Asbestos is being removed from the former St. Nicholas Church in preparation for demolition of the historic Troy Hill landmark, which representatives of the city, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation met recently to plan.
Diocese spokesman the Rev. Ronald Lengwin said the demolition has not been scheduled because it is not known how long asbestos removal will take: "It's not going to happen for a while."
When the church does come down, lane closures may result because traffic on Route 28 is just a sidewalk away from the towering brick structure. PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said the demolition is unlikely to conflict with the state's highway construction, but the city will be responsible for coordinating traffic flow past the church during the tear-down.
The city granted the church historic status in 2001. Three years later, the parish in Millvale consolidated the Troy Hill congregation and began fighting efforts to save the old structure. PennDOT shifted its expansion of Route 28 to go around the church in 2008. At that point, the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation had raised $60,000 to begin plans for the building's reuse as a museum.
The foundation also paid to secure the building and make minor repairs.
For years, preservationists went back and forth with the parish over the church's future. Parish representatives argued that the vacant church was draining it of money that it needed for upkeep of the Millvale church and that it was a safety hazard.
The preservation group contracted its own study that determined it to be structurally sound and a feasibility study that indicated the building could viably be used as an immigrant museum.
After several suitors bowed out of deals to buy the church, the Northside Leadership Conference, in support of the preservation group, offered $1 for it, pending a survey to determine whether the hillside was stable.
Instead, the diocese sought a hardship provision in the city's historic code that allows for demolition. The Historic Review Commission denied the request, in part considering they had an offer that would relieve them of further expense, but they won in Common Pleas Court last summer.
Judge Robert Colville ruled that $1 is not a reasonable return. He cited previous case law in describing the church's historic designation in 2001 as, in effect, "a taking" that left the church hobbled by historic code demands.
The city dropped its appeal last month, its legal department citing potential liability in a takings challenge by the parish, and the demolition plans began.
Stained glass windows were removed last month and the asbestos removal began shortly afterward.
"Our only role was to provide information to coordinate their efforts with our plans," Mr. Struzzi said. Asked whether PennDOT may plan to widen the road with the church gone, he said, "At this time we don't know."
City council President Darlene Harris said she has "tried to talk to the church but it appears it is falling on deaf ears. I am thoroughly disgusted. I just can't believe they would allow the destruction of [the replacement for] the first Croatian church" in North America.
The vacant church was at the heart of the first Croatian congregation and replaced the original one, which burned down, after the Millvale church was built.
"I asked them what they would want for the city to buy it, for the URA to buy it and the diocese said it's not for sale," Ms. Harris said. "It's very unfortunate. This is going to hurt historic designations later on. My heart goes out to the Croatian people. We will lose not only an historic piece but an historic religious property on the North Side."