Furniture store gets new life as church in Monroeville

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It took a leap of faith and a congregation's hard work to turn a vacant furniture store in Monroeville into a place of worship.

On Sunday, members of Grace Life Church of Pittsburgh will celebrate their new church -- the former Levin Furniture store on Route 22, which was donated to them by the Levin Family Partnership.

"I think the Levins were very generous," Pastor Bruce W. Schafer said. "We're very grateful for all they have done."

When Pastor Schafer wanted to move his congregation from the space the church was renting in the Destinta Theatre in North Versailles in 2011, he considered property along William Penn Highway near the current Levin Furniture.

"Levin suggested we might be interested in their old building," Pastor Schafer said. The approximately 20,000-square-foot building, east of the current store, had been vacant since 2008.

In April 2011, the Levin Family Partnership, a real estate partnership owned by Robert Levin and his three sisters, agreed to donate the 4.1-acre site to Grace Life Church with the agreement that the church improve the property to an appraised value of $1.2 million.

"It was a risk to fix up a building that didn't belong to us. But we had Wednesday night work nights. Women of the congregation pulled off wallpaper. Everybody did something," said Marianne Finch, executive director of Grace Life Church.

Overall, the church put more than $1 million into gutting and refurbishing the 60-plus-year-old building. Much of the design expertise came from Pastor Schafer, who has done architectural work, and his father-in-law, Wayne Allen, owner of Allen Consulting Inc. engineering firm.

"The other cool thing is some of the builders who are in the congregation came in with their teams and just went to work," he said.

The building's plumbing, heating, air conditioning and electrical systems were all updated to code, Ms. Finch said.

Among the church's 500 members, Marshall Huffman of Nissi Contracting spearheaded much of the construction work, and Bob Wermager, owner of Wermager Painting, donated hours of painting. Other members who are metal working experts and carpenters contributed their time and supplies.

By December 2012, the building's appraised value had reached $1.7 million and the property was officially deeded to the church by the Levin family. With subsequent improvements, today the property is valued at $2.4 million, Pastor Schafer said.

"It was a win-win proposition for both parties. We couldn't be more delighted to occupy this beautiful building in such an ideal location," Ms. Finch said.

The top level of the building is the church's auditorium for worship services. The ceiling is painted black with exposed beams, and the room has an updated sound system.

"We wanted to create an intimate, 'welcome home' comfortable feeling," she said.

What was the furniture store's main showroom is now a fellowship hall that includes a two-way gas fireplace encased in stone, a granite coffee bar and upholstered benches and carpeted areas in silver, gray, blue and green.

A children's wing that includes a nursery, toddler and pre-kindergarten rooms is in the back of the building. The basement holds additional carpeted rooms that will serve a variety of functions, Ms. Finch said.

Still undergoing a transformation, the area near the rear entrance will be a youth center for teenagers with another fireplace, overstuffed chairs, a snack bar and electronic games.

"It will be a place where kids can have fun hanging out and learning a relevant Bible lesson," Ms. Finch said.

Future additions include a full-service kitchen, an additional coffee bar and the creation of a day care center to serve the community, she added.

To increase parking space, a carwash and ice cream shop that were part of the property were demolished.

Primarily a Mount Pleasant business, Levin Furniture purchased the property from Gordon's Furniture Store in 1982 when it opened two stores in the Pittsburgh area. The other was in the South Hills. In 2004, the business moved to its current location while maintaining the original building as a clearance center until December 2008.

"We are absolutely thrilled that the property is being put to good use and couldn't be happier for the church members that they have found a new home," Robert Levin said.

At the 11 a.m. service on Sunday, the congregation will recognize all who donated their efforts to the new church, including Monroeville Mayor Gregory Erosenko.

"He worked hard to have everything rezoned," Pastor Schafer said.


Laurie Bailey, freelance writer:


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