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Renovations under way for former Pitcairn church sold for $1

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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Kevin Lycian (left), 20, of Uptown and Jeffrey Donnelly of Regent Square disassemble the pipe organ at the Center United Methodist Church in Pitcairn, which Richard Granger, 56, of Turtle Creek has purchased for $1.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Richard Granger, 56, of Turtle Creek sits in a pew at the Center United Methodist Church in Pitcairn, which he has purchased for $1.
TEdollarchurch01111314
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Richard Granger, 56, of Turtle Creek sits in a pew at the Center United Methodist Church in Pitcairn, which he has purchased for $1.

The smell of incense lingered in the old church Friday as four organists boxed up pipes from the innards of the organ in the Center Avenue United Methodist Church in Pitcairn.

A bright red Harley-Davidson was parked in the corner, near a workman who was shifting pews. The motorcycle belongs to Turtle Creek businessman Richard Granger, who bought the 106-year-old church in August for $1 after its congregation gave up the building.

He’s now working to address structural issues to get an occupancy permit from Pitcairn. He estimates he can complete repairs for about $100,000.

“A doctor knows the body,” said Granger, 56, who owns a demolition business and Granger’s Party Tent Rentals. “It’s the same with demolition. You know how buildings are put together.”

Granger said he has several ideas for the property: renting space to community groups, and even letting the 40-member congregation — which now meets for Sunday worship in a Pitcairn fire hall — buy or rent space.

He could not say when the most significant repairs would be complete. A rectory is also attached to the property — and Granger said he might consider living there in his retirement.

The congregation earlier this year turned over responsibility for the building to the regional conference.

The Rev. Greg Cox, of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, said Granger’s purchase took the conference off the hook.

“The conference could not afford to renovate, nor could we afford to raze, the building,” he said.

Pitcairn code enforcement officer Lucas Park said a report Granger commissioned from Gerhart Engineering Company dated mid-October outlined safety concerns.

“They said it was safe, but (the roof) needs to be fixed,” Park said.

The report said “it’s not on the verge of collapsing,” he said.

Granger said the most pressing concern is a “problem truss” near the street entrance of the church, which he has started to address.

The property is assessed at $37,600 by Allegheny County, according to real estate records, but is not on the tax rolls. There is a brick house, the rectory, abutting the church on the 11,000-square-foot lot.

Last week, Jeff Donnelly, 33, of Regent Square was on the altar wrapping organ pipes that three friends were passing to him from an opening in the wall.

The men, all organists, made a deal with Granger to save the church’s organ, which he said was original to the building.

Granger sold them the organ for $300, allowing Donnelly and his friends to take all of the pipes, except those the congregation can see. Donnelly said the visible pipes are mostly for show.

The sale of the church came several months after the congregation voted to abandon the building when engineers estimated that it would have cost the congregation almost $400,000 to fix structural issues.

Rev. Cox said one or two congregations in the roughly 850-congregation conference vote each year to abandon church buildings, often in former industrial communities like Pitcairn.

The Center Avenue United Methodist congregation isn’t the only mainline Protestant church to abandon its building in Pitcairn in recent years, as dwindling congregations find it hard to maintain large, older buildings.

A block down Center Avenue, the former St. Paul’s Lutheran Church now belongs to Meals on Wheels.

The local historical society also uses the building.

The former McGinnis Presbyterian Church, on Third Street, has belonged to Faith Community Ministries since 2007.

Carl Howard, president of the Pitcairn Historical Society, said some congregations are dwindling as fewer young people are involved in the church — putting older congregations in a tight spot.

“The lights and the water have to go on, whether you have two people or 200 people,” he said.

Gideon Bradshaw is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2369 or [email protected].

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