Churches, train stations: Historic buildings rehabilitated

July 31, 2021 GMT
A view of the basement inside the sanctuary at the old First United Presbyterian Church Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Braddock, Pa. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
A view of the basement inside the sanctuary at the old First United Presbyterian Church Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Braddock, Pa. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
A view of the basement inside the sanctuary at the old First United Presbyterian Church Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Braddock, Pa. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
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A view of the basement inside the sanctuary at the old First United Presbyterian Church Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Braddock, Pa. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
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A view of the basement inside the sanctuary at the old First United Presbyterian Church Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Braddock, Pa. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Imagine living in an apartment in an old church that houses a chandelier and pipe organ donated by Andrew Carnegie, eating at a restaurant in the lobby of a 105-year-old train station decorated with marble from Italy, or drinking beer made inside a brewery that was raided by the feds during Prohibition.

In the next few years, those could all be possibilities.

The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has recently announced tax credits for the 2020-2021 fiscal year for the owners of 27 historic buildings that are actively being restored and rehabilitated. Six of the buildings that will receive the credits are in Allegheny County. All of them are unique structures and their owners have some interesting plans for their futures.

The Historic Preservation Tax Credit program, which started in 2013, is administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.


Finding home in a church

The First United Presbyterian Church of Braddock sits on a sloping hillside. It is adjacent to the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock, which was being expanded at the same time when the red-brick church was constructed in 1893.

The church had an active congregation until the end of 2017 when the handful of remaining members reached out to the Mon Valley Initiative and asked the group to take over the property. The Initiative works to provide affordable housing and stabilize the neighborhood around the Carnegie Library, according to its communications manager, Jason Togyer.

“(The church members) were very clear that they did not want to see it fall apart into disrepair (and) become a blighted, abandoned building,” Dave Yargeau, the real estate developer for the Mon Valley Initiative, said. “They cared about it for too long to have it just fall apart, which is unfortunately what happens with a lot of church buildings when they close. There’s just not many uses for them.”

Wood-framed windows peek out into the nearby streets, letting in natural light through stained-glass windows. The large chandelier and the pipe organ inside the sanctuary space were donated by Carnegie, the late-19th-century steel baron.

But although the original stained glass, pipe organ and chandelier are striking, what is even more interesting about the building is its unique style of architecture. It was built in the Akron-auditorium plan style, with a large sanctuary space separated from smaller Sunday school classrooms by rolling partitions that can be lifted for larger events.

It is a specific style of architecture that is almost only seen in Presbyterian churches, according to Mr. Yargeau. He added that of the buildings in this style still remaining, not many have been well preserved.


“(The building) is like a child to me at this point,” Mr. Yargeau said. “I have a set of keys. Whenever I have friends or family come into town, I always go and show off my church, like, first thing, even though it’s not actually mine.”

The Mon Valley Institute has determined to not let the building fade into memory, and the Historic Preservation Tax Credits helps the organization to do that, as it makes up a “significant portion” of its construction budget, according to Mr. Yargeau. The project received a $255,000 tax credit allocation, according to a government news release.

The Mon Valley Initiative intends to construct mixed-income housing inside the historic structure. The group plans to make four of the units affordable to tenants at or below 80% of the area median income and the other four will be rented at market rate, according to Mr. Yargeau.

Half of the units will be in the basement, which opens up to the outside as the building slopes away from the hill, leaving access to natural light. Those apartments will be a combination of one and two-bedroom units.

The next three will be on the main floor. Two of the units will also have loft spaces, one will have a small chandelier, and the one that houses what used to be the sanctuary will have the organ and chandelier donated by Mr. Carnegie as fixtures. However, the organ will be inoperable so as not to disturb neighbors.

The last unit will be a one-bedroom on the mezzanine level, which used to be a chorus loft. Although some stained-glass panels were stolen from the lower floors, the unit on this level will have access to a large stained-glass window.

“There is a demonstrated need for quality housing in that valley. There’s a demonstrated need for affordable housing. And when you have the chance to make something that is unique, that is, you know, out of the ordinary, I think it’s gonna be a really good project,” Mr. Togyer said.

Although the coronavirus pandemic slowed its plans, the Mon Valley Initiative hopes to begin construction in late 2022 or early 2023. Anything that was considered sacred or was liturgically related was taken by the Presbyterian Synod, distributed to other churches or congregations, or stored in the denomination’s archives, according to Mr. Togyer.

A train station finally getting repaired

Another building that is undergoing an unusual transformation with the help of the Historic Preservation Tax Credits is Wilkinsburg’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station. The tax credit allocation is $300,000, according to a news release.

Vacant since 1965, the building has been in a “critical state of disrepair” for the past 20 years, according to Tracey Evans, the executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, which is helping to rehabilitate the space.

The completion of the station in 1916 prompted three days of celebration, with 100,000 people joining in on the festivities, according to information on the corporation’s website. However, 100 years later, the building lay abandoned with very little roof and the terrazzo and mosaic tile floors damaged by water, leaves and snow, according to Ms. Evans.

“The Wilkinsburg train station has always been a project that the community has looked at and hoped to have restored (and) rehabilitated for decades and decades,” Ms. Evans said.

The organization began to do just that when construction started in 2017.

Marble that had been held up by corroded copper wire fell to the ground over time and fractured, Ms. Evans said. She added that to repair this the group ordered replacement marble from the same quarry in Italy where the original marble came from back in 1916.

Among other aspects of the restoration process, the organization had paint chips analyzed so that the building could be repainted using its original colors. Replicas of original light fixtures were also ordered.

“Everything is as close as possible to the original building,” Ms. Evans said. “It’s a symbol of what was … and it is a symbol of revitalization for the community.”

Currently, the group is finishing up its historic retouchings, and Ms. Evans said the group wants to have a ribbon-cutting at the end of September.

Ms. Evans hopes that the stately building will host a destination restaurant in the main lobby. She added that the organization has been reaching out to maker-space groups to see if they would be interested in renting out space in the lower level.

“(It will) bring people in to see the building who then might visit at other locations and shops in the business district,” Ms. Evans said. “(We could) have a place (where) people in Wilkinsburg can walk to, to go eat and gather, which we don’t (currently)... . It would really add to the variety of options in the business district.”

Three breweries in one

Unlike some of the more out-of-the-box rehabilitations, the owners of the Hazelwood Brewing Company building want to take the four-story brick structure back to its 1905 roots.

But they would not have been able to do so if they had not qualified for the historic tax credits, according to David Kahley, president and CEO of The Progress Fund. The group has received a tax credit allocation of $300,000, according to a news release.

The Progress Fund — which is a lender to small businesses, especially ones that save historic buildings — has been working on transforming Pittsburgh’s historic brewery into a space for three microbreweries to make their beer and sell their wares. Mr. Kahley, hopes to open the facility in mid-2022, about a year behind what was originally planned, due to pandemic-related issues.

“We thought that taking the historic Hazelwood Brewery and reusing it for the very same purpose that it was used for, which was independent brewing, would be a cool way to help Hazelwood redevelop in the same industry that was there in 1905,” Mr. Kahley said.

And the history of that industry is full of intrigue. Hazelwood Brewing Company became “a national test case” of prohibition legislation, according to Mr. Kahley. He added that at one point there were even U.S. Senate hearings in Washington, D.C., that discussed raids and enforcement at Hazelwood Brewery.

“So that’s scallywags and the mob, and you know, all that kind of stuff was going on in Hazelwood,” Mr. Kahley said.

The building will have room for three independent brewing companies to craft their drinks, but seating will be shared among all three.

Mr. Kahley mentioned Travis Tuttle of Butler Brew Works and Bonafide Beer Company as one of the brewers they are in discussions with. Mr. Kahley did not name the other two brewers the Progress Fund is in discussions with to fill the remaining spots.

The preservation of Hazelwood Brewing Company has only recently been eligible for funding through historic tax credits. Last year, Mr. Kahley and the Progress Fund worked hard to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places so they could access that revenue stream. They got the building listed in November.

“It’s not just an old, cool, historic building. It’s an old, cool, National Register historic building,” Mr. Kahley quipped.

Not only is the building now on the register, but he said the credits are bringing in nearly a million dollars of investment into the project, which makes the project achievable. The Progress Fund did have to do a small amount of redesigning, though, to meet National Park Service standards for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including to the roof deck.

The Progress Fund also hopes to rehabilitate an ice house that also was part of the original operation when the brewery is finished.

“A lot of industrial buildings get used as condos or townhouses or apartments,” Mr. Kahley said. “For an industrial building to be actually reused as an industrial building, we just think it’s good history and fun to be able to do it that way.”

Old buildings, new businesses, strong communities

Two of the other three Allegheny County buildings receiving Historic Preservation Tax Credits are East Carson Street Historic District’s Maul Building and Rite-Aid Building, which no longer is a Rite-Aid and currently houses Nakama Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar. The third is the Annex to the Frick Building. It will be used for apartments, according to a news release.

“The preservation of historic buildings in Pennsylvania is vital to simultaneously revitalize communities while still telling stories of the past,” Dennis Davin, the state Department of Community and Economic Development secretary, said in a news release. “With this funding, the awardees can modernize and bring new life to these spaces — resulting in new opportunities in places to live, work and play in neighborhoods across the state.”