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Highway expansion threatens St. Nicholas, a unique piece of Pittsburgh's history and landscape

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

To many people, the part of East Ohio Street known as Route 28 is just a collection of ragtag buildings living on borrowed time. The sooner they're down, the quicker the road can be widened -- and the faster and safer we'll all get to wherever it is we're in such a big hurry to get to. To Elsie Yuratovich, it's a neighborhood.

"It used to be like a little Croatian town at one time," she said, a town everyone on the street called Mala Jaska -- little Jaska (pronounced yuh-skuh).

St. Nicholas Church on the North Side. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

In Mala Jaska's turn-of-the-century heyday, when Croatian immigrants were streaming into Allegheny City and Pittsburgh to work in tanneries, steel mills, pickle plants and other factories, many of those who settled on East Ohio came from the town of Jastrebarsko, nicknamed Jaska, about 20 miles southwest of Zagreb. Yuratovich's father emigrated from nearby Karlovac when he was 13.

Although her mother died when she was 8 years old and she grew up in a neighborhood far friendlier to industry than to children, Yuratovich doesn't feel deprived. Far from it.

"We had everything in Mala Jaska, even a barber shop, which was on the first floor of the Croatian Hall," Yuratovich writes. If the social heart of Mala Jaska was the Croatian Hall, its spiritual center was St. Nicholas Church, the first Croatian church in America, where a Croatian-language Mass is celebrated on the second Sunday of each month and Croatian hymns are sung weekly.

For how much longer, though, is anyone's guess: Mala Jaska's church is threatened with demolition in the planned expansion of Route 28. So is its terraced, hillside grotto, built in 1944 between the rectory and the church.

The sandstone and marble grotto, with its statues set in niches above the courtyard between the rectory and church, is one of those secret, secluded spaces that define Pittsburgh, a place where religious devotion and topography intersect to create a unique, memorable and moving landscape. On Christmas Eve and Easter Saturday nights, when its steps and terraces are lined with luminaries, it is one of the city's most beautiful and meaningful places.

Recently, Yuratovich has been putting her memories of the church and neighborhood on paper in an unhurried, artful script. She remembers the street's mom-and-pop grocery stores, especially the one her grandfather ran on the first floor of their house, where she has lived all of her life.

Across East Ohio Street, the trains and roundhouse of the Pennsylvania Railroad had special appeal.

"We always loved the railroad from children on," she writes. "When we were just toddlers, we were so delighted, when our parents carried us to the window to watch the trains rumbling by. When we grew older, we would count every box car that went by, sometimes 100 or even more -- and some of us still do. It is fascinating to us."

Half of the neighborhood -- the houses closest to the railroad, on the other side of East Ohio Street -- was demolished during the road's first widening in the 1920s, to accommodate the burgeoning number of automobiles. St. Nicholas Church also was moved, in 1921 -- raised 8 feet above and 20 feet back from of its original location. Overseen by the church's architect, Frederick Sauer, the move was called "The Ascension of St. Nicholas."

The first widening created a four-lane highway where safety was compromised not only by narrow lanes and a lack of shoulders, but also speeding and congestion. The proposed second widening would save lives but irrevocably alter a significant cultural landscape, destroying the church and grotto unit and all that remains of Mala Jaska -- the homes of Yuratovich and her neighbors, about 40 residents in all.

At 1420 E. Ohio St. is the former home and bookstore of Croatian newspaper publisher Joseph Marohnic, a three-story frame building where the Croatian Fraternal Union was founded in 1894. The union, now based in Monroeville, has 100,000 members in the United States, Canada and Croatia and publishes the Croatian-English newspaper Zajednicar (Member of the Union), with a circulation of 60,000.

At the highway expansion project's western end, two Greek Revival houses, once elegant but now dilapidated, date at least to 1852, when they appear on an Allegheny City plan book.

The new highway and its tri-level interchanges at the 31st and 40th street bridges also would change the character and integrity of one of Pittsburgh's steepest, most breathtaking and historically significant streets. From the late 19th century to the 1960s, cattle and pigs were driven up Rialto Street, known locally as Pig Hill, from the Herrs Island stockyards to slaughterhouses in the Spring Garden valley.

The bottom third of Rialto Street, which connects Troy Hill to East Ohio Street, would be chopped off and replaced with an S-curve to the 31st Street Bridge.

To prevent rockslides, Troy Hill likely would be held back with a concrete, steel-belted retaining wall, like the one just east of Millvale.

The church's interior, as seen from the choir loft. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Although PennDOT has agreed to pay for the church's move as well as the acquisition of a new site, a majority of the members of the parish, which also includes a larger Millvale congregation, has voted the church be sold rather than saved. The proceeds would be used to fund parish ministries.

But three members of the East Ohio Street congregation and preservationist John Murdock nominated the church as a city historic structure, and last week the Historic Review Commission determined there was reason to believe it would meet the criteria for designation. City Council will make the final determination.

In 1894, with so many Croatians traveling to America, the founders named their church for St. Nicholas the Traveler, inviting his protection and benediction. The parish bought an existing building at 1546 E. Ohio St. and converted it to a church, but by 1898 the congregation had outgrown it. Some members wanted to stay put and build on East Ohio Street; others preferred a hilltop site in nearby Millvale, where many men of the parish lived and worked, for the Graff, Bennett & Co. rolling mill. In 1899, the parish split. In the next two years, each congregation would build a new church named St. Nicholas, and each would hire an architect named Frederick Sauer to design it.

Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Sauer had studied in Stuttgart before immigrating to Pittsburgh; he opened his own office here in 1884, at the age of 24. By 1900, he had designed at least four churches still standing today: St. Stanislaus, Strip District; St. Mary of the Mount, Mount Washington; St. Mary Magdalene, Homestead; and St. Joseph, Manchester -- all solid, serviceable, traditional buildings that have become landmarks in their neighborhoods.

For its new church, the East Ohio Street congregation purchased a new lot, two blocks away. Parishioners, many of whom came to America to escape poverty, couldn't afford a highly ornamented church; Sauer gave them a Romanesque building that, with its onion domes, recalled the picturesque churches of their homeland. Contractor Robert McCain built it, in buff-colored Roman brick, for $19,000.

"With their dimes, nickels and quarters, they built this church," Joann Aftanas, a fourth-generation member of the parish, told the city Historic Review Commission last week.

Her grandparents, who immigrated in 1888, were one of the congregation's founding families -- and likely were among the 2,000 celebrants who, at the dedication of the new building on Sept. 8, 1901, marched in a parade from St. Nicholas to Downtown and back.

In 1931, 10 years after St. Nicholas Church was moved to widen the highway, the parish opened a grade school on the present site of the church parking lot.

"We learned to read, write and sing in Croatian," Yuratovich said.

In the mid-1940s, with the country at war, pastor the Rev. Dobroslav Soric, who had a devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, decided to build a grotto on the hillside between the church and rectory. In the summer of 1943, men and boys of the parish excavated 600 tons of soil, while the women cooked for them.

In 1944, the parish celebrated its 50th anniversary and the centennial anniversary of the birth of St. Bernadette with the dedication of the grotto and a partly refurbished interior. The ornately carved wooden main altar and two side altars were replaced with Italian marble ones, and the apse was lined with a boldly graphic black and white marble. Since then, the church has changed little.

If St. Nicholas Church is moved, the diocese is requiring that the congregation raise a $1.8 million endowment to assure its annual operation and maintenance, because the East Ohio Street congregation has had an annual deficit ranging from $16,089 to $27,552 over the past four years, according to diocesan spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin.

Ultimately, the decision lies with Bishop Donald Wuerl, who will make his final recommendation to PennDOT later this month. In the meantime, parishioners have launched an international campaign to save the church by organizing the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, which has received almost $500,000 in pledges.

Besides moving and maintaining the church, there is a third option -- moving it and converting it to secular use.

"The task force who examined the different options felt that was not a viable option," Lengwin said. "They wanted it to be a parish church, where the sacraments would be celebrated. They were not looking to establish a historical museum or some other kind of facility. There was just never any real discussion about that possibility at the six meetings of the task force."

No one else, Lengwin said, has expressed an interest in any other use.

But if St. Nicholas falls, Pittsburgh will lose a building with enormous significance to the Croatian community, and yet another link to its immigrant past.

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