Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Preservation Success Story: Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka

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Continuing our theme of Preservation Success Stories this Preservation Month, we’ll feature short interviews with our 2020 Community Initiative Award winners for the next few weeks.

Last but certainly not least is the Society to Preserve the Millvale Muarls of Maxo Vanka (or SPMMMV for short).

SPMMMV was founded in 1991 to raise awareness and educate the public about the twenty-five mid-20th century murals painted by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka in the St. Nicholas Church, the country’s first Croatian Catholic parish, in Millvale, Allegheny County. SPMMMV’s “behind-the-scenes” social media posts about the ongoing mural conservation gave followers a sneak peek beneath the layers of dirt accruing over 80 years and has helped build excitement and support for the next phase of work.

Social media advertisement for the SPMMMV’s “Table Talk” series.

What inspires you to want to preserve your community/specific place?

As we often say: These Walls Can Talk. The Vanka Murals are portals to the past with multi-level relevance to the present. I truly believe that appreciation and deep understanding of the murals will contribute to creating a better and more just future. This masterwork is truly one-of-a-kind and must be seen to be believed. It should be a point of pride for the people of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. Vanka called it his “Gift to America” and the priest of St. Nicholas that commissioned the work, Father Albert Zagar, predicted that the murals would find a global audience. It’s an honor to work hard every day to realize their intentions.

Vanka’s Croatians in America mural in St. Nicholas Church. Image from https://vankamurals.org/vanka-murals/.

Is there a historic place or historic preservation project planned or happening that you’re particularly excited about?

Places/projects that help us notice and appreciate the form and function of seen and unseen infrastructure and, in some cases, realize our personal indebtedness to them are interesting to me. For example, Preservation Pittsburgh recently presented a program on the preservation efforts for the Herron Hill Pumping Station. I had no idea that my neighborhood – Squirrel Hill – owes its development to the pumping might of the Herron Hill Water Service.

Herron Hill Pumping Station in Pittsburgh, nominated as a Pittsburgh city landmark by Preservation Pittsburgh in 2020. Photo by Jeff Slack, Time & Place LLC on preservationpgh.org.

Do you think there are untold stories in your community? If so, what are they?

I think there are too many to count and I’m not the right person to answer that question. But, I think that preservation that emanates from the community is very important. I think PA SHPO’s recognition of community-based initiatives demonstrates a commitment and interest in hearing and celebrating those stories. We will all benefit from discovering the many hidden gems among us. 

Women on scaffolding in front of large mural.
Conservators at work cleaning the Vanka murals. Photo courtesy of SPMMMV.

Would you consider yourself a preservationist?

I’ve always been a supporter of preservation projects and a big part of my “day job” is ensuring that SPMMMV has the resources it needs to make preservation possible. But prior to the PHMC Keystone Planning Grant, and being exposed to the contagious dedication and enthusiasm of Jeff Slack of Time & Place LLC, I would’ve declined the title. Now, I will boldly claim to be an enthusiastic preservationist-in-training.

Anna Doering, SPMMMV’s Executive Director, holding their 2020 Community Initiative Award.

Last year we ran a series of blog posts called #FavoritePAPlaces. Can you share with us one of your favorite PA places and why it’s a favorite?

My favorite place in PA is just about anywhere nature and history come together…so, lucky for us(!), too many to mention. A recent discovery was the Kinzua Viaduct (Kinzua Bridge State Park in Kane, PA) which is a National Engineering Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. As mentioned — developments in infrastructure interest me. When this viaduct was built in 1881, it was the world’s highest and longest railroad bridge at 301 feet tall and 2053 feet long. And — you can’t beat the location!

View of the Kinzua bridge at the Kinzue Bridge State Park from the skywalk. Image from Visit PA website.

Any words of encouragement or inspiration for our blog readers that are interested in preserving Pennsylvania’s older and historic places?

Never doubt that someone will be interested in the story you want to tell. Don’t over-filter and limit your audiences. Old can be new again! There are so many cost effective ways to engage with current and potential supporters. Social media is an essential tool for us because of the high impact visuals we can share. We rely on images, timely postings and often a bit of humor. We are also intentional about outreach to diverse audiences and inviting their perspectives into our interpretation of the murals. We also make it a priority to contribute and collaborate with others in the community.

Painting of man with mask.
Example of a fun SPMMMV social media post from 2020.

Interested in learning more about Maxo Vanka and his amazing murals?

Consider making a trip to Millvale for a tour (which is on my own bucket list), join SPMMMV for one of their online Table Talk events, or even volunteer. More information online at https://vankamurals.org/get-involved/ or follow their social media activity on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram.

Do you have a Preservation Success Story to share with us?

This year, we’re celebrating National Historic Preservation Month by asking our readers to share with us a Preservation Success Stories in their communities using PA-SHARE (Pennsylvania’s State Historic and Archaeological Resource Exchange), which is PA SHPO’s new online data management and cultural resources GIS tool. And you might just win something!

Three entries submitted between May 1 and May 31 will be chosen at random for three-month Pro subscription to PA-SHARE.  We’ll announce the winners in a blog post on June 4th. We’re going to do our best to make sure that the chosen subscription winners represent a diversity of applicants and projects.

All entries will also be automatically entered to win a 2021 PA SHPO Community Initiative Award. The Community Initiative Award from the State Historic Preservation Office (PA SHPO) recognizes organizations, municipalities, agencies, individuals, and others whose work embodies the theme of Pennsylvania’s statewide historic preservation plan, #PreservationHappensHere.  PA SHPO selects three to four winners from a pool of candidates, typically each fall.

To learn more about sharing a Success Story, check out this post.

Author: Shelby Weaver Splain

Shelby Weaver Splain is the Education and Special Initiatives Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. Shelby is a native of Bucks County and holds a Masters degree in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Historic Preservation from Goucher College.

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