Old church buildings ought to be saved.
In our small towns, they are often the most prominent buildings around. In our cities, they are landmarks that provide identity for many neighborhoods.
They often have historical significance as the setting for important community events and as centers for providing social services.
What’s more, churches are likely to be the finest architecture present in any town or city neighborhood. They are invested with the best design, the most elaborate art and the best examples of craftsmanship in stone, glass, wood, metalwork and furnishings.
That artistry and craftsmanship cannot be reproduced today. The handwork and the details we see in so many churches are just not affordable anymore. When a church is torn down, all of that is lost forever.
But, of course, around here, we seem to want to tear down old churches anyway.
In one current case, the 106-year-old Albright Community United Methodist Church in Shadyside is deemed expendable so that the neighborhood can have, of all things, a drive-through Starbucks. In Ellwood City, a developer plans to tear down the 97-year-old former St. Agatha Roman Catholic Church for a new CVS drugstore. It, too, will offer drive-through convenience.
You could make an argument that Starbucks and CVS and their buildings might well be here, say, 20 years from now, but you’ll not likely succeed in arguing that either the companies or the buildings will last 97 or 106 years. The history of retailing would be overwhelmingly weighted against you.
So, we take what is clearly irreplaceable and could even be permanent, and we swap it for schlock that won’t last. Welcome to Western Pennsylvania in the 21st century! It’s worth noting, by the way, that drive-through coffee shops and pharmacies are the direct antithesis of the sense of community that our churches originally created. We can get through them quickly, sealed in our automotive capsules, unburdened by any interaction with our neighbors.
With all that said, though, saving old churches after their congregations have diminished or disbanded is a difficult process.
Usually, the buildings themselves are not a problem. Though developers eager to get their hands on a property often argue that the structures are somehow unsound, that is rarely the case with these solidly built old churches. What is a problem is finding new uses for fine old buildings that were designed with a very specific use in mind.
It sometimes takes time, and it takes a commitment by church organizations — often the diocese in the Catholic Church or the regional or episcopal organizations of Protestant churches, like the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodists — to work with congregations to find new uses for a church rather than just go for the quick money and let a developer tear a church down.
Both the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Methodist Conference say some priority is usually given to selling an old church to another religious organization if one appears as a buyer. But neither has policies in place to proactively seek such buyers, and neither can ensure that old churches won’t ultimately be torn down. The Methodist Conference, with the 106-year-old Albright Church situated in the hot real-estate market in the East End, reached a sales agreement with the first developer who came along.
But economical re-uses of surplus church buildings are many, and some are inventive, particularly in Europe. A 16th-century church in Milan, Italy, decorated with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, was saved by an architecture firm that anchored a modern, spare four-story steel-and-glass office cube within the nave. Office workers look out from their glass-walled offices directly at untouched original Renaissance frescoes 60 feet above the church floor.
There are many examples — some in Pittsburgh — of the exteriors of old churches being saved while new expensive condominiums, or affordable new apartments for the elderly, are built inside. Restaurants, event halls and even a brewpub are uses that have been made of old church buildings. That usually only preserves the exteriors, however.
Higher uses — where funding can be found — have included community health centers, anti-poverty centers, youth centers, veterans centers, schools and even theaters — all things that can help keep a sense of community intact while they keep an important visual symbol of a community intact, too.
Given our architectural and community patrimony, it is vital that the regional church organizations work to ensure the highest use for old church buildings.
Every broader church organization in the region ought to do two things. One, establish procedures and guidelines for the disposition of church buildings that allow time for creative redevelopment ideas to surface, and, two, form action-oriented task forces that would seek appropriate new community-oriented uses for these assets.
It’s worth stressing that, in so many of our small towns and city neighborhoods, it’s unlikely that anything will ever be built again that will be as architecturally distinguished, as likely to become a landmark, or as capable at creating a sense of community as our churches.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.