Inside and out, Shaler couple remake their home into place where everyone likes to gather

Saturday, July 03, 2010

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Parties at Noreen Yaksic, right, and Lisa McLain's backyard in Shaler always include lots of food. But the real star is the landscaping, which includes more than 125 boulders planted with a variety of hosta.

A damp basement didn't worry Noreen Yaksic and Lisa McLain much when they bought their Cape Cod-style house in Shaler in 2001. It had been built in the 1930s, and water in the cellar is a common woe for Pittsburghers.

Then they got their first good rain, and they worried plenty. Water didn't just trickle down the hillside behind their house into the basement stairwell. It flooded it.

"We had water up to the door knobs!" recalls Ms. Yaksic.

"It was a dose of reality," agrees Ms. McLain.

But when life throws lemons, Ms. Yaksic and Ms. McLain are the type who good-naturedly make lemonade.

"That's how the patio got done," says Ms. Yaksic, laughing. "Every time it rained, we had to take more mud out."

Their flooded basement became the impetus for a major reconstruction of their yard to tie it together with changes on the house. The result is nothing short of spectacular, a space so welcoming and in tune with nature that it's become Party Central for friends and family. How they did it is a lesson in making the most of what you have -- inside and out.

To stop the water, they soon realized they would have to regrade the hillside that started just a few feet from the kitchen door and climbed steeply into the woods. Tom Lisowski of Lisowski Tree Service and Landscaping first dug out the hillside and installed five French drains. Then the West Deer contractor hauled in more than 125 boulders -- most weighing at least a ton -- and built a terraced wall layered with gravel to keep the soil from sliding. The work took place during the summer of 2004, when Hurricane Charley battered the area with gusty winds and heavy rains. Hurricanes Frances and Ivan also took their licks.

Ms. Yaksic and Ms. McLain weathered the storms and watched as their old deck was replaced with a stone patio. To soften the wall of boulders, Ms. Yaksic, a courier for Federal Express and dedicated gardener, deposited dozens of hosta, Rudbeckia and other perennials between the cracks. Mr. Lisowksi brought in three large magnolias, a blue atlas cedar and a tree that smells, Ms. McLain says, "like cotton candy."

Soothing the ear is a koi pond fed by a trickling waterfall, and there's also a sunken hot tub for nieces and nephews to splash around in and a covered grilling area for cookouts. Adirondack chairs nestled on a small stone patio to the left of the pond offer a quiet view of the comfy side porch everyone inevitably ends up on at the end of parties, to watch TV or get warm in front of the fireplace.

"At the end of a long day, I love sitting there and looking down," says Ms. McLain, who works in pharmaceutical sales.

Having created an outdoor living area most homeowners would give their eyeteeth for, it's no surprise the pair would do a similarly good job on their next project a few years later, a total remodel of the home's dark, cramped galley-style kitchen. That project made them finalists in the 2009-10 Renovation Inspiration Contest sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh.

The reconfigured space, designed in 2008 by Ruth Thompson of New Angle Design, is perfect for entertaining anytime of year. But it's at its best in the summertime when it works in tandem with the outdoor area.

Originally, a wall with a small pass-through divided the kitchen from a little-used sunroom/sitting room. Bereft of windows, the space also hid the pond and yard. Contractor (and next-door neighbor) Bob Ochsenreiter took the offending wall down, uniting the kitchen and den. He also replaced a French door with a slider, added a pair of windows on either side and installed a picture window flanked by casements above the (new) kitchen sink. Carpeting gave way to 4-inch planks of hand-scraped maple and mahogany from Penn Carpet Service in the North Hills. (The rough finish helps mask marks left by the couple's cocker spaniels, Stella and Sophie.)

The sink sets the tone for the entire room, as it's big and deep enough to hold several bags of ice; it's often filled with ice for parties.

"I came home with it and said, 'We have to make this fit,' " says Ms. McLain.

Also good for crowds is the massive center island, supported on one side by a pair of thick wooden legs and on the other by Seville cabinetry with a maple aspen finish. It seats five and includes a six-burner professional range top.

The cherry cabinets with worm holes that encompass the bar are vintage, having been constructed by Danny Stahl, one of the home's former owners. Matching cubbies for wine bottles were repurposed from old shelves that used to hold DVDs.

"Noreen was like, 'Throw those in the Dumpster,' and I was like, 'Don't you dare!' " says Ms. McLain.

Hard-to-access cabinet space is kept to a minimum with roll-out drawers, and tripling the counterspace allows for two work zones, a secondary sink and dishwasher, and beverage center and wine rack. A built-in pantry off the bar area and floor-to-ceiling spice rack to the left of the fridge keep cooking supplies out of sight. The granite counters made from Ubatuba (center island) and Verde Labradore (rest of the kitchen) are too pretty for clutter.

Many of the room's ideas evolved from pages Ms. McLain tore from home magazines over the years. But it took Ms. Thompson to bring the vision to life.

"She took the project from merely good to great," she says.

"We want people to feel they're warm and welcome in our house," says Ms. Yaksic. "A place where you can come in and flop down and be comfortable."

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.