The Story of the Spires – Bethlehem

While exploring Bethlehem’s bridges, my eye was caught by the numerous spires rising above the surrounding buildings of South Bethlehem. Instead of resting upon returning to the hotel, I felt compelled to go back out and take a survey of religious buildings within walking distance. Due to the topography, those on the slopes of South Bethlehem were the easiest to spot, but I also located some in Bethlehem’s historic district and in West Bethlehem. I found twenty-three buildings in all.

As with my experience in Erie, I was surprised that the vast majority of these buildings were still open for use as religious worship. Bethlehem Steel Company was the main employer in Bethlehem for most of the 20th Century. Like steel mills elsewhere in the northeast, its business declined. In the early 2000s, the company went bankrupt. This makes it seem like the town should have experienced the classic rise and decline of other Rust Belt Cities.

One of the typical landmarks of this change is an abundance of vacant or adaptively reused religious buildings. In Pittsburgh, I have found over 50 former churches and synagogues now being used for secular purposes or in the process of being converted to secular purposes. Many more are vacant and boarded. Wilkinsburg, a town adjacent to Pittsburgh, has so many closed churches that its zoning code incorporates guidelines for converting church buildings to secular uses. Homestead, PA, the former home to US Steel and the site of the famous Homestead Steel Strike, has several shuttered churches. Bethlehem’s religious buildings did not fit this pattern.

In searching for an answer to what made Bethlehem different than other steel towns, I realized that the business districts and residential areas I passed through were mostly intact. There were few vacant buildings and no vacant and abandoned grass lots. This suggested that Bethlehem did not experience the same decline as the other former steel towns that I have explored. The historical population data corroborated this hypothesis. Bethlehem and Erie experienced their peak populations in 1960; Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg in 1950; and Homestead in 1920. In 2010, the cumulative population loss from each city’s peak was:

CityPopulation Loss

The stable population of Bethlehem explains why so many religious institutions are still operating. It doesn’t explain why the people stayed when the jobs left.

I picked up Jeffrey A Parks’s “Stronger than Steel: Forging a Rust Belt Renaissance” to look for clues to what made Bethlehem different from other Rust Belt cities. For the most part, it seems to have pursued the same actions and initiatives as elsewhere. Bethlehem’s leaders even hired consultants from Pittsburgh in the 1950s to learn how to do Urban Renewal. Other similarities include the creation of a redevelopment authority, the use of eminent domain to force people out of their homes for commercial development, the building of a highway through town, and the change of traffic patterns to prioritize the regional over the local.

The one thing mentioned in Parks’s book that was different from other cities was the school district. In the 1960s, the Bethlehem School District expanded to incorporate two rural townships. These townships later became wealthy suburbs that combined with the population of Bethlehem to create a racially and economically diverse district. Parks’s implication seemed to be that the result was a school district with better funding and resources than its neighbors. Perhaps, as a result, families did not have the conversation about moving to the suburbs for better schools as their children approached school age.

A decent inner-city school district may reduce the flight to the suburbs. It also may attract new residents. Yet, I wonder if it is enough to prevent hemorrhaging population loss as a region’s major employer cuts jobs in the decades before it closes.

Sacred Row

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This is a fascinating structure I discovered on the South Side Flats. A friend and I were going around the neighborhood looking at adaptively reused church buildings. While going from one building we knew of to another location, we stumbled upon this building. From what I’ve pulled together so far, this building was built sometime between 1876 and 1884 as four rowhouses. In 1926, the Second Greek Catholic St John the Baptist Church of the South Side purchased the property. The deed described the structure as four 4-room houses. When the Second Greek Catholic St John the Baptist Church sold the property in 1959, the deed described the property as four 2-story brick party wall houses.

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However, when you look at the side of the building facing 23rd St, it appears that at one time, this property was used as a church. The middle of the three boarded up openings on this side looks like it used to be a door for an entrance into a church that has been partially bricked up. From this I assume that while the Second Greek Catholic St John the Baptist Church owned the property, they renovated to use as their place of worship with a main front door and two windows.

I look forward to learning more about this structure and its history. I suspect there is an interesting story that connects this building to the 1st St John the Baptist Greek Church which is still in operation at the corner of E Carson St and 7th and the 2nd St John the Baptist Greek Church that set up just down the block at 615 E Carson St before moving to Jane St. From the pieces I’ve found so far there was a severe split in the South Side congregation that involved boycotts and arrests of arguing members and former members.  I’m not sure yet how this rowhouse/church may have fit into that struggle.



A Lofty Location

St. John German Evangelical Lutheran Church

This little gem in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood is full of surprises.  In the 20-some years I’ve been passing through this area, I never noticed the building.  It was brought to my attention a few years ago when I began researching adapted church buildings in Pittsburgh.  If you are in the nearby vicinity, the building blends into its surroundings.  But from other parts of the city it stands out (see 31st Street Bridge, Bloomfield Bridge, Busway Bridges: Herron Street, Busway Bridges: 28th Street).  It is also visible standing out along the ridge in the second photo in my Washington’s Crossing Bridge post.

40th Street Rise

There are two characteristics that make it stand out from a distance.  The first is its location at the highest point on 40th Street in Lawrenceville.

St John's/Choir Loft Condominiums

The second characteristic is one of the most intriguing parts of this building: the fellowship hall is at ground level and the sanctuary is above, reached by a flight of stairs.  This is the only church building I have been in where the sanctuary is a full flight of stairs above ground level.  I’m very curious to know if there are any others–please share, if you’ve come across one!

St John's Evangelical Lutheran Church Choir Loft Condominiums

The building was built in 1896-97 for the German Evangelical Lutheran St. John’s Congregation, which later became St. John’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church.  In 2002, the congregation merged with St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and closed the doors on this location.  A real estate agent purchased the property and prepped it for conversion into 3 condominiums–one unit each for the sanctuary, fellowship hall, and parish house–before the current owners purchased the property and completed most of the rehab work creating the Choir Loft Condominiums.  (A side note that may be of interest is that the current owners considered purchasing the building that is now the Union Project but chose this one instead.)

The owner reported that the building was essentially empty for nearly 2 years before he acquired it.  The floors were in bad condition–the pews had been ripped out, tearing the sanctuary’s floor, and the choir loft’s floor was completely missing.  He said his goal in renovating the building was to “not destroy the architecture and the interior.  We wanted it to feel like a church still because it is a church.”

Having gotten a tour of the interior of the sanctuary unit, I’d say they succeeded in this goal.  The former sanctuary space is an open loft configuration with hardwood floors.  The raised steps for the altar area were kept and made into the kitchen.  The choir loft remained open and served as the bedroom.  The gorgeous stain glass windows were also intact.  While I was there on a winter evening after sunset, I loved the description of how the colored pattern from the stain glass gradually moves across the floor like a very colorful sundial.  My other favorite part was that there was still a bell in the tower, which the owner rang for me.  While inside the sound was muffled, it sounded like it could have woken sleeping neighbors.

The Union Project: Engaging Community

The Union Project

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.

Stain Glass Restoration

Stain Glass Restoration

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.

Restored Sanctuary

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.”

Church Brew Works

Church Brew Works

January 8, 2013, has been declared by City Council as Church Brew Works Day in the city of Pittsburgh to recognize the work of the restaurant’s founder/president, head brewer, and staff.  Council’s proclamation highlights the success of this group in adapting a vacant church “into a premiere, nationally recognized craft brewery, neighborhood fixture, and regional asset.”

The Church Brew Works is probably the most infamous of Pittsburgh’s adaptively reused churches.  Its notoriety stems from the fact that the brew house is located in the former altar.  A friend of mine told me that this positioning bothers her and if she eats at the Church Brew Works, she has to sit with her back to the altar.  I have heard that other people consider it sacrilegious to have the brew house on the former altar area and that these people refuse to patronize the restaurant.

This building was formerly an Eastern European Catholic Church and was purchased in 1996 to be converted into a restaurant and brewery.  I interviewed the founder/president for a paper on adaptively reused church buildings in Pittsburgh.  He explained that the idea for the restaurant started in 1994.  The first building selected for the project was an old fire hall two blocks away from the church.  The church was chosen in the end because of the availability of parking and the “great architecture.”  It was also easily accessible by car, which he felt was important for the success of the restaurant as Pittsburgh “lacks good public transit.”  Five months after the purchase was completed, the restaurant opened.

The church had been empty for two years by the time it was purchased in 1996.  The school attached to the church had been closed for twenty-five years.  The president felt that this added to the decrease in the congregation.  The closing of the mills drove church members away to search for new jobs while the closing of the school drove them away to find a new school for their children.  As a result of these pressures, the congregation dropped from 2000 to 200 parishioners.  When acquired for the restaurant, the church was “worn out” from a lack of reinvestment over the years and there was additional damage as a result of being completely closed for two years.  While the initial renovations of the building were completed in five months, paving the parking lot and completing the patio took longer.  Fifteen years later, work is still being done because of the “age of the building.”

Church Brew Works Sign

Much of the original building was reused or adapted in the conversion from a church to a restaurant.  The history section of the restaurant’s website explains how the pews were reused as benches for the tables and the bricks from the confessional that was taken down were used to create the pillars for the restaurant’s sign outside.  The original floor and lanterns were restored.  The result is a beautiful and unique interior for this restaurant.  To see what the interior looks like, check out the website or stop by for a meal.  I’ve enjoyed the food the few times I’ve eaten here.

Adaptively Rebuilt Church

The Spire House is perhaps my favorite of all the adaptively reused churches I found in London.  Originally built as Christ Church Lancaster Gate in the 1850s and 1860s, the building has since been adapted to housing.  As I walked around the building, I thought it might have been one of the ones damaged during the war, but according to a website about the building most of the structure was demolished in the 1970s because of decay and fungus.

The reason why I liked this building was that despite the fact that most of it was demolished, part of it was saved and the rebuilt structure recalls the former design.  I particularly liked the “flying buttresses.”

I agree that there are times when a building can no longer function well, in this case because of decay and fungus, but buildings tell a lot about a society and its history and when they are demolished something gets lost.  The Spire House found a compromise between these two and it tells a lot about the city.  From the way this building was designed, it is apparent that this society is moving forward and changing, but still respects its past and its religion.  There other signs of this throughout the city, such as the church tower in the middle of a road.

Adaptive Reuse of Churches: London

When I started planning on going to London this year, my first idea was to go for a month or so to study the adaptive reuse of churches in that city.  I thought London would be a good place to see a wide variety of adaptions as the UK has been working with the problem of redundant churches for about a hundred years.  As I was pursuing this idea I found a book from 1977 which addresses this problem across Great Britain.  (I have not come across any book publications on the adaptive reuse of church buildings in the US.)  This book “Chapels and Churches: Who Cares?” includes a discussion of what had been done up until that point in time in the adaptive reuse of church buildings.  I compiled a list of 76 different uses that these buildings have been adapted to from the book.  In my observations in the Pittsburgh area, I have seen less than ten types of new use for church buildings with housing being the most common.

There was one factor about the church buildings in London that I found fascinating, perhaps in part because it is not a factor in Pittsburgh, or any US city for that matter.  Many churches sustained damage during WWII and The Blitz.  The churches damaged during the war were demolished, rebuilt, adaptively reused, or memorialized, resulting in some unique (at least to me) situations.

I ended up not going to London to complete a research project on the adaptive reuse of church buildings, but instead went to the city for a few days and explored as much of the city as I could in that time.  This included looking for a few of the adaptively reused churches I had learned about in my preliminary research.  In the process of looking for the ones I knew about and simply walking around the city, I found some other adaptively reused churches.

Roald Dahl, Norwegians, Doctor Who, and a Church

I watch the new Doctor Who series and the spin-off show Torchwood.  The Doctor Who episodes set in modern Cardiff are centered on Cardiff Bay and Torchwood is based in Cardiff Bay.  In the long shots of the area, I was most intrigued by the building pictured above.  I believed it must have been some sort of church.  When I was preparing to visit Cardiff, I was excited by the paragraph in my guidebook which referred to a repurposed church on Cardiff Bay.  I assumed that the building that intrigued me in Doctor Who and Torchwood must be the former Norwegian church now adapted to a rental facility.

On arriving at the site, I had a feeling that something was off.  It wasn’t until I stepped inside that I figured out what it was.  It turned out that this building never held a church.  I suppose that the lack of stain glass, the small widows, and the cannons outside should have been a clue, but with the peaked roof (not visible in the above photo), the gargoyles, and the central tower I didn’t know what else it could be besides a church.  The building is called the Pierhead and it guarded the port, or at least kept track of the traffic coming and going in the port.  It is open to visitors now as a museum of the port.  I learned a lot about the history of Cardiff from a short, entertaining film, such as the name came from Welsh for “Fort on the River Taff.”  The color and decoration of the interior also intrigued me.


When I left the Pierhead, I looked around the bay and quickly spotted the actual church described in the guidebook.  Norwegian sailors who passed through the port built this church (pictured below).  Roald Dahl was baptized here.  Now the building is used as a rental facility.  The sanctuary is the rental hall, when I was there it was being set up for a wedding reception on the following day; the choir loft level is now an art gallery; and the space below the choir loft, which I imagine would have been the entryway/gathering space, is now a coffee shop with some delicious pastries.  Unique features of this building included the model of a Norwegian sailing ship hanging from the center of the ceiling in the main room and a stain glass window that featured fish.  Unfortunately my camera temporary malfunctioned while I was visiting this building and as a result I do not have any shots of the interior.

Newport Road, Cardiff

The one mile walk from the city center to the Inkspot along Newport Road revealed more church buildings of interest for adaptive reuse and the history of the city. (Newport Road is so named as it was the main road from Cardiff northeast to Newport before the highway came along.)

The first building of interest that I came across was just off Newport Road. My observations indicated that this building was a former church probably adapted to a new use similar to the Wallich Centre (see post on Cathedral Road, Cardiff) but with a strong religious component. A sign on the building read “UCKG Help Centre,” which suggested that it provided help to those in need. My ideas for the possible targeted audience included people experiencing homelessness, depression, or low-income. I identified the Centre’s religious focus from a sandwich board in front of the entrance advertising holy/healing oil.

I was correct in my supposition that the building’s original use was a church (after I discovered I mistakenly identified two other buildings as former churches I began to doubt my guess with this building). It was built as a Unitarian Church in the 1880s. However, I was mistaken in the new use. It turns out that UCKG stands for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and therefore the building is still being used as a church, just not its original denomination.

The second building appeared permanently closed when I passed. This one clearly used to be a church.  The building appeared to be secure and in good condition, which is beneficial for any potential reuse.  This building was built as the Church of St James the Great in the 1890s and closed in 2006. A newspaper article from 2008 announces the redevelopment of the church’s spire into a seven-story flat (flat=apartment, please excuse my British vocab and spellings, such as centre, while I discuss British places).  The rest of the structure would be converted into 11 other one- and two-bedroom flats. However, there was no indication when I was passing that this has occurred or was in the process of occurring. There is no further mention of this redevelopment online, suggested it either fell through or is being held up.

I passed one more church building on Newport Road, one still used for religious worship, before reaching the Inkspot. This building interested me as it was a larger church complex than any of the others I passed, was a block away from the Inkspot, and part of a complex blocked off for construction work of some unknown sort.

Passing four church buildings, three of which were no longer housing their original uses, intrigued me. Coming from Pittsburgh, my immediate assumption was that Cardiff must have experienced a significant population loss. After all it used to be a major port—exporting more coal than probably any other port in the world. The port closed some time ago and Cardiff stopped exporting coal. I imagined this change resulted in the loss of many jobs and therefore a significant population loss followed. Yet, the population statistics for Cardiff over the last 200 years destroyed this theory. The population dipped slightly from 1971 to 1981, but by 1991 Cardiff had more residents than ever (see Cardiff Timeline for population statistics). The port closing may have influenced the dip in population, but net population loss cannot be the cause of the closed and adaptively reused religious buildings I observed in Cardiff.

I cannot verify my second theory for the reason these buildings lost their original uses. This theory is a change in the religious views of the population. This can go two ways. The first idea is that people are becoming less religious (this is how the Dutch explain their large number of churches adapted to new uses). I found a few articles that identify a similar trend in all of Britain (Number of Christians falls, Muslims pass on faith at higher rates than Christians). The second idea is that while the overall population is growing, people are still moving out and those that are moving in are of a different demographic or religion and therefore do not want the same religious institutions as those that came before them. Both theories are mostly speculation as I haven’t found detailed statistics on religious beliefs and practices in Cardiff, Wales, or Britain.

Cathedral Road, Cardiff

As I mentioned in the post on Inkspot, it felt like I had more success with repurposed churches in Cardiff than London, despite having done extensive research on the adaptive reuse of churches in London.  Perhaps this is in part because it is far more exciting and rewarding to come upon a repurposed church than to go where you already know you will find one.  My first day in Cardiff I discovered two adapted religious buildings within a few blocks of each other—thrilling!

The first of these buildings, formerly the Cardiff New Synagogue now office space.  (I am also interested in the adaptive reuse of synagogues as there are some similar issues when repurposing synagogues or churches, but I am less familiar with the architecture and interior design of synagogues and they seem less common adapted church buildings.)  The façade of this former synagogue appeared to be unaltered, however in the back there was a modern office building extension.  I could not tell from my observations whether or not part of the original building was demolished to make way for the extension.  The original building seemed a bit short, which made me think that part of it might have been demolished.  However, some of the townhouses nearby had similar additions in the back as they were now used for businesses or apartment complexes.  The depth of these buildings matched those that did not have additions and that of the original structure of the synagogue, suggesting that the synagogue may have been intact.  I found the YouTube video on the building’s website interesting as it is easy to tell which rooms are in the original building and which in the addition.

The second building was a former Presbyterian Church of Wales, now The Wallich Centre.  Their motto is “homeless people first” which gave a clear indication of their purpose, although the website suggests that this building may not be used directly for the homeless as it is identified as the administrative centre as well as a venue for hire for meetings, conferences, etc. which I don’t imagine would be used by the homeless.  There appeared to be little or no alteration to the exterior of this building, except for the glass doors inside the covered entrance.  Only a small sign (blocked by the van in the picture) indicated that this building no longer functioned as a religious institution.