Every adapted church building I’ve come across has something that makes it unique. Of all the ones I’ve come across so far, the Union Project used the most creative method in restoring/adapting the building.
In the late 1990s, a small group of people came together and said that they wanted a “space for art and faith” in their neighborhood. (The quotes in this post are from one of the founding members, who I interviewed for a school project.) By 2001, this group and this sentiment had grown and they purchased the vacant, former Union Baptist Church at the intersection of Negley and Stanton Avenues, two major roads in the East End of Pittsburgh, to convert it into a community center.
When the community center acquired it, the church was still considered active, but it had not been used regularly for two to four years. The building was in very poor condition: the roof leaked, there were broken windows, and pigeons and rodents lived inside. It took four years to prepare the building for occupancy and an additional six years to completely restore the structure.
The part that I like the most about how this building was adapted, was the alternative method they came up with for restoring the stain glass windows of the structure. All the windows needed restoration, which I’m sure would have added up to a colossal expense. Instead of giving up or attempting to raise all the funds to pay for a professional restoration, they offered community classes in stain glass restoration using the church’s windows as the class materials. Some of the windows needed to be completely reconstructed in which case the instructor, a stain glass professional, created the new windows. Beside these, all the windows were restored by community members at the classes.
I took one of the classes a few summers ago. It was a lot of fun and quite interesting to learn how stain glass windows are put together. At least a couple of the people in my class were taking the course so they would be able to restore the stain glass windows in their homes. Much of the housing stock in the neighborhoods surrounding the building feature at least one stain glass window, so this was a useful skill for the local homeowners to learn. A 2012 article in the Post-Gazette announces the completion of this restoration project.
Over the years since the Union Project began, the building has slowly been restored one piece at a time. The former classrooms behind the sanctuary were restored first and converted into office space. Several of these offices are used for the administration of the Union Project, while the rest are rented out to other community groups including a church group. The basement was converted into an art space. This is where the stain glass restoration classes were held. There is also a pottery studio which offers classes. Hula-hooping classes are held in the atrium, or out on the lawn in nice weather. The sanctuary is used as a rental hall for receptions, community events and the like. The narthex is a little coffee shop.
By the summer 2012, the building finally looked like a completed project: the stain glass windows were restored, the sanctuary was finally completely repainted, and the black soot was cleaned off the stone facade. Because of Pittsburgh’s past as a major industrial city, all stone facade buildings collected black soot–many of these buildings have been cleaned in the last ten to twenty years. In cleaning the soot off the Union Project, the crenellations on top of the towers were left black, leaving a respectful reminder of the past, while the change from a black building to white brightened up this corner of the neighborhood.
This is a project that showed me, and the group who completed it, that “anything is possible.”