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Central Catholic setting the stage

By Tony LaRussa
Monday, June 6, 2005

A $1.8 million renovation of the Central Catholic High School auditorium is being paid for with a donation by alumnus John McGonigle, chief legal officer of Downtown-based Federated Investors.

Little has changed at Central Catholic High School since it opened in Oakland in 1927.

The Christian Brothers still provide the school’s educational and spiritual foundation. Dress shirts and ties remain the order of the day. And recreation after lunch periods consists of walking the quad.

A major change, however, is under way in the Flemish Gothic style building on Fifth Avenue, which the city has designated a historic landmark.

Workers are restoring the school’s 900-seat auditorium to its original appearance while adding modern features to enhance performances.

A Mass and performance to mark the completion of the work is scheduled for Aug. 21.

The $1.8 million project is being paid for with a donation from John McGonigle, who graduated from Central in 1956. McGonigle, 67, is chief legal officer of Downtown-based Federated Investors.

McGonigle’s father, Henry, graduated from Central in 1933. His sons also are graduates, Kevin in 1982 and Patrick in 1985.

“As I’m sure it did for other Central graduates, the auditorium played an important role in my life as a student,” McGonigle said. “I have many fond memories of celebrations of liturgies, musical productions, pep rallies and other activities.”

“In thinking about this project,” McGonigle said, “I realized that one of my own personal goals was to see the auditorium restored to its original condition, returning it to what it must have looked like on the first day of school in 1927.”

Brother Richard Grzeskiewicz, the school’s principal, believes the work being done at the school is “a good sign for the future of Catholic schools in the area.”

“I think it shows that we are building for the future,” Grzeskiewicz said. “We are truly indebted to the McGonigle family for their overwhelming generosity in funding this project.

Central’s enrollment is expected to be 843 students for the 2005-06 school year. The school’s capacity is 880.

Grzeskiewicz said the renovations to what will be called McGonigle Auditorium are particularly important because many of the programs conducted there, such as plays and concerts, involve students from nearby Oakland Catholic High School, which is an all-girls school.

“The performing arts programs are vital in creating a strong bond between the two schools,” Grzeskiewicz said.

Work on the auditorium includes cleaning the red brick, which is set in a herringbone pattern throughout much of the interior, and restoring painted surfaces to their original hues.

One of the most painstaking restoration processes has been cleaning the orange, green and blue-colored wood slats in the ceiling, which originally were finished with an animal fat-based paint that typically cannot be repainted.

“We learned that trying to paint the ceiling wouldn’t work, so workmen had to get up there and clean each of the sections with a vacuum,” said Richard Fosbrink, who heads the school’s performing arts program.

Among the biggest changes is the addition of air conditioning and the replacement of the tattered seats with thick-cushioned, theater-style seats that will be spread out to provide more leg room.

A good deal of the work being done in the auditorium is taking place behind the scenes but will be clear to those who attend performances there.

A modern sound system using linear array speakers set in clusters throughout the room will be installed along with computer-controlled lighting and rigging systems.

“It’s very exciting to see this wonderful room, with all its history, coming back to life,” Fosbrink said. “And the addition of state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems will allow us to improve the quality of our performances and teach the students much more about the operations of a theater, which is our primary focus.”

Tony LaRussa can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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