Carole Malakoff had never heard of Moorish fretworks when she and her husband, Bob, bought an 1871 Italianate-style house in Pittsburgh.
But ever since they found an 11-foot section of the delicate woodwork within a wall, they have become experts – and collectors.
The Malakoffs garden has a large goldfish pond and courtyard, and sitting on their reproduction Victorian back porch (with a cleverly concealed handicap ramp for Bob Malakoff) is the perfect way to spend an evening.
It only gets better when you enter the back of the house, where a cozy new room features a gas-burning fireplace and a collection of rug beaters on the wall.
Carole Malakoff, who also collects purses, says: When you can have room to display things, youre a collector. Otherwise, youre a hoarder.
This house is a perfect showcase for collections, but it wasnt when the Malakoffs bought it in 1992. Once owned by one of the Kaufmann brothers of department-store fame, it had been divided into three apartments.
The couple began a nearly 20-year restoration project on the upstairs, sleeping downstairs in a parlor.
Several years ago, when contractor George Barnhart discovered a large piece of fretwork sandwiched between two pieces of drywall in that parlor, the homeowners recognized it as Victorian fretwork. But they didnt know what it really was until they asked Michael Eversmeyer, an architect and preservationist.
Moorish fretwork caught the Victorians fancy because it was ornate woodwork with Oriental style. A magazine article on the phenomenon by carpenter Paul Tucker was an eye-opener for the Malakoffs, who soon began searching for more examples.
Tucker credits Moses Ransom of Cleveland with helping to popularize Moorish fretwork by inventing a machine that could carve long, thin, spiral-shaped pieces of wood and weave it in intricate patterns.
In his 1885 patent application, Ransom wrote: My invention successfully brings within the reach of people of ordinary means articles of great beauty and utility heretofore only attainable by the rich at great cost.
Unfortunately for Ransom, the craze was relatively short-lived, and by the early 20th century, homeowners tired of dusting fretwork were already removing it from doorways, landings and other spaces in their homes.
Moorish fretwork occasionally turns up in antique stores, but dealers often know little about it, Carole Malakoff said. She has bought several sections that came with a bag of broken pieces.
One of the most beautiful pieces of Moorish fretwork is the focal point of their kitchen. Uplit and suspended above a five-burner gas stove, it never fails to draw attention.
Contractor Ed Pinto has stripped and restored all of the homes fretwork and built some of its cabinetry and other woodwork. Together with Barnhart, he has created a showplace that perfectly illustrates what Victorians – and many people today – consider the height of architectural ornament.
Pinto is not just a carpenter, hes an artisan, Carole Malakoff says.
When he leaves you, you are really happy with what hes done.