First a Presbyterian church, then a Baptist church, now an organization designed to use the arts to bridge gaps between communities, the church on the corner of N. Negley and Stanton has a rich history. Some of that history will be shared during an open house event on Sept. 21 celebrating 20 years of the Union Project, the current stewards and occupants of the church, that will include details of future building preservation projects.
Once inhabited by the Adena Tribe, the Hopewell Tribe and the Monongahela People, and later refugees from tribes including the Delaware, Shawnee and Iroquois, the corner of Negley and Stanton was later the site of a red brick farmhouse built in 1808 and occupied by Jacob Negley and his wife, Anna Barbara Winebiddle. It was their daughter, Sarah Jane, who married Thomas Mellon, founder of the bank.
The house was gone by 1889 however, and just a few years later the Second United Presbyterian Church was built, completed around 1902, and now housing the Union Project. It was one of only three churches that ultimately served Highland Park and one of only two remaining, the other being St. Andrews on Hampton.
In 1936, Second United Presbyterian changed hands. Its congregation joined that of East Liberty Presbyterian, and East End Baptist Church moved from its location on Shady Ave. into what’s now the Union Project. East End Baptist later changed its name to Union Baptist around 1960 but by 2000 the church no longer had enough participants to support it.
The Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation bought the building in 2002 for $145,000 and leased it to the Union Project until 2006, when the organization took over the lease.
Jeffrey Dorsey, the executive director of the Union Project, finds that history of the building — transitioning from supporting a predominantly white congregation to a predominantly black congregation — fitting given the mission of the Union Project. “The history of the building has been half white and half black,” he said. “And the Union Project got its start with thinking of how to be a place that bridges ethnicities, races and socio economic backgrounds, and to use the arts to build more inclusive communities.”
The story of the stained glass windows and the Union Project’s efforts to restore them is well known locally and farther afield. Through trial and error, including training young people aging out of the foster system and neighbors to repair the windows, the organization figures it saved $1.3 million by leveraging the community to bring the windows back to their current beauty. The Union Project still gets calls from organizations in Pittsburgh and beyond looking for tips on how to affordably restore stained glass windows in historic buildings.
The Union Project’s windows, unique in their predominantly green hue, bring people together in other ways. Dorsey noticed that the building had become a popular spot for same-sex couples to get married and didn’t know why until one couple told him that they wanted to be married in a church but didn’t feel comfortable doing so in one with traditional religious iconography that implied judgement on their marriage. The Union Project windows exude beauty but no judgement.
Admire the windows for yourself, as well as the recently built exterior kiln shelter, during the celebration from 4 – 6 on Sept. 21.