Updated May 14, 2019
These days, it’s not uncommon for Pittsburgh church buildings to transform into something new — breweries, housing, even luxury car garages.
But in the Strip District, a building that started as a church and became a nightclub and then a music venue will again open its doors to a Christian congregation.
The inter-denominational Orchard Hill Church will open Sunday, May 19 in the turn-of-the-century building at 16th Street and Penn Avenue that housed St. Elizabeth Church from 1908 to 1993.
After more than a year of renovation, including roofing, plumbing, electrical, mold remediation, heating/ventilation, and stained glass restoration, the building is now ready, Orchard Hill Strip District campus pastor Joel Haldeman said.
“It’s definitely rare for a building that was used as a church for so long to be turned into a concert venue back into a church,” Haldeman said. “There’s something very cool about taking an old historic building that was a church and turning it back into a church.”
Established in 1895, the congregation of St. Elizabeth made up the first Slovak parish in Pittsburgh, per the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Church-goers worshipped at a 15th Street and Penn Avenue parish until the U.S. Post Office purchased the property, forcing the congregation to establish a new church — which they did just a block away, according to Heinz History Center research.
When the building made its debut, the Pittsburgh Daily Post described its “buff brick” exterior and its “altar of white marble.” “The total cost will probably be about $100,000,” an article from 1908 stated.
For the next 85 years, the parish carried on until 1993 when it merged with St. Patrick and St. Stanislaus Kostka as part of a church reorganization plan, per the Diocese.
In 2001, the Diocese sold the building for $340,000 and a parting wish: Don’t mock the church with elaborate decor, Local Pittsburgh reported. The space transformed into Sanctuary, a nightclub with two bars, lounges, a dancefloor and a poolroom.
In 2006, a new owner turned the building into Altar Bar, a live music venue. But after a decade in the business, the property was sold to Orchard Hill for $800,000, per county records. In a very Pittsburgh turn of events, Altar Bar’s owner wanted the cash to build a steel mill, per the Post-Gazette.
There are no music venues at the same scale as Altar Bar left in the Strip District, but Haldeman said he wants Orchard Hill to contribute to the community through things like music and through the church’s public play area for kids and their parents.
In addition to Orchard Hill, three churches currently worship in the Strip — St. Stanislaus, St. Patrick’s Church, and Amplify Church.
This will be a third location for Orchard Hill Church, which already has sites in Wexford and Butler. The church previously borrowed Strip District space at the Our Clubhouse building, 2816 Smallman St., during renovations.
For Orchard Hill, a permanent location in the Strip was a natural fit.
“Our whole reason for wanting to be in the city is we want to make a difference in the world. … If you want to change the world, you’ve got to start in the cities,” Haldeman said, because the areas are more populous.
While the building looks the same from the outside, it’s nearly unrecognizable from its Altar Bar days on the inside.
“My experience in the building was that it was very dark and that was in part because the building was in terrible condition,” Haldeman said. “We’re trying to go for much brighter — let in more sunlight. I think it’s going to feel very different.”
Though it will feel different, Orchard Hill will honor the building’s history in a variety of ways, like polishing a mosaic floor tile that reads “SE” for St. Elizabeth.
Haldeman said the church also wants to honor the neighborhood and are brainstorming ways it could be used as “a community gathering space in the Strip District.”
“We’re not going to be content having it be a church on Sunday and closed Monday through Saturday,” he said.