An Ode to Baywood – King’s Estate

Baywood, the Gilded Age-era mansion of the King family, is set to be sold, the Tribune-Reivew reported today. I had been hearing rumors for some time that the property was to be put up for sale, but finding out the rumors are true is bittersweet for me.

Baywood is where my passion for historic preservation and my obsession with Pittsburgh’s Gilded Age were born. It’s also where my penchant for wanting to rescue every dilapidated old house originated, to the chagrin of my husband.

I took art classes at Baywood, or, as it is colloquially known, “King’s Estate,” in the early 1990s along with my younger sister. I remember marveling at the green tile fireplace surrounded by built-in shelves and the window seat in what is now known as the library of the home. Of course, at the time, those elements, along with the room’s coffered ceiling, were the only clues to the room’s former glory. Some of the woodwork in the room had been painted over with lighter paint, and we used the space as our music room – I’m sure the fixtures took quite a beating after generations of kids carelessly banged drums, maracas and cymbals around there.

The kitchen was barely recognizable as such, buried under various strata of paint slopped over the floor and on all sides of the large, deep sink over the years. The dining room served as an art classroom, its former splendors covered with makeshift “remuddling” solutions. My mother recalls peeking behind the shoddy wall coverings to see the decorative details of the house awaiting the light of day while waiting to take my sister and me home.

The porch, now open-air, at the time was fully enclosed and was used as a combination of office space for the art program’s personnel and as a storage spot for the detritus of various city programs that had come and gone. The castle-like towers surrounding the estate – all that remained of a folly that ran through the estate’s garden – were used as dumpsters, housing smelly garbage bags until they were picked up.

A former schoolmate of mine lived upstairs with his family, who had been hired as caretakers of the property. I remember thinking he was the luckiest boy alive to get to live in such a place. To me, it was like something straight out of C.S. Lewis or Louisa May Alcott.

Despite the disrepair, the beauty of King’s Estate shone through, and it was that inner beauty that captivated me. Since the tender age of 6, I vowed to myself that one day I would live in an old Victorian house. That’s a dream that came true in 2007, and now I even get paid (!) to be an old house geek, giving tours of yet another mansion from Pittsburgh’s Gilded Age.

The placing of the mansion on the market is sad for me in many ways. I’ve regarded Frank and Maura Brown as benevolent souls; the people who rescued the place from becoming yet another historic preservation tragedy in this city.

Seeing as, given the financial resources, I’d rescue every decrepit Victorian in sight, I have a great deal of respect for anyone who is able to bring one back from the brink with its original fixtures intact. I consider the Browns to be kindred spirits. I’m sad that they’ll be moving on; their stewardship of the property has been forthright and honest. The new owners may not be so benevolent; there is no guarantee that the place won’t fall into disrepair once more, even with the $2.1 million price tag.

King’s Estate is not an easy property to leave behind; it has been a lifetime obsession for me, as I’m sure it will be also for the Browns. They are the lucky ones for having been able to call it their home for 17 years, and it’s difficult for this Gilded Age geek to comprehend why a family wouldn’t want to live there forever.

For me, Baywood is the stuff of which – truly – dreams are made.

Image: Baywood, the former King family estate in Pittsburgh. Image courtesy Wikipedia, taken by Lee Paxton.

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