PITTSBURGH - High ceilings, tons of light, open spaces - what more could an art gallery, community center, live music venue or photo studio want?
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, those qualities impelled church congregations to build for majestic results. They saved their pennies and built the most fitting tribute to God they could, but as time and lifestyles shifted society around, congregations dwindled, merged or disappeared.
A downsizing movement in the 1990s left scores of Catholic churches in Western Pennsylvania shuttered and sometimes sold.
On the crest of this wave, in 1992, Philip Pelusi bought a church that was vacated in the 1960s. The former St. George Serbian Orthodox Church on the South Side had all the qualities he was looking for in creating The S.P.A.C.E. - Space for Photography and Creative Expression.
It is a training center for his hair design employees, a studio for fashion photography and an educational center for salons across the country that are affiliated with Pelusi's product lines and services, said Vincent Zepp, assistant to Pelusi.
"It has a lot of the original details, including the bell tower," Zepp said. "We used to be able to walk up there and look out over the South Side, but that's not advisable now."
A former church in Lawrenceville has become studio space for photographer Frank Walsh. St. Mary of the Assumption was a Slovenian Catholic church built in 1955 and served as a church until 2012. Walsh and his wife, architect Teresa Bucco, bought it in 2014 and created 57th Street Studios. They rent to a half dozen enterprises in the basement, including a textile artist and video production studio.
"We knew we needed to generate income," said Walsh, acknowledging the heating bill is the biggest expense. "What attracted me was that it was well suited to what I do," large-scale commercial photography. He uses the former sanctuary to build sets and shoot photos for advertisers.
"We did an ad for Highmark that was supposed to look like a stadium, and we got bleachers" full of fans. The resulting image could fool you into thinking the fans are at Heinz Field.
Bucco's plan was to establish an architectural studio in the church but she is currently working for a firm elsewhere.
Walsh said he worried at first what former congregants would think, but he said people have visited from the neighborhood with memories of the church and positive comments about its reuse.
"A group from the old congregation wants to have monthly meetings here," he said.
The Rev. Tom Kunz, vicar for canonical services for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said before a church is sold, "the bishop meets with his advisers to be able to decree that it can be used for something that is not a church."
The process tries to ensure the reuse is not going to be sordid, "and all the things we would consider sacred are removed."
Those items are sometimes used by other churches. Sometimes, stained glass windows are removed, but often it isn't practical, he said. The Pittsburgh Presbytery holds special services to close a church and transfers its furnishings to others.
The windows were removed from the former St. Ann Catholic Church in Millvale before Mike Speranzo and Liz Berlin bought it in 2000 to use as a live recording studio.
"It was an organic transition to live music, a matter of survival," Speranzo said of the club, Mr. Small's, which has a schedule of live music at least five nights a week. "We thought the ideal scenario would be an old church, with all its space, and the building is beautiful and has its own vibe to it."
The former First Presbyterian Church in Braddock was in serious disrepair when Mayor John Fetterman bought it to create a community center in 2003.
"It didn't have windows, heat or water for a long time," Brennan, who is now running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, said. "I lived in the basement while I fixed up my then-home next door."
Levi's donated about $1 million from its Braddock-centric ad campaign to have it renovated. It is now the Nyia Page Community Center operated by the organization Braddock Redux.
It held one of the first nomadic "I Made It Markets." It is used for Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the Braddock youth project, Police Athletic League boxing, after-school programs and two to three community events every week.
In East Deutschtown on the North Side, Lee and Greg Parker saw an opportunity to build an arts community in the former Evangelische Imanuel Kirche. Built in 1889 by a German immigrant congregation, it was last used for worship about 25 years ago.
The Neu Kirche Community Arts Center opened this year and has recently received its first artist-in-residence.