St. Nicholas seeks permission to demolish old church on Route 28
July 19, 2011 8:00 AM
Route 28 traffic moves past St. Nicholas Church during the Monday evening rush hour.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saddled with a church it can't use and doesn't want, the St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale is seeking Pittsburgh's permission to demolish buildings on Route 28 that have not been part of its parish since they were closed in 2004.
Because the old church -- a hub of one of the earliest Croatian communities in the country -- is a city historic landmark, the parish's request must go before the Historic Review Commission. The matter is on the commission's Aug. 3 agenda and also includes the rectory and a garage.
The parish also requests a certificate of appropriateness to remove the stained glass windows. In a statement, the parish notes that a recent engineering study raised concerns about public safety.
For years, preservation groups have countered the parish's claims that the church is not stable and have presented studies that indicate an immigration museum on the site would be feasible. But they have not been able to come up with the money to buy it, and potential buyers have backed out.
Lamar is the most recent suitor, whose Pittsburgh division president Stan Geyer had previously said the museum could be accommodated as long as Lamar's needs were met. Lamar wanted the property to display billboards and might have offered site control for the museum to begin fund-raising.
On Monday, Mr. Geyer said "there's maybe a 10 percent chance we're still interested. It doesn't look like it's going to meet our needs."
He said he was informed the church is "structurally in pretty bad shape. There was a meeting with PennDOT and they [the diocese] made the decision to demolish."
Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, which has helped manage the museum project planning, questions the public safety concern.
"We've been through the building and, between myself and our contractors and staff who have more than 75 years of experience in real estate development and the architect we hired, none of us believe the building is structurally unsound."
Jack Schmitt, a member of Preservation Pittsburgh and a leading advocate for the church's preservation, said the parish's announcement was expected but that it "doesn't mean anything yet" to plans for the museum. "We have a lot of things to say at the hearings."
The church was granted city historic status in 2001. The sister parish that absorbed its congregation in 1994, St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, has been maintaining the building for the Catholic Diocese.
In 2003, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shifted its expansion of Route 28 to avoid the church.
The Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation has been fundraising for a decade, raising about $60,000 without site control. The foundation has been paying for securing the building, boarding it against vandals and for minor repairs.
Mr. Fatla said the possibly compromised retaining wall behind the church should be PennDOT's responsibility to shore up, since state agencies have obligations to protect historic properties by law. The Rev. Dan Whalen of the St. Nicholas parish in Millvale said PennDOT's response has been that the retaining wall is on private property.
PennDOT spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Father Whalen said the vacant church "is draining the Millvale church," which is paying $1,800 a month in insurance and taxes. He said an engineer's report in 2004 indicated that "we should not be holding services in there."
He said he doesn't want to say how much the parish would want for the church. "It would depend on the angel," he said, elaborating that demolition is preferable to "a profane use. But the diocese has said all along that we are willing to sell it, and we have tried.
"If someone had an emotional attachment and wanted to give us $5 million, then sure."