Architect Comes' church designs teach lessons about Western Pa. history

John Conti
| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

John T. Comes was one of the finest architects practicing in Pittsburgh in the early years of the 20th century. But he's not one you often hear about.

He didn't design whole university campuses, like Henry Hornbostel did at Carnegie Mellon University. Nor did he do prominent and still-admired Downtown office buildings, as Frederick Osterling did with his Gothic-inspired Union Trust Building on Grant Street.

Instead, Comes designed churches — specifically, Roman Catholic churches and the parish houses, schools and convents that often came with them.

Comes became so well known for his churches here that, from about 1900 until his death at 49 in 1922, he and his successor firm planned or consulted on the plans for Catholic churches and even cathedrals across much of the country.

His work was honored this past January when a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker commemorating him was placed outside one of his best churches, now known as the St. Agnes Center of Carlow University, on Fifth Avenue in Oakland.

He is the only Allegheny County architect so honored and one of only a handful in the state. (Almost all the others meriting historical markers are Philadelphia architects, including historic figures in the profession such as Frank Furness, Paul Cret and Louis Kahn.)

In all, Comes designed about 40 churches, schools and convents in Western Pennsylvania, and another 20 across the country in a short, but amazingly prolific, 25-year career. He and his partners, William Perry and Leo McMullen, planned cathedrals for the diocese in Greensburg and in Toledo, Ohio. Other projects were as far afield as Minnesota and Kansas.

Some, like St. Gertrude Church in Vandergrift, stand out with great dignity and even grandeur, presiding over what are often worn-out residential neighborhoods in mill towns across Western Pennsylvania. Others, like Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, set on a hilltop above Greensburg, occupy an honored space near the center of town. Comes didn't design in any one style. But whether his churches are Gothic, Romanesque or even vaguely Baroque, they are distinctive for their elegant proportions and carefully fashioned, often-colorful details, inside and out. All were built between 1900 and the mid-1920s.

Among the finest of Comes' churches is St. Paul on McKean Street in Butler, built about 1909. It is almost cathedral-like in its stone Gothic massing and is richly decorated inside, as are almost all of Comes' churches. All around the chancel are various multicolor diamond patterns of red, brown, tan and blue that spread across the walls and up to the ceiling, matching the hues of the church's huge, stained-glass windows.

One of the most interesting and unusual designs is St. Anthony Church, now Holy Spirit Parish, in Millvale, a 1915 essay in what one historian calls Mexican Baroque, with bold, brown-brick towers that dominate the exterior, terminating in tiled domes. A more-typical Comes church can be found in nearby Etna, where All Saints Church, from 1914, shows the Romanesque massing and decorative brickwork that he often used.

Comes' churches were typically designed in what's called “basilica” form, where the central part of the church is lit by high clerestory windows set above side aisles. These have long rows of regularly spaced arches along the side aisles, leading up to the altar as if in procession. The pillars are often lavishly detailed in stone or marble.

A number of the parishes were founded in the 19th century by German or Irish Catholic immigrants — the first groups of Catholic immigrants in the area to achieve stature and wealth. But these same parishes later grew rapidly and needed the large new churches that Comes designed as wave after wave of Italian and East European Catholics arrived to work in the mills.

As a result, Catholic churches are often by far the largest churches in many of our towns and city neighborhoods, and, when designed by Comes, often the most architecturally distinguished. In that sense, Comes provided exemplary architecture for the workingman. The mill bosses may have had the finer homes, but the millworkers had their big and richly appointed churches.

Comes, himself, was an active Catholic layman, and was active in architectural and civic circles in town. He was known for taking his wife and three daughters on frequent tours to Europe, where he studied and sketched. He believed, along with his friend and near-contemporary, the great Gothic Revival architect Ralph Adams Cram, that church architecture of the day should be based on traditional forms.

To see Comes' churches today is, unfortunately, to be reminded first-hand of the economic changes that have swept Western Pennsylvania in the last 40 years. Several of his churches have been closed. One has been turned into a brewpub. Two in our area have been torn down. And once-vibrant parishes in once-thriving mill towns are now often characterized — even where the church is still in use — by the closed parochial schools and shuttered convents adjacent to them.

Still, the churches of John Comes speak well of their era and are worth volumes of history. Many are landmarks in their towns. All are worth visiting, and all are worth preserving.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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