Like any city, Pittsburgh has distinct characteristics. It is known for its hills and bridges, its love of Eastern European foods, its many varied neighborhoods, and some breathtaking views. Another aspect of Pittsburgh is its churches. Throughout the city these places of worship can be found, small and large, grand and humble. They speak to the history of their surroundings – the immigrants that predominantly settled in a given neighborhood – as well as the history of the larger community and evolution of the city – the wealthy industrialists, the development of the universities, the seat of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Lesser known is the architect behind so many of these buildings.
On Sunday, January 27th, the first State Historical Marker in Western Pennsylvania dedicated to an architect and will be placed in front of the St. Agnes Center of Carlow University (formerly the St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church) to honor John T. Comès, FAIA, a Pittsburgh architect who not only designed over two dozen churches in the Pittsburgh area, but who is also credited as a leader in the advancement of church design in the early twentieth century.
Researcher and historian David McMunn learned of Comès while conducting research about one of Comès’ designs, St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in Butler. As the project was carried out, “I realized that there is so much more of a story that has not been justly told”. With this newfound understanding, McMunn began digging deeper, learning more about Comès’ contributions to church architecture, and his impact on the philosophy of church design within the Roman Catholic Church. With the data collected, McMunn prepared a nomination document with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which was approved, and with his input, the location and dedication date for the marker were chosen – The St. Agnes Center, on January 27th, 2013 – the anniversary of Comès’ birthday.
Born in 1873 in Luxembourg, Comès emigrated with his family to the United States in 1882, settling in St. Paul, Minnesota. After studying at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Comès moved to Pittsburgh in 1894, first working for F.H. DeArment and the Pittsburgh office of Peabody & Stearns. He began designing churches for Rutan & Russell and Beezer Brothers before opening his own firm in 1902. Comès established his own firm in 1921, Comès & McMullen, later becoming Comès, Perry & McMullen, although the firm dissolved in 1928. He is credited as the catalyst behind the founding of the Pittsburgh Architectural Club in 1896 and was an active member of AIA Pittsburgh, serving as Vice President the year of his death, in 1922. He was made a Fellow of the AIA posthumously in 1923.
During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Comès was one of the most active and prominent ecclesiastical architects in Pittsburgh; his Roman Catholic faith and association with the Church led to many commissions. He was deeply committed to the topic of church architecture and design, lecturing prolifically on the subject as well as penning Catholic Art and Architecture, published in 1920.
Of the dozens of churches Comès designed throughout his career, he found there were four styles of ecclesiastical architecture that best suited him – Italianate Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival, English Gothic Revival, and Spanish Renaissance Revival. While many of his works are still operating as originally intended, such as St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Lawrenceville or All Saints Church in Etna, many have found their doors closed over the years, or worse, have been demolished. Some that have been shuttered, though, have found new life. The former St. Agnes Church, in Oakland, has been restored into The St. Agnes Center of Carlow University, a campus building used for presentations, receptions, a student gym, celebratory masses, and the home of Comès State Historical Marker. A piece of Comès work that you may be unintentionally more familiar with is what is now The Church Brew Works on Liberty Avenue. St. John the Baptist Church was built in 1902 and in use until 1993, at which time it was closed and deconsecrated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. After extensive renovations, it opened as a brewpub in 1996 and continues to be a favored microbrewery and watering hole.
While not a household name, John T. Comès’ impact has been lasting on families and communities for over 100 years. And now, with this State Historical Marker, he will be honored for years to come.