PHILADELPHIA — An architectural panel in Philadelphia has declined to approve demolition of a shuttered 19th-century church sought by the New Jersey developer who bought the building earlier this year but says the crumbling structure faces imminent collapse.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the architectural committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission instead asked developer Humberto Fernandini to come up with alternatives to rehabilitate St. Laurentius in Fishtown, which neighbors and former parishioners have been campaigning to save for years.
Fernandini bought the building in January for $50,000 from the archdiocese of Philadelphia and said at the time that he was “committed to keeping the church standing.” The committee noted that in the seven months since, there have been no temporary measures to keep the local landmark intact.
The city Department of Licenses and Inspections had recommended approval of demolishing the church’s increasingly unstable twin spires, saying any debate should focus on saving parts of the building for incorporation into a future design. Commissioner David Perri wrote Monday that the building had “simply run out of time.”
Committee member Amy Stein called it “disturbing” that no options were presented other than complete demolition of the building, saying during Tuesday’s meeting that she understood the safety concerns but “very few applications come in front of us with zero options.”
Lawyer Matthew McClure, who spoke on Fernandini’s behalf, said the situation wasn’t his client’s fault and asked panel not to “shoot the messenger.”
The church was built in 1882 with the donations of Polish immigrants. In 2014, the archdiocese of Philadelphia announced its closure, citing “vertical cracks” and a “heavily deteriorated” facade that threatened collapse without restoration that would cost an estimated $3.5 million. Supporters said their estimates totaled only $700,000. The historical commission added the church to the city’s historic register in 2015.
Concerns rose last year when pieces of the facade crumbled, in one case with 6,000 pounds of rock breaking off a spire, puncturing steel scaffolding and falling into a fenced safety zone around the church, prompting closure of nearby St. Laurentius Catholic School for two days. The archdiocese spent $135,000 to stabilize the building and the city’s licensing and inspection department said in December the structure appeared to be in better shape.
After Fernandini bought the building in January, two engineers both concluded that St. Laurentius had decayed substantially, and one predicted in June “at least partial collapse of the northeastern or northwestern towers within the next 10 years and an 80% probability of partial collapse within three years.” But a structural engineer hired by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia said the structure “clearly has reserved strength” and noted that St. Laurentius had remained standing for seven years despite dire assessments by a number of engineers.
The full historical commission meets Aug. 14 and is expected to consider the matter.