Plans to Demolish Historic Sewickley Mansion Prompts Neighborhood Petitions
The Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, wants to raze the structure to build a long-planned youth and education center. Some neighbors, however, want to preserve the home.
The Presbyterian Church, Sewickley is slated to close Tuesday on the purchase of a historic pink mansion on Beaver Street in Sewickley.
What happens next to the three-story mansion, though, lies at the heart of a neighborhood controversy over the church’s plan for the property.
Tom Graham, chairman of the church property committee, said the church intends to raze the house and use the property to build a new youth and education center next door to the church.
Those plans have spurred several neighborhood petitions aimed at saving the historic home.
Melissa Farlow of Thorn Street said she’s never been one to get involved in issues, but in this case, she said she felt a strong need to do so. The home abuts her backyard, and she said it is significant to the community.
“I came here because of the character and feel of this community,” said Farlow of Thorn Street, a National Geographic photographer. “It’s hard not to look at this building and realize what a gem it is.”
The mansion at 202 Beaver St., sits between the church and the First Church of Christ Scientist. It belonged to the late Sewickley artist Carolyn Coyle, who died in February 2011. The 10-room home was originally built in the mid-1800s and Samuel Grant Cooper, president of The Republic Iron and Steel Co., had the home remodeled in 1914 with the help of architects Alden and Harlow. The remodeling included a few additions and the enclosing of the original house in the pink stucco. The Coyles lived there and raised their children since the 1950s.
Graham said the congregation voted Feb. 26 to approve a binding agreement of sale, allowing the church to move forward on Tuesday's purchase.
“We are purchasing the property for sure,” Graham said. “The funds are in the bank now.”
Graham said original plans called for refurbishing the Coyle house and using it for the youth building instead of building a new structure. An architect hired to evaluate the structure, however, determined the home's condition is too poor to accomodate that use, Graham said.
It would cost between $1.5 and $2 million in addition to the $825,000 purchase price to renovate and make the house usable for a youth center, Graham said. The home, to be converted for that use, would require the installation of two fireproof stair towers, an elevator, a sprinkler system and bathrooms serving all floors, he said.
“It’s beyond our reach. There’s just no way we could afford to do that,” he said.
Graham said an asbestos survey also showed the hazardous material is present in the basement heating pipes and individual fireplace screens. The architect didn’t get into the walls or surrounding shell of the structure, but Graham said more asbestos could be found when contractors start tearing the building apart.
“I understand the desire for preservation, and when its possible, great, and when it's not, that’s the way it is,” he said.
The church now uses the White House as a youth activities center. The former carriage home has been used for several decades, going back at least to 1984, when Graham said he joined the church. The center has been refurbished and renovated over the years, but the wood-frame structure is falling apart and is too small to continue serving children, he said.
The church began building and renovation work in 2008, beginning with the sanctuary. The last piece of that work involved replacing the White House with a new youth and education building. The church started a capital campaign to raise the funds, and recently the Coyle house came up for sale, he said.
The Coyle family has an agreement that contractors will salvage any building materials inside the home for a financial return to the family. The home will then be demolished to make way for the new center.
Plans now call for the new $1.09 million center to have an unfinished basement. If enough funds are raised to complete the basement, however, the center would cost $1.2 million. The new center will also have a Victorian look that fits the aesthetical appearance of the neighborhood.
“We’re not going to build a modern building or a box. It’s not going to look like an elementary school. It’s going to look like a Victorian house,” Graham said.
Graham said the Coyle house is 8,000 square feet, compared to the smaller one-story 3,400-square-foot building the church is planning. Annual operating costs would be substantially less, he said.
Plans for additional parking in the front of the present youth building will help to keep cars off the neighborhood streets, particularly on Sundays, Graham said.
Graham said the church sent a letter to neighbors and fact sheets are available on the church’s website. He said neighbors have been invited to meet face to face with church representatives, and additional answers will be added to the fact sheets as new questions arise.
Farlow said a group of residents is willing to raise the additional funds to cover extra renovation costs if that would mean salvaging a piece of town history. Plans to build a public facility likely means the church will still have to pay the cost to remove asbestos from the building, she added.
The mansion is located in an area zoned for conditional use, which means the regulations don't require the church to go before the zoning hearing board to seek a variance. That could change if council decides to approve a recent recommendation from the borough’s planning commission.
About 30 people from Farlow's immediate neighborhood have signed a petition and she's heard from at least a dozen more hoping to sign. Two similar petitions are also circulating and someone is working to set up an online petition.
Farlow said an open discussion needs to take place with members of the community who will be affected by a decision about the house's future.
“If this home is destroyed, a piece of history is gone,” Farlow said. “We really just want the house preserved.”
Correction: Longfellow, Alden and Harlow did not build the Coyle house. In 1914, when Samuel Grant Cooper had the house remodeled, Alden and Harlow were contracted for the work, as indicated on the architectural drawings the church has obtained for the project. Longfellow split with the others years before. Sewickley Patch regrets the error, and this article has been updated to reflect those facts.