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Union Project arose as an idea by a group of young Pittsburghers to create a neighborhood space where people could come together to connect, create, and celebrate (for fellowship, creativity, community, learning, and more). The Union Baptist Church (originally built as the East Liberty Second Presbyterian Church) soon became the “space” attached to this idea. This historic landmark built in 1904 is located in the heart of the East End. Today it sits at the intersection of some of Pittsburgh’s most diverse (economically, socially and racially) neighborhoods. In 2001, this once prominent civic building was badly dilapidated, vacant and fast becoming a hot spot for crime. But it was affordable, and had the potential to be used for many purposes. The building also happened to be located a half-block from a voluntary service program called Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Experience (PULSE) whose members had grown attached to the building and comprised the majority of the founding advisory board.
In the fall of 2001, the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation purchased the property and provided startup funds for the organization. These funds allowed Union Project to hire its first employee, Justin Rothshank, to oversee the volunteer cleanup. Over the following year, while working toward incorporating in Pennsylvania with 501(c)3 status, Union Project refined its goals, defined it’s core values, and created a three phase development strategy.
By March 2002, Union Project expanded its board beyond the founding members and hired co-founder Jessica King as its first executive director. Later that year, the organization would go on to host the premièring three weeks of Bricolage Theatre Company’s “Wild Signs” and would receive the first competitive design grant from the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh to begin the design phase of its ambitious restoration project.
Memorial Day 2003 marked a shift in Union Project’s visibility. Several vandals broke in that day, lighting over a dozen small fires, setting off homemade explosives, damaging woodwork, and breaking glass. Union Project appeared on local television stations and in local papers for four consecutive days, bringing citywide attention to the new initiative. This year also marked the beginning of the organization’s stained glass enterprise, which would later become known as Glass Action. Initially meeting in the building’s unheated atrium, this project involved hosting stained glass restoration classes for the community to repair the building’s badly damaged windows—work that would have otherwise cost nearly $1 million.
The next two years continued to bring more volunteers—more than 1,300 working more than 13,000 hours—and financial support—almost $1.5 million for building restoration. This allowed Union Project to build out office space, bring in its first six office tenants and generate revenue through long-term office users and short-term event rentals. By 2005, Glass Action had become a full-fledged enterprise, performing contract work restoring stained glass throughout the city.
In 2006, Union Project took ownership of the building and mortgage payments previously held by the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation. The year also saw the opening of Union Project’s café space, the Union Station Café. Later, the café would be renamed the Urban Fusion Café, and finally the Eat UP Café. Starting in 2007, the café space would host Union Project’s Youth Barista Program, a social enterprise created to give youth aging out of the foster care system job skills in the food services industry. Unfortunately, that same year, Glass Action lost its manager and was put on hold.
For the next two years, construction project ceased and Union Project focused on developing placed-based programming, producing regular events such as: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (an inspirational community wide celebration & meal to honor the life and values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Youth Talent Showcase (a friendly competition series for high school youth), Barbecue and Beats (cook outs on the front steps), Tuesday Stew (soup and diverse live music for up local bands), Monday Night Conversation Series (open dialogue about neighborhood issues), UPwords (a monthly reading series), and Margarita’s in March & Unwrapped (fundraisers).
In the summer of 2009 Union Project underwent significant changes. Co-founder Justin Rothshank became UP’s first emerging artist to leave UP and make his living full-time as a ceramics artist. The board hired Jeffrey Dorsey as the new Executive Director and charged him with restructuring the organization. The organization closed its café, reduced its staffing requirements, increased arts programming to target all ages and sought to empower community partners to take over and run much of the programming that took place in the space. These changes allowed Union Project to place greater focus on its key business lines—space rental, arts programming, and volunteerism/stewardship.
Through 2010, Union Project was once again able to take on major capital improvements. By 2011, Union Project completed the major exterior improvements of Phase I including replacing the final section of the roof and cleaning and repointing the exterior stone, and installing the last of all 155 original stained glass windows. Additionally, Phase II interior improvements were started including re-plastering and painting the Great Hall. Today, Union Project is experiencing all time bests across the board: Space rental has increased 40%, Arts Programming participants have increased from 50 adults/year to over 1,000 youth, families, and emerging artists, activities in the building have increased from 250 to over 400 bringing nearly 25,000 people through our building each year!
We welcome you to become part of our community. Visit us today and become part of our history.