Church architect who made his mark gets own marker
The historical marker for "nationally influential church architect" John T. Comès.
A photograph supplied by David McMunn shows John T. Comès and his wife.
The interior of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, on the campus of Carlow University in Oakland, as seen Tuesday.
The interior of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, which was designed by John T. Comès and opened in 1917.
David McMunn, a former North Side resident who now lives in Greensburg, set out to get John T. Comès the historical marker that will be erected beside the former St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Oakland.
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Soon, a new historical marker will go up in Oakland.
John T. Comès, it will say in part, lived from 1873 to 1922 and was a "nationally influential church architect and a prolific writer and lecturer." His legacy, compressed to fit within 12 lines, will be imprinted on a plaque commissioned by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and hoisted atop a pole along Fifth Avenue on Sunday.
Those looking for an example of his work will not need to look far. The plaque will be erected beside the former St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, a Comès-designed building that opened in 1917.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh closed the church in 1993 and the adjacent Carlow University bought the church and the rectory beside it in 1996, said Andrew Wilson, the school's director of media relations.
Now, the church building is still used for an occasional Mass and also for other events, such as a Martin Luther King observation earlier this week, he said. The building, with its marble pillars, detailed murals and intricate stained-glass windows, is among more than 70 Catholic churches and parochial buildings that Comès designed during a lifetime that lasted only 49 years, according to research completed by the historical marker's sponsor.
"He felt called to build churches," said Mr. Wilson, who wrote an article about Comès in the spring 2009 edition of The Carlow Journal.
In the Pittsburgh region alone, Comès designed the now-closed SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in East Liberty, St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in Butler and the former St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Lawrenceville, now the Church Brew Works, to name just a few.
"He did a lot of churches here. He was one of the major designers of Catholic churches at a time when lots of Catholic churches were being built," said Martin Aurand, archivist of the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives.
Yet, in Pittsburgh, there has been little recognition of him.
That's why David McMunn, 52, a former North Side resident who now lives in Greensburg, set out to get the architect a historical marker, something that could sit in a prominent spot and commemorate the man's contributions to the region's landscape.
Mr. McMunn is an unlikely advocate for Comès. A shift manager at Bistro To Go on the North Side, he's a Presbyterian who has never formally studied architecture, but he has long been interested in historic preservation.
A few years ago, he was helping his friend, an organist at St. Paul in Butler, research the building's past for its 100th anniversary.
The story of Comès intrigued him.
John Theodore Comès, born Jan. 29, 1873, in Luxembourg, immigrated to Minnesota, then studied architecture in Maryland. He moved to Pittsburgh, where he worked as an architect, taking on commissions in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and as far as California. Comès wrote and spoke extensively about his work and about his philosophy of Catholic architecture, Mr. McMunn said. The styles he used included Italian Renaissance Revival, English Gothic Revival and Spanish Renaissance Revival.
As his research continued, Mr. McMunn began taking weekend trips to see the churches Comès designed, including buildings in Toledo, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
"They're all very beautiful," he said.
He decided, in late 2011, to nominate Comès for a marker by sending his research and an application to the historical commission.
"I think I just was in awe of the work this man was doing," Mr. McMunn said.
The commission approved the nomination in April, and since then Mr. McMunn has been planning for the dedication outside St. Agnes, which will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at 3219 Fifth Ave.
He said some of Comès' relatives plan to attend, as well as city and Carlow representatives.
First Published January 23, 2013 4:12 pm