Walkabout: Overbrook church might be ordinary but historic, too

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Saw Mill Run Boulevard through Overbrook is the last place I would expect to see a picket fence around a patch of grass. If you're driving that stretch, you're concentrating, absorbing endless, paved, in-your-face ugliness without expecting anything else.

Recently, Rich Cummings emailed me about an old church on the boulevard and his effort to get it designated as historic by the city.

The Fairhaven United Methodist Church sits behind a little yard and a picket fence that lines a sidewalk that's right up against the right lane of heavy traffic. Parking's around back. It's an incongruous setting now, but when it was built in 1907, the boulevard was a country road.

The village of Fairhaven grew to become Overbrook Borough, which is now a city neighborhood wedged between Brookline and Carrick and the boroughs of Whitehall and Castle Shannon.

The church isn't a beautiful specimen of historic significance, but it reminds me of a number of comely houses of worship throughout small-town America that attest to the humble roots of their communities. As youth, we were told that humility is one of the most important qualities with which to experience church -- and life itself.

Built by a congregation established in 1881, the church was clapboard before the frugal congregation sided it with aluminum. It is one of the oldest buildings remaining in what was once the coal-mining village of Fairhaven.

Mr. Cummings' nomination has progressed toward city council with recent nods by the historic review commission and the planning commission.

A mental health counselor whose avocation is church history, Mr. Cummings wrote a self-published book about the church in 2011, "An Ordinary Church Built by Ordinary People."

He got full support of the church's board of trustees to present a 60-page historic proposal. He said the board supports the idea that historic status will raise awareness about the church and help it raise money to restore its 15 stained glass windows.

The full restoration is estimated to cost $200,000, he said.

"We ascribe the stained glass windows to the Rudy Brothers studio in East Liberty," he said. The studio was considered by many to be on a par with Tiffany's.

In his report, Mr. Cummings wrote that although the building has undergone several modifications over the years, the congregation believes it is worthy of recognition, "not only as a historic building, but also as an acknowledgment of what the church represents, the unique and significant importance of coal mining villages like Fairhaven in the development of Pittsburgh. The church building is one of the oldest surviving buildings from this village and the last surviving non-residential building."

Besides its age, the church met several criteria for historic designation -- its historic integrity, its association with famous people and its significance in the history of the greater surroundings.

The church had some notable patrons as congregants over the years, including the Horning family, which donated the land for the church in 1907 after buying 65 acres around it from the Mellons in 1875, said Mr. Cummings, a fifth-generation congregant. Although he lives in Shadyside, he has stayed with his home church because his parents and other family members live nearby.

"But most parishioners were poor coal miners who tithed 10 cents a week," he said. "This church typifies the neighborhood development of this area, where villages grew up around coal mines."

If there were historic merit in dodging a bullet, this church would warrant another check on the list of criteria: It was condemned by the city in 1939 because it was listing. It had been built on the ground without a foundation, Mr. Cummings said.

"The congregation took out a $10,000 loan to have a foundation built" and saved it, Mr. Cummings said.

In the nomination report, Mr. Cummings wrote to city officials that, "by approving it, you not only recognize the building, you honor the labors, tenacity, and lives of its members for the last 131 years."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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