Croatian and North Side groups unveil plans for former St. Nicholas Church

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If the former St. Nicholas Church is to have new life as a National Immigration Museum, it needs a compliant property owner and about $10 million to start.

The Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation and Northside Leadership Conference yesterday presented five options for turning the former church on East Ohio Street into a museum. The options were unveiled during a press conference at the Penn Brewery.

The groups had planned to unveil their drawings and feasibility studies when the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced Monday that the church, which the St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale closed in 2004, was in the process of being sold to Lamar Advertising.

The announcement set off quick early talks between the preservation partnership and Lamar. They scheduled a formal meeting for next week.

Among the multitude of "ifs," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, is that Lamar hasn't yet purchased the property.

Lamar Advertising Pittsburgh Vice President Stan Geier has said he is willing to work with the groups so that the church can be retooled. Lamar needs enough space on the lot to secure about five billboards, he said.

"We hope to come up with a solution that satisfies everybody," said Mr. Fatla.

The conference began managing the museum project for the Croatian organization last year. The Croatian group has had plans for the church through a decade, persisting even as the Diocese discussed selling the property with a series of suitors, all of whom backed out but never expressed interest in the building's preservation.

It is a city historic structure that, for several years, looked like it would be sacrificed to Route 28 expansion. Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation changed its plans to spare the church.

"It's been a very difficult struggle," said Bill Vergot, president of Preserve Croatian Heritage, "but never did we stop thinking that we could save this church."

He said a museum of more general ethnic experience "can tell the story not only of us Croatians but of all the ethnic groups" who made Pittsburgh "a beautiful mosaic of the world."

The proposed museum would use the church building as exhibit space, add new construction to the east or west or both and connect a relocated parking lot -- which would be above the property on Troy Hill Road -- to the riverfront trail system.

The current 10,000-square-foot lot would be expanded to about 20,000 square feet and cost about $10 million, said Mr. Fatla.

Variations on the general plan range from keeping the rectory to razing it and replacing it with a new building. Architect John Francona, of Astorino, who did the design feasibility study, said the rectory "does not contribute" to a museum site, largely because "it's a house." New construction would be more practical than trying to reconfigure a house to serve as a multi-purpose space.

He said the parking lot that currently opens onto Route 28 would not be used for museum visitors because Route 28 traffic makes pulling in and out dangerous.

Paul Griffith, of Integra Realty Resources, said his firm's marketing study indicates a 20,000-square-foot museum could attract 25,000 people a year and would need an annual operating budget of between $500,000 and $600,000.

Mr. Fatla said funding sources would include donations to set up an endowment and foundation support to start a capital campaign. "We want to avoid needing government funds" to operate, he said.

If these plans move forward, the museum would open in five years at the earliest, said Mr. Fatla.


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her City Walkabout blog at post-gazette.com/localnews.


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