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Vandals at old church leave damage, but not broken spirits

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The century-old stone church at Negley and Stanton has suffered fire, changes of denomination, the dwindling to nothing of its last congregation and years of abandonment to the elements.

Jessica King, executive director of Union Project, examines the damage caused by vandals who broke into the church the organization has been renovating. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Then a handful of people set about preparing it for a new life as a community and arts center, spending two years working on the project.

Last weekend, vandals slashed new wounds onto old scars.

They broke through a locked back entrance to the former Union Baptist Church, smashed windows, lights and bathroom fixtures, ripped out a stair banister and spindles, made incendiary devices out of Mason jars, started a dozen small fires, and left graffiti tags on an interior wall. They smashed furniture and dishes collected for Highland Park's community yard sale this weekend.

Pittsburgh police arson and burglary units are investigating. On Thursday, bomb squad officers removed the unexploded incendiary devices and officers lifted fingerprints left on tools used to do the damage, said Lt. Bill Mathias of the East Liberty station. Police have no suspects.

It was a setback for the Union Project, the nonprofit organization that is transforming the empty church.

The church was built around the turn of the century and was originally Second Presbyterian. It is a two-towered structure, its stone now blackened, with several dozen stained-glass windows that are predominately green and blue.

It was damaged by fire early on and sections were rebuilt. It became Baptist in the 1940s, when it was called East End Baptist, the name still inscribed in stone at its entrance. Its last church incarnation was as Union Baptist.

When the congregation faded away, pews, organ and fixtures were sold, and the building, which sits at a corner that touches Highland Park and East Liberty, remained vacant for several years in the 1990s, waiting for a buyer.

The unlikely new owners turned out to be a group of young Mennonites who had lived just down Stanton Avenue during their year of church service.

"The Mennonites do a year of civil service, working on peace-making, community building and arts. A lot of us ended up staying," said Jessica King, who came to Pittsburgh on her year of service from Lancaster.

"There was a group that was interested in the arts and faith and community restoration," said Justin Rothshank, who came to Pittsburgh from Indiana and stayed after his year was up.

Eleven of them were discussing possible projects when the idea of buying the old church came up.

The group was helped by John Stahl-Wert, then pastor of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church in Greenfield and now executive director of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit group of Christian leaders who take on community projects.

With anonymous benefactors underwriting the deal, the foundation bought the building for $125,000 in August 2001. The group incorporated as a nonprofit. Since then, it has recruited hundreds of volunteers who have contributed thousands of hours to help clean up the building, repair the roof and make plans for turning it into a space that could be used for theater performances, offices, artist's studios and community events.

Volunteers have also helped create a business and marketing plan and to start and maintain a Web site.

"It's the 'barn-raising' mentality, where people from the community come together to do something collective that results in more than what individuals could do, and builds community as well," said King, who is executive director of the Union Project.

Board members include artists, a lawyer and academics. They pledge 1 percent of their annual income to the organization, as well as volunteer time.

Though Union Project members are usually in and out of the church on a daily basis, none stopped by over the Memorial Day weekend. That's when the vandals broke in.

"It's a setback," said King. "We had just had two volunteer days and had filled one last Dumpster. It was the fifth we'd filled, and we felt like we were really getting the building ready [for renovation]. So here we are, we'll have to get another group and another Dumpster.

"It was shocking to see the amount of damage. It was just a lot of pointless vandalism; nothing of value was taken." She said the group's insurance company is still working on a damage estimate.

In back of the sanctuary is a half-circle space rimmed by glassed-in offices on the first and second floors. The small fires were set there -- on a couch, a pillow, a painting, a tabletop -- probably with lighters or matches, said Capt. Francis Deleonibus of the fire department's arson unit.

"They ignited paper, rags, plastic bags," he said. "It was just hit and miss. There wasn't any large fire that anyone noticed smoke from the exterior, and the fires burned themselves out."

The incendiary devices were apparently made from materials found in the church, Mathias said. The vandals used Mason jars that had been donated for the Highland Park community yard sale today and filled them with nails and staples they found and sealed them with duct tape. Some of the homemade bombs had exploded, others were intact.

In one of the offices, King said, one of the vandals found paint and a brush, and painted part of a pew stored there. She saw irony in that -- "Here is this crude attempt at being artistic. That kid, instead of setting fires, just went off and painted." That just points up the need for the center, for a place for kids to go and maybe find a better canvas for their art, she said.

"It's given us a lot more incentive," King said. "When you spend time on a building like this, you get to know all the parts. You know the potential. There is so much potential in this building."

Rothshank, the group's associate director, is a ceramic artist and wanted to learn woodworking, so he spent his service year working with a cabinetmaker in the Strip District. He now is coordinating much of the restoration, finding volunteers and in-kind donations, and planning the restoration and renovation of the building.

The group's philosophy is to allow people to simultaneously contribute and receive. This fall, a stained-glass-restoration expert will give classes in the church. Each series of classes will consist of removing, cleaning, refurbishing and reinstalling a window of the church, Rothshank said. The students gain a skill, the building regains its windows and the Union Project moves forward in its restoration efforts.

The sanctuary will be a space for meetings and performances. A coffee shop is planned for the narthex at the front entrance on Negley. The church offices will be rented as offices or art studios. The basement will become a ceramic workshop that also will offer classes, and a second-floor space has been reserved by a group that wants to make it into a recording studio.

All this will take time and money. King said the cost estimates for the entire project were from $1.5 million to $2 million, although she expected much of that to come from volunteer labor and in-kind and monetary contributions.

The church will be open for Highland Park's sale today. Union Project is planning volunteer days June 13 and 14. A summer market offering produce and art on Thursday afternoons and evenings will start this month. For more information, call 412-363-4550 or visit www.unionproject.org.

Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.

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