Tucked back on Woodland Road sits a house that recently made local headlines and quite a splash among architecture communities. The house, hidden from the street but known by those connected to it as a place for friendly gatherings and warm connections, was designed by renowned architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the 1980s and is a talking point among many architects and preservationists for its unique post-modern style.
But, outside of that circle, the house has a surprisingly Jewish history as well. Commissioned by the late Betty and Irving Abrams, the house tells a story of a Jewish family that has roots stretching far back in Pittsburgh’s past.
Designed as a retirement house for the couple, the house was put up for sale earlier this summer after Betty Abrams passed away in February. Since then, the future of the house has hung in limbo. The new owners filed for a demolition permit due to what they say is significant damage to the structure. That move prompted preservationist activists to nominate the house as a city historic landmark in order to prevent or delay demolition.
The Abrams chose the plot of land for their home in 1979 and remained involved in the design of the house until it was completed in the early ’80s, according to documents from the Rauh Jewish History Archives. Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, said the materials trace a love story between Betty and Irving that culminates in the creation of their home.
In her eulogy for Irving, who passed away in 2003, Betty wrote, “I liked him because he was just fun to be with. He was able to build houses with me; shop with me; grocery shop with me — just spend wonderful quality time with me as well as share many mundane moments.”
Betty’s parents, Abe and Helen Ohringer, owned a furniture store in Braddock for nearly 50 years. The couple was very involved in the Jewish community — Helen was the first woman in the country to raise $100,000 for Israel Bonds and a major partner with Hadassah, according to documents from the archives. The Ohringers also donated $50,000 to Hillel Academy to buy the school’s building on Beacon Street.
The archives do not go into much detail about Irving’s parents, Lidji said.
The house on Woodland Road was the location for several gatherings, parties and celebrations and Betty adored her husband’s ability to always act as the “perfect host,” according to several lines from her eulogy.
For the Abrams, the archived documents suggest, designing the house was just as eventful and exciting as living in and hosting guests once the house was complete. In a letter to her parents after a visit to the house while it was being constructed in 1981, one of the Abrams’ daughters described it as their own “original Venturi.”
Brittany Reilly, a member of the board of directors at Preservation Pittsburgh, said the depth and organization of the material the Abrams kept, from blueprints to letters with the architects to plans for the interior, is indicative of how much the family cared for the home.
“[Betty Abrams] was someone who had a sense of what she wanted and then had some creative insight,” Reilly said.
A 2004 article in Blueprint magazine suggested that because of Abrams’ strong drive to create the house as she wanted, the owners and architects had a brief falling out before the house was complete, and it took some time for Venturi and Scott Brown to visit the finished house.
Although the home was a “dream” for the Abrams, they were aware that it was designed specifically for them. In a tax appeal form from 1999, they described their home as “a single purpose house that works well for us but has limited appeal for resale.”
The Abrams family sold the house to William and Patricia Snyder earlier this summer, who later filed for a demolition permit because the work to restore the house was “too vast,” according to Sam Berkovitz, who has worked with both the Abrams and the Snyders.
Berkovitz, the owner of Concept Art Gallery, sold the Abrams a pop-art style mural by Roy Lichtenstein that became just one of the many distinguishing features of the house. Because of his work with the Abrams, he said he knew the house was in poor condition for several years, including issues with an indoor lap pool and a pond underneath the house.
“There were just a lot of maintenance issues that weren’t being addressed, historically going back, and that clearly contributed to the decay of the house and the enormous expense that it would cost to restore it,” Berkovitz said.
The Snyders also own the land next to the Abrams’ former home and are working to restore the house on that property, another distinguished piece of architecture designed by Richard Meier.
“We nominated this building because it’s a singularly important piece of architecture,” Rujumba said. “There’s a lot of architecture in that neighborhood that represents a distinct part of American building culture and this is one of them.”
Rujumba was referring to three other distinct houses on Woodland Road, two of which were also commissioned by Jewish families.
PHLF did not have an estimate on when the Historic Review Commission would consider the nomination.
The two sides have conflicting ideas about the role that PHLF could have played in restoring the house; Berkovitz said PHLF had the right of first refusal and chose not to restore the house, but Rujumba said the organization was never given the option to restore the house because the Abrams family decided to sell the property instead.
From Berkovitz’s perspective, it is unfair to be “imposing other people’s agendas” on the Snyders and the new home owners would have been just as happy if the organization had decided to restore the house. “[The Snyders] did step up, but they had a different use in mind for that property,” he said.
Preservation Pittsburgh is not involved in PHLF’s bid to nominate the house as a city historic landmark but the organization has been involved in spreading word about the house and trying to start conversations about alternatives to demolition, Reilly said.
Right now, she continued, “it’s all about striking a balance of options, if there are to be any.”
This type of back and forth is not unusual for private homes, said Jeremy Tenenbaum, director of marketing for VSBA Architects and Planners, the successor company for Venturi and Scott Brown’s architecture firm.
“When the house outlasts their original owners … the original people that commissioned or protected the house aren’t around to see the value in it,” Tenenbaum said. “The best way to protect private houses is not to build them.” PJC