By Carl Erb…..
As Tour Chairman for the Western PA Region of Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), I am always looking for interesting places to arrange tours for our members. I attend many car events and talk to a lot of people while always jotting down contact information in my notebook. I am amazed at the number of private collections that I have discovered right in my back yard that very few people know about.
I unwittingly got “hooked” into becoming Tour Chairman in 2018 when I opened my big mouth at our monthly meeting asking about possible tours. Since then, I have been able to arrange 3 or 4 tours a year to these hidden gems, even in 2020. Less than half of these car collections have websites and even fewer are open to the general public.
One of the most unusual and interesting places I have discovered that we will be touring in the Spring of 2020, is THE HOLY GRAIL GARAGE located just a short distance from downtown Pittsburgh, PA in a small community called “East Pittsburgh”. Cars in this unique storage facility are not a collection of a single owner, but instead they are cars owned by individuals who rent storage spaces in it.
To get a preview of the garage to set up a tour I arranged to meet the owner, Mike Fanto, on a day when he would be at the garage with some of his employees while they were doing regular maintenance work on it.
When I pulled up to the entrance level in my 1970 DS21, Mike immediately asked if I would like to bring my car inside to take some photos of it in the chancel where the altar used to be. Knowing that I would not be storing my car there because of the high cost and distance from my home, I didn’t accept the offer thinking I would be taking advantage of his good nature. However, Mike is a very good salesman who has owned Tower Auto Sales, a highly successful “high end” used car business, ever since he graduated from high school, and he finally talked me into it. Perhaps his persistence was fueled by my telling him the significance of the name of the Citroen DS (“La Déesse” — French for The Goddess) and how appropriate it would be to have this car in a church, but I think his desire to sell me a space had a lot to do with it.
I don’t recall how Mike got the idea to purchase a church to turn into a car storage facility, but I do recall him telling me that even with the $50,000 purchase price and the cost of the modifications he has made, it would have cost him a great deal more money to build a new building or to purchase an existing building large enough to store 33+ cars. And of course, any other storage building would not have a 3,000 square foot, 3 bedroom, 3 bath stone clubhouse to go with it.
Before buying the church, he had a structural engineer inspect the building to make sure it was strong enough to park cars on the church floor as well as in the basement. Since there was one of many Pittsburgh steel mills just down the hill from the church on the banks of the Monongahela River, there was no shortage of huge steel beams available to support all that weight. The church was originally Saint Helen’s Slovak parish, built in 1929-1931 and the engineer said it was so well built that it would probably be around 500 years from now.
When de-sanctifying a Catholic Church to be sold for some other purpose, it is mandatory that everything with a religious theme, including the altar, the pulpit, the baptistry, paintings etc. must be removed. However, when it came to the huge religious themed stained-glass windows Mike said; “Because of the cost to replace the windows, even with plain glass ones, the windows must stay or there would be no deal.” So, the beautiful stained-glass windows are still there. Some religious inscriptions in Latin were chiseled off the exterior on the front of the church and the paintings of saints up near the timbered ceiling inside the church were painted over and replaced with oil and gas company signs while flags with automobile company logos hang from the columns.
In order to provide entrance for cars to the main floor of the church Mike had to replace the original entrance doors with an overhead garage door. To keep the originality of the building, he had that overhead door custom made to closely replicate the looks of the original hand-crafted ones. With respect to the origin of the building Mike has preserved those original doors and mounted them high on the back wall of the chancel where they are clearly visible in photos taken of cars parked where the altar used to be.
The former church balcony holds a coffee lounge with a big-screen TV and when standing there under the huge round stained glass window looking toward the chancel, the original doors are a focal point to be clearly seen in that view which is absolutely gorgeous.
While the cost to rent a space in The Holy Grail Garage is $220+ per month, depending upon the renter’s location in the church, they get much more than just a spacious spot to store their cars in a completely climate-controlled facility with 24/7 access in highly secured buildings with cameras everywhere. The community of East Pittsburgh is like a couple of other small “steel mill towns” in the Pittsburgh area where the mills have closed, the population has dwindled, businesses have closed, and they can no longer afford to have a separate police force. Currently the PA State Police now patrol the area, but they have no community funded building to function as an office or a place to take a break when they are there. So, Mike has converted the Baptistry room in the church to provide a space for them. That “break room” is complete with a TV, comfortable chairs, refrigerator, sink etc. and it is available to the State Troopers 24/7 via their own keypad access code.
The building also has a security and fire-prevention system, battery jump boxes and air compressors and in the basement parking area there is even a separate washing and detailing space.
If you do a Google search for The Holy Grail Garage you will find several articles and YouTube videos about it, but just click on the following link to watch Mike Fanto’s video, then scroll to the top of the page and click on the heading ‘GALLERY” to see numerous additional photos of the building and the cars in it: