Landmark Downtown cathedral gets its first cleaning

Episcopal house of worship was being damaged by acid runoff whenever it rained

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Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photosDennis Dally, on scaffolding, and others from Young Restoration Co. in Carnegie are using baking soda and water to clean off years of grime from Trinity Cathedral, Downtown, to bring the sandstone back to its normal color.
Click photo for larger image.
At the same time as Trinity Cathedral is being cleaned, University of Pennsylvania graduate students Marco Federico and Paula Kulpa, from the Architectural Conservation Laboratory, work on restoration of the church cemetery's grave markers. The markers are for Capt. Nathaniel Irish, who died in 1816, and his wife, Mary Irish, who died in 1829. Glue and muslin are used to hold the marker together as it is worked on.
Click photo for larger image.

One of Pittsburgh's oldest cathedrals is getting a complete makeover.

Cleaning crews will wash away 120 years worth of grime from Trinity Cathedral in Downtown, interns from the University of Pennsylvania will clean headstones and landscapers will green up the property.

While the cathedral is being cleaned in preparation for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary, there's another reason the cleanup's time has come: The grime on the building from Pittsburgh's steel mill days has been turning acidic when it rains, and is slowly deteriorating the sandstone cathedral.

The yearlong celebration of the founding of Pittsburgh's Episcopal church runs from this Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving 2008.

"There had been some debate within the diocese about whether or not to clean it," Bishop Robert Duncan said. Some members of the diocese thought the blackened exterior would serve as a reminder of Pittsburgh's industrious past. But the bishop said he could look out of his Oliver Building office and see the deterioration. In 2000, he and some colleagues hired an engineering firm to take a sample of the grime and test it.

"Every time the building gets moist it's like it's getting an acid bath," he said.

Fred Thieman, co-chairman of the anniversary celebration campaign, said the cost of the restoration work won't be known until after the cleaning. Young Restoration Co., of Carnegie, which has been contracted for the cleaning, uses a wash which is essentially baking soda and water, and environmentally friendly. The cleaning, which began last week, is expected to take three to four months.

While the cathedral was built in 1872, the cemetery's origin was as a Native American burial ground. It also holds the remains of French and British soldiers and early Americans. University of Pennsylvania postgraduate student Teresa Duff, the site supervisor, said she and two graduate students are cleaning and preserving headstones as the third and final part of a stone-conservation campaign involving the cathedral.

There are eight different methods of preserving and treating the headstones, which are used on a case-by-case basis. For example, some of the stones need to have grout injected into cracks, and some need metal pins inserted to keep them from crumbling .

About 140 headstones will be pulled, treated and returned to their original places.

Ms. Duff said members of the university worked on other stone conservation efforts involving the graveyard in 1990 and 2001. The University of Pennsylvania has one of the state's best architectural preservation programs.

The alley between the church and the Oliver Building will have landscaping done and be turned into an informal "heroes way" with a memorial to Pittsburgh's modern heroes, such as the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 and the firefighters who died while fighting the Ebenezer Church fire in 2004.

Trinity Cathedral is in the area of Fort Pitt, where Pittsburgh's first Anglican prayer service was held.

The Episcopal Church was formed as an American successor to the British Anglican Church.

The cathedral hasn't been cleaned before for financial reasons, said Canon Cathy Brall. The church has already raised two-thirds of the money needed through bequests, donations and sponsors.

The yearlong celebration also will include lights to provide up-lighting of the cathedral at night.

"Christians consider Jesus as the light of the world," Bishop Duncan said. "We want the church to be a light for Pittsburgh."


Sara McCune can be reached at smccune@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1122


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