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In North Braddock, a Derelict Church Offers Signs of Hope

In 2007, I was shown a church in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small town located in the lush hills of the Monongahela River Valley. Long derelict, the building was likely to be demolished within the coming year if something wasn’t done to stop the degradation of time and rain.

I have such a clear memory of looking up into the crumbling plaster of the vaulted ceiling, and out across the expanse of the main room and seeing in my mind’s eye what could be described as a room filled with ghosts of a very beautiful future.

This allure of pure potential was short lived. The rest of the story—longer, richer, more complicated—is what we’re unearthing and creating now.

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Interior of the once-derelict Lutheran church in North Braddock, ca. 2010. Photograph by Tod Seelie.

One question that I often ask myself as we go about the work of turning this abandoned religious institution into something that will once again serve its community, is how we, as artists, and as a secular society, can create spaces that will fill the heart with awe—that will connect us with each other and become a part of building the social fabric of our lives in the same way that this church did in its heyday.

What is the role of beauty and wonder that was so well understood by the builders of these churches? What part of our lives go missing or silent when these spaces are gone?

Can we harness what they knew about making monumental architecture a central node of community, and take those lessons on in a new way? Make them our own?

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Scenes from North Braddock and the early renovation efforts at the Lutheran church, ca. 2010. Photographs by Tod Seelie.

This year, we’re starting Braddock Tiles, a ceramics workshop that will make 20,000 beautifully colored tiles to give the church a desperately needed new roof. In an area that has suffered so much from the loss of jobs and the loss of local industry, every problem becomes an opportunity to create meaningful work. And so, the roof will grow out of the tile factory, and the tile factory will, in turn, continue to support the repair of the building.

This past summer our renovation efforts continued. We gathered a mix of volunteers from out of town curious to see what’s happening with the church and lend a hand, as well as folks we know through the youth program and from working with our local partners Transformazium. Together we worked on changes that can be seen from the street, like brightly painted doors. We also completed work that remains mostly invisible, such as removing rubble and abating mold.

Seven years after I first stepped inside the church, it feels like the real work is finally beginning. In the images that accompany this essay, photographer Tod Seelie offers a brief pictorial history of the progress made since the project started back in 2010.

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Caledonia Curry (aka Swoon) stands in the interior of the abandoned Lutheran church she purchased in North Braddock, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.

Earlier this year, I started the Heliotrope Foundation to give strength and structure to Braddock Tiles and its sister projects in Haiti and New Orleans. In September, we’re launching a Kickstarter campaign to make the Braddock Tiles ceramics workshop a reality.

So many people have been a part of this work so far, from the block of Jones and Hawkins, to people who have supported from afar, from all over the world, all of us connected by a deeply rooted desire to mend, repair, heal, regenerate, reinvent, turn to face the sun, and to help things bloom.

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Wheat paste piece by Caledonia Curry (aka Swoon) inside the church in North Braddock, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.
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Volunteers and hired local youth refurbish some of the building’s woodwork, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.
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Volunteers and hired local youth work near the earth dome in the lot across from the church in North Braddock, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie. Photograph by Tod Seelie.
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Volunteers and hired local youth walk from the earth dome back to the church, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.
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Volunteers and hired local youth from both North Braddock and out of town gather near the church, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.
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Newly painted windows and doors adorn the exterior of the church, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.
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Braddock Tiles, a ceramics workshop funded through the Heliotrope Foundation, will produce 20,000 tiles to fabricate a new roof for the church. Pictured are a selection of sample tiles, June 2015. Photograph by Tod Seelie.

Neighborhoods is an ongoing series that explores community arts initiatives and grassroots artist-led projects in the Pittsburgh region and beyond. For past installments, visit the archives.

Neighborhoods is an ongoing series that explores community arts initiatives and grassroots artist-led projects in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.