Historic groups see opportunity in Rt. 28 project
As the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation begins its final design plans to widen and upgrade Route 28, several organizations are working with PennDot to not only preserve the oldest existing Roman Catholic Croatian church building in the country, but also to beautify the entrance to Troy Hill and attract tourists.
The St. Nicholas Church, unused since 2004, is at the heart of the efforts of Preservation Pittsburgh and the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation. They want to turn the 106-year old church into a national shrine and museum to tell the story of the original St. Nicholas, the model for Santa Claus, and the story of the Croatian community that was established in the neighborhood.
“We’re trying to make the church a destination and to find a way to make this venture financially practical,” said Jack Schmitt, a board member of Preservation Pittsburgh.
One of the earliest Croatian settlements in the country grew up along the canal that used to parallel the river and provide a means for Allegheny City — which became the North Side after Pittsburgh annexed it in 1907 — to receive goods off-loaded from the Allegheny River. It is a history few Pittsburghers know, “but it was one of the greatest things that happened,” said Mr. Schmitt. “It was key to Pittsburgh’s development.”
He said the preservation effort began seven years ago “to save all the green hillsides and homes and mitigate the loss of historic fabric” along the North Side portal. The group has since accepted that it will lose many structures along the 21/2-mile section between the 16th Street Bridge and the Millvale interchange.
A collection of nonprofits are lined up to complement PennDot’s redesign, including the Riverlife Task Force, Friends of the Riverfront, and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
“As a North Sider, I looked at the possibilities and thought, ‘Hey, this is the entrance [to the neighborhood],” said Mr. Schmitt, a resident of Allegheny West. “We can have walls with bolts sticking out of them or we can do something creative and save some of our history. It would be interesting and uplifting. If we don’t do something good, we’ll have to live with what is done.”
Goals include connecting the Allegheny River trail, via its footpath across the highway, to a green space that would run from the Pennsylvania Brewing Co. at Troy Hill and Finial streets to the church; to provide access to the church from the roadway; and to present the area’s history by posting canal stones and interpretive plaques along the river trail.
The road redesign will be a compromise of green space and concrete, but the retaining walls present an opportunity, he said. The preservation groups have asked PennDot to imitate the lock stone walls of the old canal that once followed the same course as the road. They also propose bronze outlines of canal boats against the wall as a whimsical experience for Route 28 travelers.
Dan Cessna, PennDot’s district executive, said the canal boats would have to be paid for by state enhancement funds, not from the Route 28 redesign budget, if PennDot approves their installation.
“We haven’t investigated to determine whether it would be feasible from a safety standpoint,” he said. “We haven’t determined the exact limits of rights of way.” He said PennDot wants the result “to look pleasing” and would consider the suggested hillside plantings and stone wall texture of the old canal.
In one of many options in its most recent design report, PennDot proposes to regrade the church parking lot to be level with Route 28 and to expand the road “primarily to the east to minimize hillside impacts.”
Arthur Ziegler of Landmarks said that though “nothing is definite, we are interested” in creating the interpretive plaques. “They would tell the physical history of the area, and it’s a history of transportation — canal, railroad, river and road.”
Other stories could include those of Indian trails and settlements, George Washington’s crossing, Herr’s Island, canal houses, the Croatian community, and the Heinz and Pittsburgh Wool factories.
Mr. Ziegler said Landmarks has been “very interested in saving [the church], and we like the idea that it might be a Croatian shrine. We were involved in getting a roadway to access the church with parking.”
In March, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh had all religious objects removed from the church, as canon requires. The Follieri Group of New York City has a sales agreement to buy the church, said Victor Kamber, a Follieri spokesman. “We should close within the month.”
Mr. Kamber said the Follieri Group has been in contact with the preservationists and expects to lease the church back to them.
“We’re sort of excited about their plans and hope they will be able to” make them succeed, he said.
The Follieri Group, a real-estate development company, targets unused Catholic churches for preservation, said Mr. Kamber, “rather than see them destroyed or developed as something that isn’t representative of the community.”
(Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1626. )