The Descent of the Muses") on the dining room's ceiling, using real models for the figure depictions.

Cook last worked with Rita renovating the The Casino at Lakemont Park in Altoona, he said, adding the mansion renovation objective was to "produce the highest quality artwork possible ... taking John's designs and making them a reality."

To that end, the job entailed plaster restoration (including decorative molding and wall restoration), and priming and painting all canvas surfaces using stencils and decorative glazes - "everything except the murals," Cook said.

Rita, who owns Albert Michaels Gallery in Altoona, spent four months working on the house, also stenciling the parlors - Barbara Brown's favorite aspect of the house.

"What we tried to do is balance the accuracy of the historical period with the clients' objective, which was to produce a very high-end, elegant setting," Rita said. "An Italianate fits stylistically with Italian art and decoration. Italy was principally where I studied ... this was an opportunity to do the kind of painting I normally do, and in a wonderful setting."

Barbara Brown plans to rent certain areas of the mansion for special occasions, such as weddings, anniversary parties and charitable events, she said, adding the couple intends to have an open house at the end of summer to raise money for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America and the American Cancer Society.

"My mom has Alzheimer's (disease) and Joel and I both are cancer survivors," she said. "Besides, so many people want to see it."

Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.
June 7, 2009