Dear Carlow, please save St. Agnes Center!

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Carlow University is planning to demolish the former St. Agnes Church, currently known as St. Agnes Center (3219 Fifth Avenue), as well as the adjacent rectory, as part of their lower campus development. We understand that the university plans to partner with a developer on a “P3” (Public Private Partnership) project that would include a long-term lease.

While Pittsburgh has a number of amazing houses of worship, St. Agnes is a total work of art both inside and outside the building.  It is one of the finest existing examples of the Lombardy Romanesque ecclesiastical designs of Pittsburgh architect John Theodore Comès.  

Comès believed that Catholic churches should be designed with a seamless coordination of the architecture, sculpture, decoration, and mural painting.  George W. Sotter designed the medieval art glass (more than 100 panels), Frank Aretz sculpted the stonework, and Felix B. Lieftuchter painted the murals. Only the best materials were used for all of the church elements including the marble and granite columns. Even the pastor Reverend David H. Hegarty contributed some of his personal savings to build the 1917 Irish Catholic church.  Patrick F. Gallagher of Duquesne Construction Company was the builder of the church.  Gallagher was the builder for many schools and churches in Pittsburgh, including Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Shadyside and St. Boniface Church on the North Side.  The adjacent rectory is also notable and was designed by Pittsburgh architect Edward Stotz.

Carlow is planning to seek government grants to make this development happen.  It is important that Carlow and our government representatives know that alternatives to demolition should be investigated before using public money to demolish an outstanding building that could be repurposed and kept out of the landfill! With some time, willingness, and an open exploration of alternatives to demolition, there likely is a way to fulfill Carlow’s financial and expansion needs with the protection of our historic and cultural fabric.  While institutions typically do not like to engage in this manner and prefer to make internal decisions, such a public process with input from the wider community could lead to unexpected and beneficial connections and outcomes.

Public process is especially important as this is a prominent corner of Pittsburgh and the building is not “hidden” on the college campus. St. Agnes Center is situated at the crossroads of West Oakland, the Hill District, and Uptown and will be on the Bus Rapid Transit route. If Carlow is seeking more visibility as stated in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article of 5/5/2020, then a repurposed St. Agnes Center as an anchor and centerpiece for a new lower campus development would enhance Carlow and the city.

Carlow’s Institutional Master Plan https://www.carlow.edu/institutional_master_plan.aspx espouses values that will guide their campus planning for the next decade. Included as part of their values are environmental concern and interest in involving the arts in their campus. This building is already a shining example of public art, architecture, and craftsmanship.  Reusing buildings rather than landfilling buildings is the most environmental way to go. Studies show that it can take between 10-80 years for a new, energy efficient building to overcome the negative environmental impacts created through the demolition/new construction process, thereby cancelling any green good deeds of a new energy efficient building.  

St. Agnes is not a locally designated historic structure nor is it listed on the National Register of Historic Places (though it is eligible). It does have a state historic marker (that Carlow recently removed and put in storage) as well as a Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation plaque. Additionally, the building is on the Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places, an official city document that identifies buildings that should be preserved.

Many buildings in Pittsburgh would meet the criteria of a local and/or national historic landmark but have not been listed such as Downtown’s Union Trust Building and the Fort Pitt Block House. Designating historic buildings is an involved process and community resources are not always available to designate, nor is there always a need to do so.   Many buildings are de facto landmarks in the public’s mind and the notion of that landmark ever being demolished is inconceivable. One might say that St. Agnes Center falls in this category – Carlow owned it since 1996 and the public trusted the University to be a good steward of this community legacy.

As is often the case with threatened structures, a positive outcome is possible to respect the building’s artistic and cultural legacy and to contribute to our City’s future. With some openness to considering demolition alternatives and with creativity, a solution could arise where the former church could be incorporated into the new development that would make a spectacular community attraction and give Carlow further visibility.  

Amazon’s Audible recently renovated a historic Newark, NJ church for office space – and there are many examples of church reuse as well as new construction that incorporates an existing building.

On a related note, Carlow is now saving the St. Agnes School. This is to be commended.  We now ask that Carlow reconsider plans for St. Agnes Center and the adjacent rectory!

Thank you to Pawsburgh Photography https://pawsburgh.zenfolio.com/about.html for exterior photo.