The sun shone down on Broad Street in Sewickley Tuesday evening. The most prominent structure on the street, nicknamed “the gateway” into the borough, was the Herbst House, a three-story Victorian Gothic mansion built in the late 1800s and withstanding visible deterioration from years of neglect. 

The building is part of Divine Redeemer Parish’s St. James campus. Currently, a fence runs around the house, which was installed following the collapse of a first-floor window. Safety concerns along with a lack of financial ability to renovate and maintain the house and a lack of need for an additional campus building were some of the reasons cited by the parish for wanting to demolish it at Tuesday’s Sewickley Borough Council meeting. 

Despite this, in a session conducted only a street over from Herbst House, the council voted to certify the recommendation of the borough’s historic review commission denying the application to demolish the property. 

The council met in an executive session for about 30 minutes with councilmember Thomas Rostek abstaining from discussion and the eventual vote due to his involvement with the parish. The vote to deny the parish’s application passed unanimously and was met with cheers from attendees.

In August, the five-member historic review commission heard from a team representing the church — comprising a legal adviser, a financial representative, an architect and parishioners, along with the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Brian Noel — before unanimously voting against a positive recommendation for demolition. 

At the borough council’s September meeting, numerous community members and preservation enthusiasts showed up to advocate for the saving of Herbst House. A vote was tabled until a later meeting, which turned out to be Tuesday’s. 

The house, which was the summer home of David C. Herbst of the Independent Natural Gas Co. and Standard Oil Co. before being purchased by the church in 1913, is notably located in Sewickely’s Third Historic District, a fact that multiple residents raised in public comments before the council at the April gathering. 

Michael Sriprasert, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, estimated that it would take $3.7 million to fully restore the Herbst House, while a partial restoration, consisting of the facade and first floor, would be $2.5 million. 

He said PHLF already has $300,000 committed to the project. 

“It is still a big feat to raise 2½ million dollars for this, and we don’t want to make out that it’s gonna be an easy thing to do, but we think that if we have the church, the leadership here in this community, partners, stakeholders, that that is possible,” he said. 

“I think we have, not just a commitment, but we have an obligation to save the past for the future,” said Verna Corey of Wilpen Hall in Sewickley Heights. 

Robin Bolea said she and her husband moved to Sewickley two years ago and called the borough “such a unique suburb.”

“It’s unlike anything else in Pittsburgh,” she said. “I do truly believe that the buildings, that preservation, connect us together, connect us with history, connect us with all of the people that have made Sewickley what it is today. 

“I’m really afraid that a decision to accept this application begins to deteriorate the historical preservation-esque of Sewickley that will set a precedent that other homes can be disturbed, and we really will lose that sense of history, that link to the past, to all of the other great people that built this town,” Bolea told the council. 

Parish attorney Christopher Ponticello told council members the church has left no stone unturned as members looked for solutions over the past few months. In the end, parish leaders have found the Herbst House to be hazardous and too expensive to attempt to repair. 

“Over the last month, the parish is averaging a deficit income of $12,000 per week. What is happening to our churches at this time in our history, it’s breathtaking,” Ponticello said. “Even what people thought were the wealthiest parishes in the diocese are struggling to survive. … What is it within the purview of this body to insist that the parish wait for those funds while that property continues to be a dangerous situation?”

The house was used by the diocese as a school, then a convent, then by different parish ministries before it was deemed unsafe in the mid-1990s. The house has stood vacant for more than 30 years.

Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting alluded to various offers made over the years to buy the property by private stakeholders, real estate agents and preservationists.

In the interest of the safety and privacy of students at St. James School and the Laughlin Center, the parish has previously said selling the property to a business, association or private resident is not an option. Instead, the house should be torn down to allow for green space for students or more grass for the community’s Saturday farmers market. 

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her

Hannah Wyman

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her