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Tattered building becomes Gilded Palace

Few conversation pieces can top a ceiling mural with nine half-naked women.

Representing the Muses of Greek mythology, they float above the immense dining room of an ornate 135-year-old Huntingdon mansion fit for a robber baron — or two retired schoolteachers.

Joel and Barb Brown were already living in their dream house, a Queen Anne in town, five years ago when they learned that the faded, three-story Italianate palace a few blocks away on 10th Street was for sale.

It was disfigured royalty, its twin front porches, balcony and widow’s walk tower gone, its interior turned into offices. But at $129,000 for 5,000 square feet of Victorian splendor, it was also a bargain.

The Browns bought the onetime funeral home and, with the help of a small army, began a unique makeover.

Craftsmen from Allenville rebuilt the columned porches, balcony and tower, returning the sand-colored and brown stucco exterior to how it looked for the original owner, William Woods, a wealthy attorney and school headmaster. As they did a century ago, scrolled corbels with flower motifs prop cornices; brick dental work edges corners; and arches frame windows.

Inside, however, reveals the Woods Mansion’s true Gilded Age spirit.

Stenciled walls, sliding walnut pocket doors, abundant gold leaf, ceiling-light fixtures that hang from gilded plaster medallions, chandeliers, trompe l’oeil artwork, the 25-foot-long mural — all would have made a Vanderbilt or Carnegie feel at home.

But the Browns aren’t tycoons. They’re middle-class empty nesters in their 60s, antique aficionados investing in two renovators’ vision of opulence.

Chris Cook, owner of Cook’s Painting and Renovation in Altoona, and his consultant, John Rita, a painter and expert conservator of art and architecture, have restored several historical buildings, most notably Pennsylvania’s Capitol.

Impressed by the men’s work on the Mishler Theatre in Altoona, the Browns called them for advice about plaster repair, wallpaper choices — fairly simple stuff.

But one look at the mansion’s Italianate features and scale, and Rita thought bigger. He suggested a redecoration rather than a replication — a grand work of art, faithful to the era but also drawing on his architectural studies in Italy.

“We decided to just go ahead and regard this as a bare slate, as long as it was appropriate to the period,” Rita said.

So it wouldn’t be the second coming of William Woods’ castle. The Browns were sold. An adventure awaited, one worth them living modestly, funneling their savings into reviving an American classic in their own fashion.

“We like this kind of thing,” Joel Brown said. “It’s like a hobby. We used to teach, and now we do this.”


Until Rita, Cook and his crew of six artisans began working in 2007, dropped ceilings, damaged plaster, partitions and worn carpet had marred the old lady for years.

“I saw it in the rawest form of terrible, and that first day, I said, ‘This can be something special. This can be something beautiful,’ ” Cook said.

Today, that beauty shines uncloaked.

Back to their original height, the 14-foot ceilings — even on the second floor — make the tallest visitor feel like Alice in Wonderland. Thirteen-inch baseboards, 10-foot windows and 12-foot arched doorways only reinforce the impression.

In the double parlor, inspired by the state Capitol’s House Majority Caucus room, stenciled gold leaf overlays deep blue, almost purple paint. As throughout the Capitol, canvas was first stretched across the plaster.

“The biggest reason for that is that it’s permanent,” Cook said. “If there’s a crack in the wall, you’ll never see that in the art.”

Not much had to be done to the two sets of thick, octagonal-paneled sliding doors, their burnished walnut preserved from being kept recessed. Against their dark chocolate hue and the rich walls, buttery yellow moulding stands out like neon.

Equally arresting are the trompe l’oeil illusions — veined marble columns painted on the edge of the bay window alcove, faux leather embossing along the lower wainscotting. Similar faux columns also adorn the front hall, where they compete for attention with a double-tiered chandelier. The chandelier hangs from a brass pole that extends through an opening in the ceiling to the second story.

But for truly fooling the eye, the 30-foot-long dining room takes the prize.

Its walls, in addition to more trompe l’oeil columns, feature ersatz green drapes, painstakingly painted and stenciled in a seven-step process. So realistic are the jutting folds and flowered fabric that some visitors can’t help themselves.

“We’ve had people come in and want to touch it and say, ‘I can’t believe it’s flat,’ ” Barb Brown said.

Out of reach fly the Muses, painted lounging in the clouds by Rita using traditional methods. Installed in two sections, his mural evokes Renaissance Italy, as does another trompe l’oeil touch, gold stars on the bay window alcove’s blue ceiling.

Some day, the Browns hope, anyone can gaze at the dazzling room, or the original 3-inch-thick walnut foyer doors with beveled glass that were discovered in the basement.

Their plan is to furnish the house with period antiques, though they can’t find a table big enough for the dining room and are having a 16-foot one made from walnut. Then, after moving in, they hope to rent the downstairs for receptions and other occasions.

Barb Brown can see herself at the door in Victorian garb, greeting guests and leading them on tours. They probably wouldn’t visit the master bedroom with the mint green and black Art Deco bathroom built in 1930. But they might end up standing in the widow’s walk tower, reached via a hidden, twisting, shoulder-width staircase.

The Browns had the tower rebuilt according to old photos and placed on the roof with a crane. From its 32 panes, one can look out at Huntingdon spread in all directions. If Barb Brown has her way, at night the town might be able to see the perch in return.

She envisions a chandelier lighting the cozy room — a beacon signaling the mansion’s rebirth, a giant’s return to grandeur.

“We get a little excited,” she said. “We love the place.”

By CDT/Chris Rosenblum
Friday, Jun. 05, 2009