Pittsburgh’s Immaculate Conception Church was added to Preservation Pennsylvania’s Pennsylvania At Risk in 2022, after the church was closed by the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh. (A neighborhood group has petitioned the Vatican to reverse this decision.)
Assuming the church remains closed, the building faces several challenges, including intense development pressure in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, pressing maintenance issues, and the challenges of finding an appropriate reuse.
While Pittsburgh has a number of outstanding houses of worship in various styles, the Immaculate Conception Church is unlike any other religious building in the region. Its tight urban site, tucked along an alleyway, along with its innovative construction methods, towering stained glass windows, imported altar mosaic, and numerous site-specific sculptures and furnishings, culminate in a building that is truly a remarkable work of mid-century modern Expressionist design.
To learn more about the church’s history, architecture and potential for reuse, please view the webinar below (or at this link on YouTube) featuring speakers Greg Weimerskirch and Joshua Castaño, Director of Special Initiatives for Partners for Sacred Places, as they explore the church’s history and architectural significance.
For those working to save sacred places in their own communities, this post shares helpful resources from Partners for Sacred Places and a sample of successful reuse of buildings previously used for religious purposes.
ABOUT THE SPEAKERS
Greg Weimerskirch is an architect and production designer for feature films and television. He is a 1982 graduate of Immaculate Conception Grade School and was a member of Immaculate Conception Church for more than two decades. His grandfather, Dominic Pronio, was vice-chair of the building committee which raised money to build the new church in the late 1950s.
The church building was a major influence on Greg, ultimately leading him to study architecture and motion picture set design. Greg has designed and art directed a number well known films, including “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Fences,” “Hillbilly Elegy,” and “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.”
Joshua Castaño is Director of Special Initiatives at Partners for Sacred Places. Since childhood, he has had a passion for helping people discover the beauty and significance of cultural and architectural heritage. He grew up in Paterson, NJ, a place with a skyline of “smokestacks and steeples.” After studying art and architectural history at Oberlin College, Joshua returned to Paterson to begin his career in historic preservation, where in addition to core services, he undertook grant writing and helped grow the Historic Preservation Commission’s public programming. These experiences shaped a profoundly community- and people-focused approach to preservation that combines engagement with economic development, grassroots organizing, and institutional networking.
Building on his interest in historic religious properties, Joshua moved to Philadelphia in 2013 to join Partners for Sacred Places. Finding an alignment with his passion and mission at Sacred Places, he has built a career serving in multiple positions giving him a breadth of knowledge and experience across the organization. His current position as the Director of Special Initiatives reflects his expertise in developing new programs and leading innovative efforts that support congregations across the nation. Currently, Joshua leads programs that serve congregations in over six states focusing on capacity-building, technical assistance, community engagement, and capital grant making.
Click the video, above, to watch the webinar or click here to watch on YouTube
Greg Weimerskirch began his presentation noting his personal connection to the Immaculate Conception Church, which includes attending and graduating in 1982 from the school at Immaculate Conception (closed in 2020). “My grandparents, Betty and Dominic Pronio, were heavily involved in raising money to build the new church. My grandfather spent several years going door to door to campaign for the construction funds. He also served on the building committee and helped to select the architects and contractors for the building. His copy of the 1963 dedication booklet, as well as his recorded words provided valuable information on the history of the building of the new church.”
Providing context, Greg elaborated on the church’s setting and history in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. “The church lies about three miles from the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and the downtown core. Historically, Bloomfield has been a tight-knit working class Italian neighborhood, consisting mostly of small row houses on narrow streets. West Penn Hospital, a major employer in the East End, dominates the Bloomfield skyline.” The church is located about a half a block away from West Penn Hospital and close to the main commercial corridor on Liberty Avenue. “As with many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and in other cities, the community is changing, for better or worse, depending on your point of view,” Greg noted.
Bloomfield was annexed to the city of Pittsburgh in 1868 and the area was first settled by German Catholic immigrants who built St. Joseph’s Church in 1872. At the turn of the 20th century, Italians from the Abruzzi region settled in the area and formed the Immaculate Conception parish. Both parishes grew rapidly and operated their own elementary schools (both since closed). In 2012, the St. Lawrence O’Toole Parish (Garfield) and Immaculate Conception-Saint Joseph Parish (Bloomfield) were merged. The Lawrence O’ Toole Church (built 1966) was demolished in April of 2022. Immaculate Conception was closed, leaving St. Joseph’s Church as the place of worship for the neighborhoods.
Immaculate Conception constructed its first church building in 1906 in the Gothic Revival Style. It was damaged by fire in 1925, rebuilt and expanded to accommodate a growing Catholic population in the neighborhood. Greg notes, “by the 1950s, with the post-war baby boom in full swing, the parish outgrew the church again. In 1957, it was decided that the new church would be built on the site of the old church.”
Belli & Belli Architects
As Greg recounts, the pastor of Immaculate Conception, Father Albert Farina, had an interest in architecture. On a trip to attend the Catholic Conference on Church Design in Brazil he met Edo Belli of Chicago, who, with his brother Anthony, operated an architectural practice specializing in church design.
“I found out about this chance meeting between Edo and Father Farina just two weeks ago, when [architect] Jim Belli, the son of Edo Belli, returned a phone call that I had made to him from last April. He was headed out of the country and will be back in a couple of weeks, and I look forward to talking with him soon about the Bellis and their work. Jim stated that Edo and Father Farina hit it off and, at the end of the conference, Father Farina told him that he wanted him to design a new church for his congregation.”
In 1958, the Belli brothers met with members of the church’s building committee. Greg shares “as my grandfather Dominic recounted, not only were they talented architects, they were also Italian. Of course they were hired on the spot.”
The scope of work the Belli firm produced is vast, although not well documented. “Edo had a gregarious and warm personality according to my grandfather, and served as the primary designer for the firm’s project, while Anthony, a licensed engineer, worked on the more pragmatic aspects of building design,” explains Greg. “Belli and Belli practiced in nearly every state in the US, including designing several more churches in the Pittsburgh area: Madonna de Castillo in Swissvale, and Mother of Sorrows in McKees Rocks. The firm had a staff of nearly 50 architects for most of its existence. The Bellis even had their own airplane and a pilot on staff as Edo was thoroughly involved in the design of every building and was often on site during construction. In my recent conversation with Jim Belli, he said that he has a photo of Edo standing on top of one of the concrete arches at Immaculate Conception during construction. I can’t wait to get my hands on that photograph.”
By the time the brothers retired, they had designed over 1,200 buildings, many of which were churches and schools, all of which were eclectic in design. Edo Belli died in 2003 and his brother Anthony in 2007.
“As we dive into the design of Immaculate Conception,” Greg explained, “I think it’s important to understand the period in architecture in which the church was conceived and built. It’s common to refer to anything designed in the mid-20th century as Midcentury Modern, but the period had many interesting subsets and movements. I believe that the Immaculate Conception Church was designed in the Expressionist manner.”
“In a 1983 interview with the Art Institute of Chicago, Edo Belli mentioned his desire to break with traditional architecture and to design buildings that express a deeper meaning for their use – to transcend style, time and place. This is a tenet of Expressionism, a movement that emerged in Northern Europe in the early 20th century, primarily in poetry and painting, where it attempted to distort reality to express an emotional experience. Some architects of the1950s and 60s, adopted this ideology and used materials such as stone, concrete and glass to create novel, sculptural forms and massing.”
“Often, Expressionism involved a rejection of historical style styles and traditional design motifs and instead embraced abstraction. This tended to result in unusual building forms, using innovative construction techniques that often stood out from their surroundings. Notable examples of the style include the Sydney Opera House, the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Edo Belli specifically mentioned his admiration for Eero Saarinen, who designed the Gateway Arch and the TWA building, among many other projects.”
[Editor’s note: Hear more about Saarinen and his design for the Bell Labs campus in our February 1 webinar: “Centers for Innovation” focusing on the Westinghouse R&D facility outside Pittsburgh (listed on PA At Risk in 2022) and the Bell Labs campus which has been transformed into a thriving mixed use hub. Learn more and register here.]
The Belli’s design focused the parishioner on the altar and its colorful mosaic reredos. At the rear of the worship space, the stained glass windows (of the Dalle de Verre technique, embedded into epoxy resin panels), towering forty feet high, illuminate the two barrel-vaulted naves. The walls and barrel vaults are clad in tens of thousands of small, circular ceramic tiles, which progress from darker earth tones at the rear near the windows to lighter tones at the altar, suggesting enlightenment. Originally, a large oculus skylight once allowed natural light to illuminate the sculpture on the mosaic wall. A 1989 renovation changed the floating ceiling over the altar, removed the skylights and original recessed lighting, and replaced the original pendant lights.
Deferred maintenance has resulted in a leaking roof and interior plaster damage.
View the webinar above for Greg’s full tour of the artistry and design of the Immaculate Conception Church.
Click here for his nomination to the 2022 Pennsylvania At Risk.
WORKING WITH CHURCHES IN TRANSITION
Joshua Castaño, Director of Special Initiatives at Partners for Sacred Places, weighed in with his expertise on helping churches in transition. “I am really quite impressed with the level of artistic accomplishment in this building,” he noted. “It is certainly an important and valuable landmark for the neighborhood of Bloomfield and the city of Pittsburgh.” Joshua went on to applaud the rich connections to the church and passionate support for preserving the building.
He went on to discuss the national context, explaining that “the religious landscape is changing in somewhat dramatic fashion – exacerbated in pace and scale by the recent years of the pandemic, which have really continued to make some of those challenges even harder for faith communities across the country.” He elaborated that while the Roman Catholic Church has experienced growth in many parts of the country, that is not the case in the Midwest and the Northeast, where attendance and participation in the church continue to shrink, resulting in many closures of Catholic schools, Catholic institutions of religious life, and parish churches and their properties in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
Useful Resources for Churches
Partners for Sacred Places was established in 1989 and is a national, non sectarian, nonprofit. That identity gives the organization the freedom and the ability to work carefully and in partnership with people and leaders of all religious traditions as bridge builders between religious communities and religious leaders and the wider community.
Describing the organization’s mission, Joshua said “one of the key ways that we build that bridge is by emphasizing the value of these places, and not just for their architecture and not just for their beauty and their history, but also for the ways that they welcome and serve community, through cultural events, and human and social services they offer and their potential to do that in the future.”
Partners has a number of programs for congregations and communities seeking to preserve historic houses of worship.
- National Fund for Sacred Places: Offered in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this highly competitive program for eligible congregations across the country offers wraparound capacity-building and technical support services through training, planning grants, and ongoing assistance, along with matching capital grants between $50,000–$250,000. Click here to learn more.
- Community Engagement Services: to help congregations think about how they’re using space, how they’re engaging their community, and also how they’re taking care of their buildings and how they can be better stewards of their buildings. Click here to learn more.
- Consulting services, assistance with fundraising: to help congregations think about strategic visioning, feasibility studies for capital campaigns and executing capital campaigns.
- Partners for Sacred Places publication: “Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: Community-Minded Approaches for Congregations and Judicatories” (Click for link to order in book form.)
- “Saving Mother Trinity: How a landmark moved from loss to hope in Augusta, Georgia”: An article by Joshua Castaño. Click here to read the article.
“We believe very strongly that these buildings matter to the wider community,” Joshua shared. “immaculate Conception Church doesn’t just matter to Catholics. It doesn’t matter just to Italian American Catholics and Bloomfield. It actually matters to lots of people beyond that particular community – because it’s a landmark – because it’s an important building – because it embodies rich and important history and it has great potential to be an asset for the community.”
“Utilizing or leveraging that case, we help congregations, in partnership with their community, develop the financial resources they need to take care of these places and ensure their future.”
Planning for Transition
Joshua cited the following considerations when thinking about potential reuse of a religious building.
- Take a really good and strong look at the market or the neighborhood and the region. Ask “what is needed? What uses will benefit the community?”
- What are the property’s assets? What reuse does it potentially lend itself towards?
“How do you answer a question like that?” Joshua explained, “Well, one way is you answer a question about what new purposes a building can serve — what we in preservation might call more compatible uses, for instance — would be to actually bring community leaders into the picture. So we strongly advise several steps towards this thinking in a book that we produced and I actually helped write, which is “A Guide to Community-Minded Transition for Historic Houses of Worship. This is a resource that was created specifically to help both religious leaders and religious community and community leaders. Think about how to find new uses and make those work for historic preservation as well as the process of a congregation considering and discerning whether or not it was the time to ask these big questions of about the future of their building and their role as stewards of a building. But you really need to understand what a community needs and how a building can meet those needs and whether what how those two things come together.”
St. James Place
Joshua worked with St. James Episcopal Church (Gothic Revival, built 1857) in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The church was condemned in 2008 after a partial wall collapse of the limestone masonry building. “There was some initial idea about it being a performing arts center in the culture-rich area of the Berkshires. And so what our work looked at specifically was: How does this building fit into that larger market of performing cultural and performing arts spaces? What’s different about this place versus the existing venues for culture and arts?
To answer that question, we had to go to the community. We held a town hall to bring together culture leaders, we met in small groups, and we did one-on-one interviews. We had to think about the market that was there and the potential ability to actually have a sustainable use that could generate the resources for the annual care and maintenance of the building. So it really needs to be a community wide conversation. It really needs allies and advocates from the community from several disciplines who can think critically and also bring the important information about what does the community need, what are the assets and strengths of the community and how can this building fit into that in order to meet new needs?”
Today, the church has been transformed into St. James Place, which opened in 2017 as a state-of-the-art cultural center and event space with perfect acoustics where Berkshire County residents and visitors enjoy year-round music, theater, dance, and other performances along with lectures, classes and meetings. Since opening, over 40 arts groups in need of quality performance, rehearsal and office space have brought their creativity to Saint James Place. The site also operates a food pantry and provides affordable office space for small non-profit groups. Click here to learn more.
Artistry and Iconography
Watch the webinar and Greg will take you on a tour of the artistry evident in the carefully chosen design and details of Immaculate Conception Church. What will become of these if the church remains closed and is to find a new use?
“It may strike some folks as bewildering to think about how the Roman Catholic Church approaches the issue of religious iconography in buildings that are closed,” Joshua began. “It’s a very old religious principle. Since the Middle Ages, sacred objects in Christianity have been respectfully destroyed when they’re no longer able to be used. There’s always been a sense that they need to be destroyed because they no longer can fulfill that sacred purpose.
Both Greg and Joshua cited Pittsburgh’s Church Brew Works as the adaptive reuse that created future problems due to what some perceived as disrespectful design and function. “That insensitivity has blossomed in some ways into a much more vigilant approach to the guidelines and regulations of the church,” Joshua explained. “So when the Archdiocese are enforcing or talking about their own guidelines for what happens to sacred art and sacred buildings, they are actually enforcing, locally, canons or ecclesiastical law that is essentially universal in the church about the disposition of religious property.”
To illustrate a positive example of a “good fit” for reuse, Joshua brought up the St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Lower Merion Township outside Philadelphia. The massive property is being sold to a healthcare system. “Again, the very same issues around stained glass, religious statues and carvings and texts on buildings. The initial response of the Archdiocese was that essentially most of these needed to be removed. However, they worked through a very long and very detailed process with the Lower Merion Historic Preservation Commission with the assistance of some cultural resource professionals. They looked at each of these features individually and consulted the Archdiocese regulations and the Canon Law of the church and what needed to happen.”
Joshua explained further saying “I think in the case of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary the new use was really critical. The use of the property within the Catholic tradition has a lot to bear on how the building is treated by the church after it’s closed. So, for example, nonprofit health care, while not a sacred use, is focused on the well-being and care of people. But a more commercial use for something like a brewery gets farther away and so the church would be less comfortable with religious iconography being left in that environment.”
“I mentioned this because there may be an initial response that is sort of a universalized boilerplate approach, but in a friendly atmosphere of cooperation, there may be the possibility to look at individual elements of the building. It does not mean that every single thing can to be saved, but that the Archdiocese may, depending on a well thought out approach, consider some compromises on some of the features of a building.”
Joshua left the audience with the key questions to consider while planning for the future of the Immaculate Conception Church or any sacred space.
- Understand the condition of the building and what it needs in terms of investment.
- Have a coalition of community partners from various disciplines who understand what reuse the building may naturally lend itself to.
- What does this community need? Who are the major assets and players around it?
- What is a sustainable new use that can generate resources for preservation and stewardship of this space and also make sense in our community?
- Plan to work collaboratively with the ownserhip entity like the Archdiocese with a clear vision of a new use that makes sense and is community minded.
- Develop a carefully thought out plan that considers each element of sacred art.
Watch the webinar to hear Joshua speak about some of the specific features of the Immaculate Conception Church and their potential to be removed or left in place.
Joshua Castaño recommends this publication from Partners for Sacred Places: “Transitioning Older and Historic Sacred Places: Community-Minded Approaches for Congregations and Judicatories”
Inspiration for adaptive reuse
In August, local media highlighted the new business concept at the Gamble Mill, Bellefonte’s second oldest building.
Office adaptive reuse of a church and parish house in Philadelphia
New Spirits Rise in Old, Repurposed Churches (NY Times) (cafe, studios, archive, nightclub and more)
Rethinking Sacred Spaces for New Purposes: 15 Adaptive Reuse Projects in Ancient Churches
How To Reuse A Church: Our Top Ten (Hidden City Philadelphia)
The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh
From abandoned National Historic Landmark to successful camp and school: St. James the Less
Beans in the Belfry: 100 year old church in Maryland trail town becomes a popular cafe