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Between a Ramp and a Hard Place

Friday, September 10, 2010 11:33 AM

Written by Diana Nelson Jones

To some people, the historic standards that prohibit vinyl windows and metal awnings are dictatorial. To others, those standards safeguard authenticity and dumbing down is not an option.

When it’s your own budget, a little gray can seep into the argument.

Even someone who appreciates the high standards that are supposed to be followed in an historic district can sympathize with a building owner who needs to replace five 10-foot-tall windows in a group of Victorian row houses. Ouch.

Calvary United Methodist Church

But when you buy in an historic district you’re investing in more than a building.

The people of Calvary United Methodist Church in Allegheny West have been diligent in following the historic course. Their partner, the Allegheny Historic Preservation Society, helped them raise the more than $2 million needed for interior and exterior repairs in the late 1990s. That included removing some of the world’s largest Tiffany windows for cleaning and releading.

Visit their web site at

They have raised about $180,000 for the next “must-do” project — making their fellowship hall in the basement accessible to the increasing numbers of people who use the church. They are anticipating six bids for a job that calls for an elevator, a new door carved into the side off the parking lot and a 30-foot ramp with an historically acceptable railing and ramp foundation. Which means limestone.

Based on the first bids to come in, Rev. Larry Homitsky tells me, the church is short somewhere between $75,000 and $120,000. The Historic Review Commission offered some flexibility on the railing but insisted on the limestone. Rev. Homitsky and the church’s architect will reappear before the HRC next month, maybe with hat in hand.

He said the church has had “tremendous support” over the years in grants and other gifts. Many people see Calvary as more than a church, in part because it is on the National Register of Historic Places and also because thousands of people a week, mostly from the community but not necessarily in the congregation, use it to practice yoga, square dance, learn art and confirm the day-at-a-time struggle against addiction. The Allegheny West Civic Council meets there the second Tuesday of every month. A lot of brides who want a beautiful church for their wedding pick Calvary instead of the one they go to. More than 1,000 Christmas house tourists converge on the church as a point of interest.

The time, effort and money spent in being an historic property is important, said Rev. Homitsky. That, set alongside the “ministry value” of functioning for people is the challenge.

If you want to help Calvary make their basement accessible and do it at historic standards, they will take donations. Specify on your check that it is meant for the ramp and elevator project and mail it to the church at 971 Beech Ave., Pittsburgh 15233.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633