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Accord reached on old churches, ‘Sensitive’ reuse of buildings sought

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, October 01, 2005

When the Church Brew Works opened in the former St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese officials were not happy to see gleaming steel and copper brew tanks on the site of the former altar and patrons sipping beers under religious-themed windows.

Now a new, informal partnership between the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the diocese aims to encourage a more sensitive reuse of religious buildings. It may be the first such agreement of its kind.

The two organizations, which traditionally have found themselves on opposite sides of historic preservation battles, have agreed to work together on the sale and reuse of churches, rectories, convents, schools and other buildings owned by the diocese.

Sealed with a handshake, it’s only a gentlemen’s agreement, but one that could have a significant impact on the future of religious buildings in Allegheny County.

“It’s two people who trust one another and respect one another, which is the way I think agreements used to be made,” said diocesan spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin, who entered the agreement with Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of Landmarks.

Under terms of the partnership, Landmarks will have an opportunity to purchase churches and other buildings the diocese no longer needs.

Although selling to other religious groups is always the first choice, Lengwin said, each case is unique, and Landmarks sometimes may have the first opportunity to purchase a building.

“They are part of the process,” he said.

The preservation group will review the buildings and decide if it has any interest in purchasing them for reuse. If not, it will assist in marketing the buildings and possibly fund adaptive reuse studies, if they are needed.

The agreement has been in the works for several years, said Cathy McCollom, Landmarks’ chief programs officer. In 2002, when the diocese began lobbying City Council for legislation stipulating that only the owner of a religious building could nominate it for city historic designation, Landmarks approached the diocese.

“We began talking to Father Lengwin about what could be done to address their concerns and our concerns,” McCollom said.

The legislation, sponsored by then-Councilman Bob O’Connor, passed in 2003.

In the new agreement, Landmarks has pledged not to nominate diocesan buildings to either the National Register of Historic Places or for city historic designation without the consent of the diocese.

“We mentioned it in case the legislation is ever changed,” McCollom said.

The diocese will begin to participate in Landmarks’ Historic Religious Properties Program, which began in 1993 and provides grants and technical assistance for the preservation of religious buildings in Allegheny County.

The diocese also will begin to accept the plaques Landmarks produces to call attention to historic buildings.

If potential buyers are interested in pursuing National Register historic designation and the federal tax credit that comes with it, the diocese will work with Landmarks to seek designation.

The diocese retains the right to remove interior or exterior religious symbols or artwork, including stained glass windows with religious themes, baptismal fonts and statues.

In the case of the St. John the Baptist Church, which closed in 1993 and became the Brew Works, “We were assured that all of the sacred items had been removed” before the sale, Lengwin said. “In fact, that was not true. We learned a good lesson, that we needed to go in and look at the church before it was marketed for sale.”

The facility opened in 1996 as a microbrewery and it maintains a steady clientele.

St. John’s windows are a comfort to some Church Brew Works patrons, said Phillip Moran, who manages the restaurant’s dining room.

“They feel very happy that they can come and see them. It makes them remember their family, because [their ancestors’] names are at the bottom of the windows. And they end up telling you a story about when they came to church or school here, or their family did.”

Lengwin said Landmarks looked at two worship sites in St. John Vianney parish that closed last month, St. Canice Church in Knoxville and St. Henry Church in Arlington.

“These are possibly the first buildings the agreement would have an impact on,” he said. “A developer is looking at those two buildings and they might be sold. I’m not sure what the uses would be, but it’s a developer that we have confidence in.”

In Ambridge, three closed churches “are in various stages of perhaps being sold,” including one to a congregation of another faith, Lengwin said. “Landmarks won’t have an impact there. But there will be other buildings in the future for which we look to this agreement with great hope.”

“This is perhaps the only such agreement between preservationists and the Roman Catholic church,” Ziegler said, “and we are pleased to have been part of it, setting a model for others who are trying to preserve such structures.”

(Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)
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This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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