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City Neighborhoods
Schenley Farms neighbors up in arms again over historic home

Monday, May 26, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For many months, beginning in 1999, Loren and Sally Siegel went through numerous public hearings in a futile attempt to get approval to turn their 18-room mansion in the historic Schenley Farms section of Oakland into a bed-and-breakfast.

Loren Siegel has a contract to sell the house at 4301 Bigelow Blvd., to Grandevue Study Center, a local arm of the deeply conservative, international Roman Catholic lay group, Opus Dei. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette) 

From the beginning to the end of the process, their neighbors in one of Pittsburgh's most historic and fashionable neighborhoods remained staunchly opposed to the bed-and-breakfast idea, which finally died without being approved.

In August, Sally Siegel died of cancer at age 58, leaving her husband with large debts and the 8,000-square-foot house at 4301 Bigelow Blvd. that they had spent a quarter of a century restoring.

Loren Siegel now has a contract to sell the house to Grandevue Study Center, a local arm of the deeply conservative, international Roman Catholic lay group, Opus Dei. The group wants to house six unrelated women there. As part of their religious mission, the women would hold regular prayer meetings for small groups and provide some after-school tutoring to children at the house.

"I am trying to sell this house," Siegel said last week. "They are the first offer I have had."

Once again, Siegel's neighbors objected, saying they don't want their neighborhood to be institutionalized.

City zoning administrator Pat Ford denied the request for an occupancy permit. For the sale to go through, the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment must grant a special exception, based on the premise that the house would be used for limited religious assembly.

Ray Baum, attorney for Grandevue Study Center, said the legal argument was based on the idea that the "limited religious assembly" allowed in a single family district "has to include convents and monasteries."

At a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing this month, neighbors, accompanied by their attorneys, made a case against the proposed sale. The issue is pending. Lawyers must file legal briefs this summer.

Attorney Joel Aaronson, who represented Schenley Farms homeowner Mary McDonough, said the neighbors were worried about strains on the neighborhood's limited parking and a potential change in character. The house has a three-car garage and two parking stalls in the rear yard.

"Schenley Farms is a wonderful residential area, but in some sense, it is fragile. It sits on the edge of institutional uses," Aaronson said. "It is particularly important to preserve the single-family character of that neighborhood."

He said the Siegel house was especially important because it is located at the entrance to the North Oakland neighborhood, a historic enclave of single-family homes.

"No one is suggesting that having a religious assembly use in a residential neighborhood is inappropriate," Aaronson said. But he questioned whether the use was appropriate for the Siegel house since it doesn't have land to buffer the activities or ample parking resources.

"It will have an adverse impact on the neighborhood," he predicted.

Opus Dei, or Work of God, was founded in 1928 by the Rev. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, a Spanish priest who was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in October. It is an organization that attracts many well-to-do professionals who obey without question the most traditional Catholic teachings. Opus Dei has its critics, who say that it is secret and elitist.

Its activities began in the United States in 1949, in Chicago. Today there are about 3,000 members, 60 centers in or near 19 cities, including Pittsburgh.

Mary Roque, director of the Grandevue Study Center, said her organization wanted to sell the house it currently lives in at 237 N. Dithridge in Oakland and buy the Siegel house. She referred other questions to Baum.

Baum said the women who would live in the house are professionals, including two doctors, a lawyer and several graduate students. The youngest is 25 and the oldest is 74. He said the six women live simply and have only three cars, no more than many families.

"These women are celibate. They are lay women, but they live in a community," Baum said.

He said a priest would come each morning and conduct a private Mass for the residents, but that they wouldn't be holding religious ceremonies for large numbers of people. The women tutor students after school and hold small weekly group classes on church doctrine and regular prayer meetings for fewer than 20 women.

"These women will be good stewards, and the neighborhood will benefit," Baum said.

The price of the proposed sale has not been made public. According to the Allegheny County Web site, the house, which was built in 1912 and has seven bedrooms and 5 1/2 baths, is assessed at $570,000.

Siegel said he and his wife received an award for their renovation from Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. In 1997, the Siegels, both real estate agents, listed the house for sale for $825,000.

The house sits in a neighborhood that was designated historic in 1982.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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