Blair Murphy

Blair Murphy holds his daughter, Luna, outside the Holy Child of Jesus in Windber, which he bought earlier this month, on Monday, June 10, 2019.

WINDBER – In 1921, coal mining turned Windber into a boomtown, and the Holy Child of Jesus became the fourth Catholic church built to serve the surging immigrant population that flocked there for work in the mines.

With its imposing medieval castle-like bell tower extending along Graham Avenue and 10th Street, the church was the first one designed specifically for the families of Irish and neighboring homelands who spoke English as their native language, Windber’s 50th anniversary history book shows.

Today, more than a decade after it closed, rainwater seeping through the structure’s failing roof has ransacked the former worship house, threatening its future as its 100th anniversary approaches.

But Grand Midway Hotel owner Blair Murphy said he hopes to revive the space, aiming to ensure the building serves the community for decades to come.

Murphy told The Tribune-Democrat he envisions reopening it as a museum of sorts and gallery space that would showcase the works of the Scalp Level school of painting and its famed French-American founder, George Hetzel.  

Before Windber Borough itself was founded and King Coal began carving its mark on it, Hetzel’s oil paintings of the region’s scenic, natural landscapes lured artists to the area for decades – and remain favorites of some collectors nationwide today.

“There’s an artistic lineage in this community dating back to the 1800s, when it was a retreat for Pittsburgh artists like Hetzel,” Murphy said. “I don’t think a lot of people around here recognize his impact.”

Murphy acquired the building earlier this month.

He is renaming the building the American Renaissance Church and Museum and said he envisions a day when tourists will be drawn to the “public space” to learn more about the borough’s artistic history and view Hetzel’s work, which would be displayed on the building’s interior walls.

But he acknowledges that cannot happen until those walls are safe enough to house them.

“The building needs a new metal roof immediately,” Murphy said, standing inside the church Monday and gesturing to layers of crumbling paint and plaster the church has sustained.

The damage is hard to miss inside the church near its steeple, and Murphy said the issue has worsened because the structure isn’t climate-controlled in the summer and winter months.

He said he’s working on forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to begin raising funds for the roof work and eventual restoration.

“I’m hoping there are people in the area ... who care about this building, too. Hopefully, I can find help,” Murphy said.

He acknowledged much of his plans is ambitious.

The online artwork auction site shows Hetzel originals can sell for anywhere from $1,000 to more than $30,000.

“I realize this is a big undertaking ... but I’m crazy enough to do it,” he said with a smile.

A writer and filmmaker who spent years working in Cailfornia before making Windber his home, Murphy’s 32-room Grand Midway has become an eccentric and sometimes “haunted” hotspot for fellow artists and visitors alike in recent years.

Murphy said he offered the hotel’s rooms through in 2018 and it showed him people are willing to spend time and money in historic communities like Windber – many of them leaving fascinated by its eye-catching architecture.

“Some of these buildings here you take for granted, but to someone outside the area, they’re fascinating,” he said.

“As an outsider, I think I have the ability to recognize it.”

While the Midway is known for its “spooky” charm, Murphy said he has no intentions on giving the American Renaissance Church the same makeover.

“It’s a beautiful place. Like some cathedral in England,” he said. “I want to bring that out – keep it the way it always was.”

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David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.