BY THEA YOUNG
Albright Community United Methodist Church and the attached parsonage at 486 South Graham Street in Bloomfield are points of contention between the Albright congregation members and the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, the regional governing body of the United Methodist Church.
Ms. Taafoi Kamara, a congregation member, stated water damage from a roof leak halted use of the church building for worship and community services in November 2013. Since then, the congregation has met for Sunday services in, among other places, a Bloomfield church and the East End Cooperative Ministry’s Community House. Visiting clergy from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary presided at the services.
David Barton, the Conference’s attorney, said the governing body voted to designate the building as abandoned in accordance with United Methodist Church law in January 2015, and then claimed ownership of the property.
For more than two years, Albright has been another focal point for the struggle between new development and the preservation of Pittsburgh’s religious, cultural, and historical assets. Furthermore, it highlights the broader issues of maintaining (or reusing) religious structures amidst a declining population and smaller congregations.
A Place in the Community
Albright congregation members, along with Lindsay Patross and others, formed Friends of Albright to preserve the church building and return it to use as a worship site and community-serving asset. Ms. Kamara’s brother, Abass, said potential tenants have expressed interest in occupying space in the building.
The Albright Community United Methodist Church at 486 South Graham Street in Bloomfield near the edges of Shadyside and Friendship. Photo: Friends of Albright
According to Ms. Kamara, the church building has housed nonprofits such as the Birth to Five Parenting Center and Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE), Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Animal Rescue League and Animal Friends fundraisers, and the Peter’s Cellar coffee house. The late Charlie Klemz, a long-time congregation member and Ritter’s Diner’s chef, led a Boy Scout troop that started an annual free community Thanksgiving dinner at Albright more than 40 years ago. The congregation and Friends of Albright have continued to host the dinner offsite, and are planning the 43rd annual dinner in November 2017.
The church building is one of the few unaltered structures dating from the area’s early development.
Ms. Patross said that the Union Project inspired Friends of Albright to believe that communities “can save buildings… and rescue them as dynamic public spaces.” The Union Project occupies a church building that was built in 1904 and is located at the edge of Negley Place and Highland Park. The building, which housed the former Union Baptist Church, was vacant and dilapidated in 2001 when PULSE and the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation undertook to restore it for use as a worship site and community space. Over a period of more than ten years, the Union Project rehabilitated the building into space for events, offices, a ceramics studio, and other community and arts programming. Volunteers contributed much of the labor for cleanup and restoration.
The 41st free Thanksgiving dinner held in 2015 at the First United Methodist Church. Photo: Friends of Albright
To raise community awareness of their efforts, the Friends of Albright hosted a July 2015 block party on South Graham Street. There were more than 150 attendees, according to the group’s website. In February 2017, the group hosted a “Big Heart Trivia Night” to raise funds and foster community engagement.
A Place in History
The Friends gained support from historic preservation organizations and enthusiasts, including Preservation Pittsburgh, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, and the East Liberty Valley Historical Society, Inc. More than 1,000 people signed the Friends’ online petition supporting historic structure designation.
Albright is one of the three oldest congregations in Pittsburgh, according to Sarah Quinn, the City of Pittsburgh‘s Historic Planner. The congregation began in 1843 as Zion Church of Pittsburgh of the Evangelical Association, a mission church to German-speaking Pittsburghers. Zion’s first home was Downtown, and was the mother church for four congregations located in the West End, Stanton Heights, Arlington, and East Allegheny.
Zion’s parent denomination participated in a series of mergers of Christian denominations, the most recent being the 1968 merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches to form the United Methodist Church. That year the church was renamed Albright United Methodist Church.
The church and the parsonage were designed by local architect Chancey W. Hodgdon and dedicated on July 1, 1906, according to historian Justin Greenawalt. He and fellow Preservation Pittsburgh member Matthew Falcone prepared a nomination for Albright to be designated by the City of Pittsburgh as a historic structure, at the congregation’s request. The City code prevents demolition and exterior changes to designated historic structures, except in cases of demonstrated extreme hardship for property owners.
The nomination stated that the church building is one of the few unaltered structures dating from the area’s early development. The cornerstone from the previous Downtown site was installed in the basement fellowship hall. The sanctuary contains 39 two-story stained glass windows (designed and constructed by S.S. Marshall & Bros., a famed Pittsburgh stained glass company), woodwork, and a pipe organ which escaped serious damage from the roof leak in 2013.
A deed filed in the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Office, dated September 8, 2015, lists the grantor (seller) as the “Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church…as successor in interest to Albright Community United Methodist Church…” and the grantee (buyer) as the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The Conference executed a sales agreement with Ross Development Company later in 2015. Without disclosing the sales price, Mr. Barton referred to published articles that report the price is “slightly north“ of $1 million. He said the congregation listed the building for sale in July 2014 and was unable to find a buyer, and that the Conference had been helping the congregation with costs, such as utilities. The Conference then listed the property for sale, and the congregants became involved again after the Ross sales agreement was executed in 2015, according to Mr. Barton.
The development company filed an application with the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for a special exception and several variances to allow it to demolish the buildings and develop new retail space on the site. The City Planning Commission issued a ruling in October 2015 that denied the special exception Ross had requested for a drive-through for a national chain coffee shop. Mr. Barton said that, to his knowledge, Ross has not submitted new development plans and he does not know their timeline for development. The sales agreement between the Conference and Ross Development Company is still in force.
The historic designation became official in September 26, 2016, when the City Council “failed to render a decision within 120 days of the Historic Review and Planning Commissions’ recommendations,” public records show. Mr. Barton said that Title 11 of the City of Pittsburgh Code stated that only the owner could submit a nomination for a religious structure to be designated as a historic structure.
Albright’s pipe organ and stained glass windows survived a 2013 roof leak. Photos: Friends of Albright
Mr. Barton said that two nominations were submitted to the City, the first of which was not accepted because it had not been submitted by the owner. In November 2015, the Historic Review Commission received a second nomination which contended the property was no longer a religious structure because it had been declared “abandoned” and no religious services were currently being held there, something which Mr. Barton termed “a novel approach.” After the City allowed the historic structure designation to go into effect, the Conference filed suit in October 2016 in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, contending that the City did not follow its ordinance.
Mr. Barton said the United Methodist Church preserves many buildings, including Calvary United Methodist Church on the North Side and First United Methodist Church at Centre and South Aiken avenues. He said the Conference favors “preservation, not designation”.
“More than 1,000 people want to say loud and proud that this place matters.” — Taafoi Kamara
He also said the designation interferes with the Conference’s property rights and prevents it from using sales proceeds to meet social needs in the East End. Mr. Barton stated that a contingency in the agreement allows Ross Development to withdraw if the property remains designated as a historic structure. Referring to United Methodist Church law, he stated that assets must be used to fulfill the church mission and sales proceeds must be used to meet needs in the immediate area. The Conference identified those needs as affordable housing and hunger relief. He said proceeds might be used to strengthen First United Methodist Church’s hunger ministries and to buy a parcel in the area to develop multifamily housing with a partner. He said the Conference operates affordable housing outside of the city, Metowers in Avalon and Methouse in Munhall.
Mr. Barton said that an engineering study commissioned by the Conference determined that it would cost $1.6 million to stabilize the interior. He said Ross Development had looked at the cost of retaining the existing church building for adaptive reuse and concluded that it was not cost effective. (Mr. Barton said Ross Development has not made public comments, but he would extend my request for an interview. To date, they have not responded.)
A Place of Change
Christina Howell, Executive Director of Bloomfield Development Corporation, said her board and the community discussed Albright but the organization has not taken an official position. She said her organization would like to see “an amicable resolution” that meets community desires. She considers the conflict between the congregation and the Conference an “unfortunate situation”.
Lenore Williams, Chair of Baum Centre Initiative (BCI), said BCI had not considered specific “targets” for the Albright site or building. She said she would be in favor of a responsible design for reuse for the church building, if possible. “If it’s deemed the building can not (sic) be saved, BCI has already expressed a desire to include as much of the existing building as possible in any future design.”
Ms. Howell and Ms. Williams said once development plans are proposed for the site, BDC and BCI will work together to host development review meetings to ensure community input.
At the 2016 Historic Review Commission meeting to review Albright’s historic status, nearby resident Tom Mangan stated, “If we tear it down, it’s like cutting down a 110-year old tree and planting a seedling. We’re never going to build that magnificence again.” (Post-Gazette, February, 2016)
Referring to those who signed the online petition in favor of historic designation, Ms. Kamara said, “More than 1,000 people want to say loud and proud that this place matters.” (Post-Gazette, July, 2016)
An earlier version of this story was first published in the September 2015 edition of the Bulletin.
Downstream Contributor Thea Young is a Pittsburgh native who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Chatham University in History and Sociology/Anthropology and a Master of Regional Planning degree from Cornell University. She has worked as a staff member, board member, and volunteer in community development, outreach, and social science and public health data collection. She is particularly interested in equitable development, writing, and historical research. https://www.linkedin.com/in/theayoung/