Window wonderland takes shape
Bryant Raymond of Sarver installs a stained-glass window Tuesday at the Union Project in Highland Park. Since 2004, the Union Project has been restoring and reinstalling 153 neo-gothic style stained-glass windows throughout the former church building.
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In 2002, the new owners of the former Union Baptist Church faced down an impossible challenge of raising $1 million to restore 150 stained-glass windows.
The Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave. in Highland Park, was then a new arts and community center operating on a shoestring budget. It needed a creative solution, and it was this: to charge for classes in stained-glass restoration using their own windows in the classroom.
Eight years later, the windows have all been restored and may all be installed in time for today's ninth annual "Unwrapped" community celebration and fundraiser. The event is from 7 to 11 p.m. and is open to the public.
Revenue from the classes and other income from stained-glass restoration have totaled $35,000. Foundations fed $70,000 to the effort. With expenses of $113,000, the restoration cost the Union Project $8,000.
Executive Director Jeffrey Dorsey calls it "the ultimate community art project."
More than 200 people took the classes, among them young adults who had been incarcerated.
In 2002, then-directors Jessica King and Justin Rothshank came up with the idea of holding classes at Construction Junction. They began the classes in 2004.
They created a studio for subsequent classes in the basement of the Union Project the next year and hired Cather Berard, of Prism Stained Glass in Lawrenceville, to teach. Classes progressed in fits and starts through the last decade in part because they had been such a success.
Several churches and home-owners commissioned the Union Project to restore windows, and when Mr. Dorsey came on board as executive director last year, 48 windows were still awaiting repair.
"I decided we had to get these done," he said.
Rachelle Street and Laura Harnish were in the studio this week trying to finish the last of the windows in time for the weekend.
"You appreciate a stained-glass window so much more when you have taken it apart pane by pane," said Ms. Harnish, the Union Project's community liaison.
The Union Project started as a dream of a group of young Mennonites who were doing service work in Pittsburgh and passed the empty, blighted, Gothic-style church every day. In 2001, they bought it with $125,000 from anonymous donors, hoping to turn it into a place that would draw people from all over to build community, make art and even worship. The Union Project has become that place and saw a record 20,000 people of all races, interests and circumstances at events in 2010, Mr. Dorsey said.
It is incubating several small businesses and earns rent from short- and long-term tenants. It also rents the great hall for parties, reunions and weddings. Its earnings are sustaining half of the $300,000-a-year operating budget, he said.
A new roof was installed five years ago. The exterior is now being cleaned of 100-year-old black soot. That work began with a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that matched $85,000 raised by the organization.
Andrea Boykowycz remembers what the great hall -- the original worship area -- looked like when she took her first of three restoration classes in 2005.
"It was a total wreck," she said. "It is hard to even describe to someone who didn't see it then what those windows looked like." Those were the "everything-is-possible days, when everything still had to be done," she said.
Soot on the panes that weren't broken had to be cleaned with Comet and wire brushes, said Ms. Street, who was trained at Saint Vincent College.
"When I stand and look at the windows now," said Jenna VandenBrink, the Union Project's arts coordinator, "it washes over me how many hundreds of hands from the community touched these" panes.
"People have really put themselves into this building."
Ms. King, a founding member and former director, wrote in an e-mail, "I still remember catching a glimpse of the inside view of the glowing green windows in the former sanctuary. They took my breath away. To think that such a far-fetched dream has come to fruition is more rewarding that I could possibly express.
"I am just floored and so very thrilled at how it has all come together."
Tickets to "Unwrapped" are $30; $20 for students, nonprofit employees and AmeriCorps volunteers. Purchase at the door or online at unionproject.org.
First Published December 11, 2010 12:00 am