Story by Dave Zuchowski for Mon Valley Vistas, All photos by Bill Rockwell
Brownsville councilwoman, Barb Peffer remembers the three thrilling months in 1983 when a film crew set up camp, energizing the historic town on the Monongahela. To film “Maria’s Lovers, director Andrei Konchalovsky, brought in Hollywood actors like Nastassja Kinski, John Savage, Robert Mitchum, and Keith Carradine, temporarily lighting up Brownsville with a Tinsel Town glow.
“I was 9 at the time and had a newspaper route,” Peffer said. Along the way, I noticed a lot of equipment and people milling around. There was a hubbub for a while then everything stopped and it got quiet. Bank Street where Maria’s Lovers’ house stands was also blocked off and I had to make a detour on my paper route. That’s when it dawned on me that they must be filming something.”
When the film came out, Peffer wasn’t allowed to see it because her parents didn’t know what it was about and the title didn’t suggest it was something appropriate for a nine-year-old. Eight years later she finally found a copy in the library and watched it for the first time.
One of the main focuses of the film is a modest, circa 1906, single-family house located at 208 Bank Street, which served as the title character’s home. Stunning views of the town, river, and the lofty Lane Bane Bridge gave it cinematic and visual clout, attributes that make it an enviable vantage point to this day
After the film crew left town, the house fell back into everyday use and was subsequently abandoned for the last 15 years. Time and neglect had taken its toll on the structure and vines and weeds covered the unoccupied building. Seeing the potential in restoring a Brownsville landmark, Philadelphia investor and part-time Brownsville resident, Stephen Beckman, purchased the house from Fayette County for $2,000 through his company, Iroquois Properties.
With the goal of revamping the building as a short-term rental property and a center for small events like weddings, bridal and baby showers, anniversary celebrations, family reunions, girls’ nights out, tea parties, private dinners, and graduation parties, Beckman financed the extensive restoration with help from local government.
“With the aid of several volunteers, we removed fifteen 30-cubic dumpsters of debris from the property and another two 30-foot dumpsters [of detritus] from the house,” Beckman said.
“Starting in May of 2020, we spent three months getting the house back to its barebones and another month to clean the hearths,” said councilwoman, Beth Bock.
The porches had been supported by logs assumed to be original, which had badly deteriorated, so the restoration added new supports that raised the porches 1-½ feet. The exterior of the house was repainted in its original white with green trim pattern, the pine flooring was refinished and a new roof was added. The house’s heating and plumbing were also revamped, and new windows were added.
For much of the restoration, Beckman sourced local craftsmen and vendors. Despite the changes, much of the original framework, siding, woodwork, porch windows and other details remain such as the pocket doors between the living and dining rooms. Even an old fuse box (now seeing life as a nightlight in the kitchen), has been saved to add interest to the décor.
Because the film was set in the post-World War Two time frame, Beckman wants to recreate that era with furnishings and details from that era. Memorabilia of both Brownsville and the film, including autographs of the actors, will be scattered throughout the house, with the bulk of the items housed in the smallest of the three bedrooms.
Helping furnish the house, Antiques on Broad, which maintains a store just down the street, is adding furniture and décor items, some of which can be purchased by those who rent the house for short term stays.
“Renters can also schedule a private tour of the antique store with the owner,” Beckman said.
For those who rent the house or schedule a private event, Beckman wants to create a right-out-of-the-1940s experience as much as possible. For instance, replicas of Maria’s coat and hat hanging on a rack will greet visitors as they enter the vestibule, and a period stove has been installed in the fully operational kitchen. While much of the house will harken back to the mid-1940s, it is also equipped with modern amenities such as WiFi and USB ports.
The attic, which is accessed by a hidden doorway, will function as a game room and hideaway where guests can read, relax, and watch films on DVD, including “Maria’s Lovers.” The house can be rented through the website www.marialovershouse.com or though www.airbnb.com. Beckman likes to point out, however, that the house is not a bed and breakfast establishment. Rather it’s a short-term rental with a maximum occupancy of seven.
Already the house has been rented for an end-of-June visit, and Beckman is hoping for an official opening event later with local officials in attendance. At the event, the plan is to have Destiny Bock, dressed as Maria, available for photo shoots. Interestingly, Destiny’s great-aunt, Denice Bock, stood in as a double for Kinski during the filming process.
To cross-promote with local businesses, the plan is to offer discounts to restaurants such as Fiddle’s and establish ties with area wineries, distilleries, cigar shops, honey producers and more.
Already, guests will find the house stocked with Black Stove Collections soaps, a Grindstone enterprise, and guests will be able to purchase additional Black Stove items to take home.
In the future, Beckman hopes to stage an annual Maria’s Lovers’ event, which will feature an open house and the screening of the title film at the local Brownsville Drive-In or Cast Iron Amphitheater. Peffer is already planning a future film location tour of the town, which boasts at least four films including “Riddle” with Val Kilmer, “Deer Hunter” and “Abduction” plus the Netflix series “I Am Not O.K. With This.”
“When I purchased the house, my goal was to help bring the community along to where it should be and inspire others to do more of the same,” Beckman said.
This original piece was penned by Dave Zuchowski for Mon Valley Vistas. Visit Dave’s blog for a plethora of eclectic upcoming events, performances, and activities taking place in our region: www.pittsburghowlscribe.blogspot.com