When George “Toby” Gaines watched fire consume the building that housed his family business for more than 80 years he said he felt two things; sadness, at the loss of something that held historical significance for African-Americans in Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood, and helplessness against the power of the inferno.

“That feeling of being handicapped, of not being able to do anything was emotionally devastating,” he said. “But in processing it, I realize I have to forgive those who may have been involved in setting the fire. That was difficult, but as Christians we’re called to do that.”

ONLY MEMORIES REMAIN—A pile of burnt wood and brick are all that remain where Gaines Funeral Home stood on Auburn Street in Larimer since 1934. It burned down June 6.

Gaines was referring to two teens whom witnesses said they saw on the roof about 45 minutes before the fire erupted in the late afternoon of June 6.

The Allegheny County Fire Marshal would neither confirm nor deny if arson was the cause, but the building had been shuttered and had no utilities since Gaines move the business to Penn Hills in 2008.

The building at 220 Auburn Street had originally been the home of Mt. Ararat Baptist Church. Gaines’ father, who started his business in Homestead in 1919, moved into the building in 1923. For years it was called “funeral church.”

After his father’s death in 1953, his mother Julia took over the business, with Gaines joining her. She turned control of the business to him in the 1980s but remained a partner until her death in 2006.

Gaines continued the business for a time, but with none of his children interested in keeping it going, and with his increasing duties as a Deacon in the Catholic Church, he shut it down, referring clients to the House of Law funeral home, and moved to a home in Butler, Pa.

George “Toby” Gaines

It was there, at about 6 p.m., that Gaines received the call from one of his former Larimer neighbors, Stagnos Bakery, that his building was ablaze. Gaines said he doesn’t know what will happen next. The building was uninsured and the city had recently sought to condemn it. And though the property had been eyed by developers on more than one occasion, Gaines said he hadn’t received any solid offers.

“There will always be a question in my mind,” he said. “All of my neighbors at one time or another were approached by people trying to assemble the whole block from Auburn Street to the alley, but I have no idea what will happen now.”

But it’s really the memories that were lost in the fire, Gaines said, noting he had been in that building almost daily since he was a child. But he also noted an odd bit of symmetry that might be God telling him to move on.

“My grandfather, Rev. George W. Gaines founded the first school for African-Americans in Suffolk, Va in the late 1800s. It was burned to the ground. But he went on to found the First Baptist Church of Suffolk,” he said. “And this fire now allows me to focus on my ministry. When God closes one door, He opens another.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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