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Can the former Fourth United Presbyterian Church be saved? – Friendship landmark abandoned and crumbling

Pittsburgh Post GazetteBy Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, July 7, 2007

With its rugged presence, the former Fourth United Presbyterian Church holds a prominent corner in Friendship, at the intersection of Friendship and South Pacific avenues. But for how long? It’s a good building fallen on bad times.

Built in the 1890s when the Richardsonian Romanesque was in vogue, the sandstone church has an arcaded porch with three arches supported by massive columns. Inspired by the welcoming, triple-arched porches of several of Richardson’s civic buildings, this one also promises shelter and security.

Sadly, the building no longer provides either. From the outside, the lack of maintenance is apparent in the missing windows and mortar. But that doesn’t prepare you for the scene of utter devastation and chaos inside.

In a first-floor hallway, water bubbles up from a hole in the floor, causing the floor tiles to buckle under puddles. Because water leaks through a portion of the roof when it rains, a staircase has rotted, and mold and mildew are everywhere. In the sanctuary, plaster falls from the ceiling onto the pews and paint peels from the columns, which still carry their Byzantine capitals, one of the interior’s few grace notes that have survived unscathed.

Stained-glass windows have been removed and replaced by plywood, which is falling away, or by nothing at all. Furniture is strewn about and packaged food still stands on the kitchen counters. In an office room, file cabinets hold manila folders full of church records.

It looks as if the congregation just up and left, which is exactly what happened several years ago, said the Rev. Lorraine Williams. The Fourth United Presbyterian Church — not to be confused with the still-active Fourth Presbyterian Church at Friendship Avenue and Roup Street — closed in the 1960s. Then it rented the church building to a school for about 10 years, the Rev. Williams said. She and her former husband, also a pastor, purchased the church in 1976 from Pittsburgh Presbytery. He now suffers from Alzheimer’s in an assisted living facility. She left their congregation in the mid-1980s and now is pastor of a church she declined to identify because she did not want to associate it with this situation.

She said the congregation that abandoned the church — the Greater Pittsburgh Gospel Deliverance Center — now calls itself New Day Ministries and rents space in Emory United Methodist Church. But her name is still on the deed. The Rev. Williams said she, too, was appalled at the condition of the building when she was last inside about two years ago.

The church has been on the market for more than a year and been under agreement three times, including twice with the same buyer. Neither was able to come up with financing for what they wanted to do — demolish the church and replace it with townhouses.

The Rev. Williams said windows and other objects were sold and removed from the building when it looked as if it would be demolished.

For the past year, the church has been listed with Tim Kimbel, president of Star Real Estate, and is now priced at $165,000. Mr. Kimbel will hold an open house on Monday and Tuesday for qualified bidders. About 20 parties expressed interest in the property while it was under agreement, including two who’d like to turn it into a neighborhood arts center. Of those 20, nine will be touring the building. Others are welcome to do so, but they must call Star Real Estate at 412-494-4110 on Monday morning to report their interest.

After the open house, to be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday and from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Mr. Kimbel will take bids on the property.

“This is not an auction,” he said. “We want people to submit their highest and best offer” by Thursday, along with a refundable deposit in the amount of their choice between $1,000 and $5,000. He and the Rev. Williams then will decide which to accept or counter-offer.

The Rev. Williams said the income from the sale would be distributed to a church ministry but not to New Day Ministries.

The church’s architect is unknown; several local and out-of-town firms were working in the Richardsonian Romanesque style in the 1890s here. Nevertheless, the building is a neighborhood landmark, although not, unfortunately, an official city historic landmark nor part of a city historic district. Demolition will require only a permit and, Mr. Kimbel said, about $85,000, according to estimates he had received from demolition contractors who looked at the building.

Jeffrey Dorsey, director of the neighborhood nonprofit Friendship Development Associates, said his group was inside the church as recently as late winter.

“By our estimate it’s close to a $2 million project to rehab it,” he said, adding that while Friendship is full of preservationists, they are also realists. “It’s just not a front-burner project for us because we have other projects going, mostly on Penn Avenue,” including development of the Glass Lofts at Penn Avenue and Fairmount Street.

Can this church be saved? Yes, it can and should. But it will take someone with vision — and very deep pockets.

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590. )

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