Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Alan Hertzberg sealed the fate of the 130-year-old Shady Avenue Presbyterian Church on July 18: It will be torn down to be replaced by a bank.
The future of the church at 241 Shady Ave. in Shadyside was at issue after members of the East Liberty Valley Historical Society tried to file a nomination for the historic designation of the building after they learned it was about to be demolished.
Local ordinances require that a building owner who has applied for a demolition permit post a notice of that application on the building. Neighbors of the building said that the notice was never posted.
Melissa McSwigan, the former executive director of Preservation Pittsburgh, tried to file a historic nomination on May 25, which was rebuffed by the city because it was not complete with photos. So she filed it again the next day and was told the city would not accept the nomination because a demolition permit had already been issued.
The city’s planning department issued the demolition permit on May 17.
One of the owners of the building, Jason Lardo of ICON Development, said in an interview that the notice was posted shortly after the demolition company applied for it on April 18, but it then disappeared.
Lardo said the contractor reposted the notice on June 8.
After the outcry from preservationists, the city ordered a stop to the demolition while the issue was sorted out. During that time, stained glass windows were removed from the church.
On June 26, George Clark, president of the East Liberty Valley Historical Society, and Lu Donnelly, a board member, were joined by Georgia Berner, a neighbor of the church, and Shadyside architect Rob Pfaffmann in suing the owners of the church and the city to try to prevent the demolition.
Lardo has owned the building since 2015, when Beatrice ICON LLC purchased it for $350,000. At the time, the church was being used by the Shady Avenue Christian Assembly, which, Lardo said had declining membership.
When he bought the building, Lardo said, it was propped up internally by supports made of 2-by-10 lumber holding up the beams of the roof. The Shady Avenue Christian Assembly continued to meet there, but then as the building continued to decline, Lardo let them use one of his other buildings in East Liberty.
He said he has spent more than $100,000 to have architects and engineers examine the building and their estimates are that it would take $3 million to save the structure.
The church was built in two sections. The original church, which sits along Aurelia Street, was built between 1889 and 1891. An annex was constructed along the north side in 1911.
McSwigan’s historical nomination notes, “The two sections have separate facades, which, side-by-side, face west onto Shady Avenue. Today, the 1911 facade contains the church’s main entrance, preceded by a set of stairs that are accessed from Shady Avenue by a short walkway; however, prior to the construction of the annex, the main entrance was the southwest door in the 1889 structure, whose stairs are now missing.”
The church was built using the so-called Akron Plan, in which a set of wedge-shaped Sunday school classrooms radiated from a central platform. Few churches that remain in the area have that design.
The nomination also states, “The building is the sole surviving church in the city of Pittsburgh associated with Cumberland Presbyterianism, one of the earliest religious institutions in Pittsburgh.”
For Lardo, the strongest historic pull of the building is that his grandmother had been a member there. He named the corporation that bought the building Beatrice ICON LLC to incorporate her name.
“I wanted to save it, but I came to the reality that I couldn’t,” he said in a June 10 interview at Rockwell Park, a historic industrial park in North Point Breeze that his company has restored and is now renting to artists and businesses. It soon will include an international market and a restaurant.
When it comes to saving the church, Lardo said, “No one wants to figure it out more than I did. I’m the last person who wants to tear it down, but that’s just how it has to be sometimes.”
When Pfaffmann emailed city officials on May 4 asking about the status of the demolition permit none of them answered his email.
In court on July 17, Beatrice ICON’s attorney called Robert E. Kelly Jr., one of the partners of Beatrice ICON, who said he also owns property across the street from the church. He testified he was in Shadyside around April 19 and saw the demolition placard on the building.
Kelly also testified that the partners of Beatrice ICON have an agreement to sell the property to an unnamed bank for $1.2 million and that one of the provisions is that the building on the property has to be demolished.
The city also presented David Green, acting director of the city’s Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, who read the section of the code on historic designations that said “nomination of a religious structure shall only be made by the owner(s) of record of the religious structure.”
On the witness stand, Donnelly, an architectural historian and former member of the city’s Historical Review Commission, said she did not think that applied since the structure had not been used as a church since 2015.
In his denial of the preservationists’ request to stop the demolition and have the nomination for the church on the agenda for the next Historic Review Commission meeting, Hertzberg did not present his reasoning nor write an opinion.
Green sent an email to all of the parties in the case notifying them that the stop work order was lifted.
McSwigan has now proposed that Pittsburgh City Council pass an ordinance that the city conduct a historic review for buildings that are more than 50 years old, as some other cities do.
“The current process in Pittsburgh simply antagonizes and burdens city government and its citizens — often pitting community planning against developer and personal interests,” she wrote in a proposal for an automatic review of older structures. “If implemented, an automatic review process would not prevent demolition, but it would allow more transparency and process.”