Rebooted: Making a House a Home

Rebooted columnist Jill Gleeson is busy turning her Northside house into a home.

If you live in Pittsburgh you might have heard about Randyland. If you live anywhere else there’s a good chance you haven’t. Tucked away on the ’Burgh’s Northside, it’s a sort of outdoor folk art gallery, a wonderland of found objects and original murals that mesh magnificently into a display quite unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.

It’s the brainchild of visionary Randy Gilson, who picked up what was then a dilapidated property for less than $12,000 in the late ’90s. Before long he had set about making the house’s back lot into his own brilliantly hued, bizarro world that’s absolutely free for the public to enter.

Word is, the art changes frequently, so you never quite know what you’re going to see when you visit — though it’s sure to have a psychedelic vibe and feature loads of plastic pink flamingos and quirkily dressed mannequins, both of which Gilson seems to adore.

Count on plenty of deck chairs in neon colors, the better to welcome guests, too. When I visited a few years back, I plopped myself down and sat for a good bit, letting my eyes try to take it all in. I didn’t get to meet Gilson, but I loved his place, a cheerful castle, I recall thinking, built in the name of individuality and fun.

It’s something that I kept in mind when I bought digs with my partner, Matt, in Pittsburgh. It’s a teeny tiny little place, just a bit more than 1,000 square feet. I always joke that at 6 feet, 3 inches Matt doesn’t so much as live in the house as wear it. Though truth to tell, we don’t actually live there.

Because my father, at 88, needs full-time help, we still reside in State College. We get to Pittsburgh when we can, which isn’t often enough. Caregiving is more than a full-time job, but that’s a whole other story.

Our house is almost 100 years old, set on a steep hillside, and spent its later years as a rental property leased to college students. The last owners didn’t take care of it — the cracks in the walls and ceiling from the house shifting were terribly patched, and the entire interior, doors and window frames included, was painted in a flat, dingy color I like to call cigarette smoke ivory. Anyone thinking of buying the place would have seen how much work it would take to make it beautiful. Anyone but Matt and me. We were too much in love with the funky exterior stairs that run from street level down a flight to the property. It gives the whole thing a secretgarden feel we adore.

So, we bought the house and immediately set to renovating it ourselves, beginning with the second floor. We took our time, digging out the patch jobs and filling in the smallest dents in the walls, even refinishing the oak floors ourselves. We stripped the beautiful old doors and woodwork, repainting them a semi-gloss white, and installed new baseboards. And then we painted the spaces — the main bedroom a pale yellow, the “library” next to it a soothing blue. Because we don’t really live in the house it took us two years to finish the rooms. Two years of frustrated tears, of enraged cursing, of delighted laughter, of joy in the knowledge that we were, if ever so slowly, turning our house into a home with our very own hands.

We start on the bathroom next. We did hire a contractor for the most difficult part of that venture, the tiling and plumbing stuff. But we’re amending and painting the walls and woodwork ourselves again, and I know we’re in for a long process. At this point, I wonder if by the time we’re finished with our home sweet home I’ll be too old to make it up and down that adorable exterior stairway.

But there is something so satisfying about turning this beaten down old house into the shiny gem I know it can be. It may not be as quirky as Randyland, but it’s ours, an absolute reflection of Matt and me, and that makes it special, indeed.

For more information, visit randy.land.

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