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interior designsneak peeks

An Abandoned School Becomes A Place for Art, Community and Home

by Quelcy Kogel

When one of my closest (read: most brutally honest) friends visited my apartment, she pointed to a wall of chipping paint and said, “are you going to finish that?” “It is finished,” I assured her, the differences in our styles made painfully clear. I’m drawn to chipping paint, exposed lathe, a hint of original tile and the like. I’m drawn to the layers of stories a building can hold and the stories we should protect. So I’m easily drawn to the place Jebediah “Jeb” Feldman has chosen to call home. Both the building that houses him, and the community in which it sits, are rich in history and worth protecting.

To meet Jeb is to see the many paths and influences he has had. He grew up in Santa Fe, NM, moved to Madison, WI for college, lived in San Francisco and then in Pittsburgh for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University. While earning his masters, he became very involved with then Mayor-Elect John Fetterman (whose house I showed you here) of Braddock, PA, a borough on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. There was something that drew Jeb to Braddock for the long haul.

“Braddock was unlike any place I’d ever experienced. It felt like it was slipping away and crumbling around the few people and activities that still occupied it. Yet, it was beautiful and historic and important, and very deserving of attention and investment. Many folks living here were proud and warm. After this place lost 90% of everything it once was, it still seemed full of opportunity.” After a few years of living in Pittsburgh, Jeb decided on the Braddock building that would make him a member of the community: an old, abandoned Catholic school. He would come to use this space as a home, as the UnSmoke Systems Art Space, and as studio spaces for artists.

The school building was originally completed in 1904 by a Hungarian-American architect named Titus de Bobula, who Jeb describes as “a very strange and interesting man.” The many years of occupants, disconnected plumbing, accumulated junk, old windows, carpeting, and water damage made for more projects than the average home. Jeb still has many ambitious projects on the horizon, but after nine years of living in a building that was never meant to be a home in the first place, he at least has a unique place to hang his hat, and a place in a community he loves.

Jeb reflects, “The community has grown and improved so much over the last 10 years, and it has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life to help drive and be a part of that change. I feel lucky that I found this community and the home I have, and I’m excited to see what the future brings here.” —Quelcy

Photography by Quelcy Kogel | Gallery photos by Mandy Fierens

Image Above: Jeb Feldman, in an original Eames chair inherited from his grandfather, flanked by his best furry friends. Liberty “Libby,” the older dog, was named for the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty, where they lived previously, and little Benigo “Benny” was a recent rescue from a surf spot near Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The dogs, the building, and his community work keep Jeb quite busy. 

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A street view of Jeb’s repurposed school building on the right. He also acquired the center building for apartment rentals and a ground floor project that is in the works. Brooklyn-based artist Katie Merz was looking for a mural space, and Jeb offered the facade of his building. The building on the left was supposedly Braddock’s first post office. Across the street from these three buildings is the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Opened in 1872 by Andrew Carnegie and his associates, it’s one of the few remaining steel mills still in operation in the rustbelt.

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Previously the school’s auditorium, the main floor of Jeb’s building features UnSmoke Systems Artspace, a gallery “Inspired by the industrial character and the historical importance of Braddock.”

Fabric installation by Alexandra Watrous. Far painting by Joshua Hogan for a show titled “Monumental.”

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The gallery seeks to “generate positive and intrepid ideas about the reuse of urban space. In a town where dilapidation and neglect have scarred the landscape, UnSmoke Systems contends that Braddock is fertile ground for creativity.”

Collaged installation by Pittsburgh-based artist Ron Copeland. Painting by Stephanie Armbruster for the show titled “Monumental.”

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Ten years ago, Pittsburgh-based artist David Montano wallpapered the central stairwell with paper collections from his youth, for the grand opening of the UnSmoke Systems Artspace. It became an iconic permanent installation. The stairwell leads to the artist studios and the floor Jeb uses for his home.

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Jeb’s goal in carving a home from the old school was “to highlight the beautiful materials and spaces of an old building and build a warm and attractive space into it with art and objects that I appreciate.” Jeb added the wall and door to the central corridor of his living space as a way to separate his private rooms from the public art spaces. He unearthed the vintage “UNSMOKE” sign while redoing one of the spaces in the building.”

Framed photography by Melodie McDaniel.

 

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Jeb salvaged the old mantel in Braddock and stuck it on his brick wall (not an actual fireplace). Print above the mantel by Erik Jones and photo by Ross Mantle.

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When it comes to the bathroom, originally the boys’ bathroom for the school, Jeb jokes “there are options in here.” There are two urinals, three sinks, and there would have been two toilets but Jeb substituted a shower.

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Jeb converted an old classroom into his main living space, complete with the original chalkboards. There’s more work in store for his personal space, but it takes lots of time. He plans to convert another similarly sized classroom into more living space, then reconfigure his current space to include an open kitchen. Jeb explains, “In [an] old building like this, that could endlessly be adapted, it’s a major challenge to try and bite off all of the things that can be done to make it a cool space.”

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The entrance from the main corridor to Jeb’s classroom home.

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The pieces Jeb has chosen to put in his home have as many stories and unique qualities as the building itself, like his dining table. He recalls, “The table in my space was my grandfather’s, who was a very special person. As a second career, he became a fine art and book dealer in Cleveland, specializing in contemporary prints by artists in the vein of Raushenberg, Lichtenstein, Dine, and Katz. He didn’t have a gallery and operated strictly out of a small office. This large table was a central piece of furniture in his office, and it was where he would lay out all of the prints when he would discuss them with visitors.”

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Prints by Pete Railand and Tugboat Printshop. Paintings by Michelle Gregio and Jeb Feldman.

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When Jeb first acquired the building, his priority was on the “bigger ticket items.” He says, “I got a lot of help from folks to reclaim the interior spaces for the studios and gallery and make them clean and attractive again. That took a few months. It took me a whole summer after that to clean out and create a living space for myself before I could move in. I’ve been slowly reclaiming spaces in the building ever since, and am still faced with some big projects to make all the space functional. It feels like I’ll be replacing windows in here forever!”

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A small print by artist Caledonia Curry, aka Swoon, is nestled amongst Jeb’s book collection. Caledonia visited Braddock in 2007 and launched Braddock Tiles, a community project to preserve an old church through art, as part of her Heliotrope Foundation. Many of her signature wheat-paste portraits can be found in Braddock, including on the facade of Jeb’s building.

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Nooks, crannies and surfaces are filled with Jeb’s collections, which speak to the various paths he has taken, places he has lived, and the many artists who have come through this building. The colored pictures in this collection are old black and whites of a vintage album Jeb found and colored with oil sticks.

 

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11-month-old Benny was a stray dog on a Mexican beach before a friend of Jeb’s rescued her, and Jeb managed to bring her to the U.S. (no easy task!). She loves her new Braddock life with plenty of open space for running.

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The office corner of Jeb’s living space takes advantage of the large windows and natural light. Looking out the windows is like looking through history. Jeb says, “The views out my windows are also pretty striking. Andrew Carnegie’s first U.S. steel mill is just across the street from me, and still doing pretty much exactly what it did when it opened 132 years ago. I was also told that there used to be a plaque on the property noting that George Washington washed General Edward Braddock’s fatal wounds in a spring at this location during their retreat from the French and Indian ambush that vanquished them on their way to retake Fort Duquesne.” There’s so much in Braddock worth preserving.

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Jeb is most grateful for “the big open spaces and large windows that make for lots of light and a really comfortable living space, even if it wasn’t meant to be one.”

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Comments

  • Normally, the pictures in sneak peeks are the highlight, but here-though the space is divine- it was the statement about places that are slipping away being beautiful and worthy of attention and investment that really took my breath away. Great place, great ethos, thanks for sharing both.

  • This is my all-time favorite Design Sponge story ever. Unlike anything else. More of the outliers, please?

  • Love this space! Probably a stupid question/observation, but I was left confused when I read the line “There are two urinals, three sinks, and there would have been two toilets but Jeb substituted a shower.” Does that mean he removed both toilets or just one? Because, uh, don’t you need at least one? Otherwise, I love the sense of history in this converted school building.

    • I still have one toilet, Shannon. Fortunately I wasn’t overly greedy with my shower area so that I could keep one of them.

  • I thought what Shannon thought about number two’s hahaha.

    This is a fabulous and inspirational reinvention for a beautiful space.

    I have very little desire to visit USA, but am quite drawn to the potent possibilities for aged and disused industrial spaces. I live in the youngest country (last colonial backwater), New Zealand, and our built environment is much smaller and more agricultural, so there’s not much scope for industrial reno.

  • This isn’t totally my happy place, but it represents something so real and true and FRESH in contrast to the over-saturated “white-on-white” blandness of digital design mags. Design*Sponge continues to break the mould – thank you! More please!

  • ooh what would I do without you Design Sponge? Just when the day has taken a creative downturn I receive your email… Wow! What artists can achieve when they follow their unique visions… thank you…. thank you…. thank you.

  • An extraordinarily gorgeous treasure of a box. Braddock. Unsmoke. Jeb. Truly MIND BLOWING what you’ve done with, and for your quaint little town. It’s huge! I admire you.

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