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Places: Roman Catholic Diocese's opposition to preservation laws is mounting

Thursday, December 12, 2002

By Patricia Lowry

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is in a quandary.


Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. Her e-mail address is plowry@post-gazette.com


Aging buildings, deferred maintenance and dwindling congregations have left it with too many historic buildings to care for and too few people to pay for their upkeep.

To help fund repairs and restorations, the diocese has launched the Church Building Maintenance Fund to assist in preserving the buildings it deems worth protecting.

The diocese announced the program in a special supplement to the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper, distributed at churches Sunday last.

This is a good idea as far as it goes, because it broadens the support base for parish buildings beyond the individual congregations. But funds cannot be designated by the donor for the preservation of specific buildings, and will be dispersed at the sole discretion of the bishop.

At the same time, the diocese has launched an assault on the city's historic preservation ordinance, which currently protects six individually designated churches. Two are active Catholic churches and one is a former Catholic church (St. Michael's on the South Side, which was later sold). Eight others (one of them Catholic, St. Paul's Cathedral) are included in the city's 11 historic districts.

To put this in perspective, then, the city Historic Review Commission has the right by law to review exterior changes to and demolition of three churches owned by the diocese.

One of the individually designated churches is the Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua on Troy Hill, which is not threatened with demolition. The other is a building whose future is very much on the line -- St. Nicholas Church on East Ohio Street, designated last year, which the diocese wants to sell to PennDOT for the widening of Route 28. While that sale could be impeded by the designation, Pittsburgh's Historic Review Commission has been known to approve the demolition of historically designated buildings -- including 23 in the Market Square historic district alone. Designation is no guarantee of a building's eternal life -- only a guarantee that its proposed demolition will be reviewed.

Last month, City Councilman Bob O'Connor introduced legislation that would allow only owners of religious structures to nominate them for historic designation. Currently, anyone who has been a city resident for at least a year can nominate any building.

The diocese is actively campaigning against "forced designation," urging parishioners to lobby their council representatives to pass O'Connor's amendments to the preservation law.

And while Councilman Sala Udin and Mayor Tom Murphy have suggested reopening the entire ordinance rather than amending it, let's remember that it was refined with a series of strengthening and weakening amendments in 1997.

One of them is intended to weed out so-called "frivolous" nominations. Within a month of a nomination, the Historic Review Commission must vote on whether it has merit and should proceed or be tossed out.

That doesn't satisfy the diocese, which wants full control over its properties on the grounds that it can't afford to maintain buildings and meet its social service obligations. But if City Council makes an exception for religious groups on those grounds, what's to stop other community-minded non-profits, such as schools and hospitals, from requesting exemptions on similar grounds?

In Harrisburg, legislators on the last day of the 2002 session passed the Religious Freedom Protection Act, which could have a chilling effect on the willingness and ability of municipalities to enforce their preservation laws. The act stipulates that no state or local government agency may pass laws that have the effect of "substantially burdening the free exercise of religion."

As applied to preservation, the bill places the burden of proof on the regulating agency, which must show that historic designation is "furtherance of a compelling interest of the agency" and is "the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling interest."

The law is retroactive, which means that if the diocese asks the Historic Review Commission for permission to demolish, say, St. Nicholas Church, the commission must prove that preserving the church not only furthers the interest of the agency, but also is the least restrictive means of doing so.

If the commission denies demolition, the diocese now has a legal leg to stand on in the courts -- if the governor signs the bill into law.

"The challenge to the state law is likely to come in Pittsburgh," said Patrick Foltz, director of Preservation Pennsylvania. "[St. Nicholas Church] is the ultimate example. There are some serious dollars riding on that transaction."

I asked Foltz if he saw an alternative to these all-too-frequent and divisive battles between religious groups and preservationists. One, he suggested, is mandatory demolition review, in which every request for a demolition permit automatically triggers evaluation by a review board. It would cast a wider net beyond historically designated buildings, and perhaps be perceived as intrinsically fairer.

Another, Foltz said, is preservation planning -- putting everyone on notice of what buildings the community considers worth preserving, so that last-minute nominations aren't last-resort ways to thwart imminent demolition. Pittsburgh has been there, done that -- both with its historic designation program and the creation of the Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places in 1993. The latter is a list of buildings the city Planning Department and Historic Review Commission consider to have historic, cultural or architectural significance.

St. Nicholas Church, needless to say, is on the list, along with dozens of other churches.

More than most buildings, a church has value beyond economics. It is a comforting, reassuring presence on the landscape, one that is spiritually and emotionally tied to the history and culture of a region and its people.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation long ago put its money where its mouth is on this matter, establishing the Historic Religious Properties Grants program in 1995, which has distributed $343,789 in grants to 79 Allegheny County churches. To date, 14 Roman Catholic parishes have been awarded grants and nine have accepted them.

Lake dreams

A group of communication and industrial designers from Carnegie Mellon University this semester took on the assignment of revitalizing Schenley Park's Panther Hollow Lake with ideas for art installations, structures, signs and other proposals -- all aimed at generating public support for the lake's restoration.

One of the teams in instructor Liza Wellman's senior design studio proposes "Whisper Lake," in which a little machine spouting air jets runs on a track just under the surface of the water, creating ripple patterns in the lake that could be viewed from above, especially from the Panther Hollow Bridge.

"The idea came from us looking at [other] art installations and what could be done in a shallow lake," student Erin Vieth said at a one-night-only exhibit of the projects Tuesday at the Schenley Park Visitors Center.

Her team, which included Lauren McEwen, Zak Pytlak and Brooke Rosenthal, also consulted engineering students to make sure their idea is technically feasible. They also found a clever way to introduce the park's past, designing a clear plastic sign with an image of the lake's late, lamented boathouse. From the opposite shore, the sign layers the historic landscape over the present one.

The students collaborated on their designs with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which included the lake's restoration on its 1998 master plan for the park. Wellman said she plans to mount a virtual exhibit of the projects on the university's Web site (I'll print the address in a future column).

The reception also was a chance for the conservancy to introduce Philip J. Gruszka, who last week joined the group as director of Parks Management and Maintenance Policies. Gruszka, whose degree is in forestry, spent the last dozen years maintaining Longwood Gardens, the 1,050-acre former Pierre S. du Pont estate near Philadelphia.

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. She can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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