Just months after the new owner of St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown said he wanted to save the historic, deteriorating architectural landmark, he is seeking permission to tear down the building after the most recent engineering inspections deemed it dangerously unstable.
“We believe the nature of the structural distress is critical and will lead to 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,” concluded a June 14 report from the structural engineering firm Harman Group.
Propelled by the dire findings, the deconsecrated church’s owner, New Jersey developer Humberto Fernandini and his lawyer, Matthew McClure of the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr, urged the Philadelphia Historical Commission to expedite its review of Fernandini’s demolition application. The commission agreed to add the matter to its Friday meeting agenda.
“Owing to the extremely poor condition of the building and the likelihood of a catastrophic collapse,” according to an overview of the demolition application, the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri asked the Historical Commission to “consider this matter as soon as possible and not wait for the next round of reviews in late July and early August.”
In the case of what could be a building’s imminent collapse, the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections can order the structure to be demolished.
The review Friday will accelerate the fate of the building, which has been at the center of a fierce, years-long spat between parishioners, neighborhood residents, and developers.
Fernandini’s request to demolish the city’s first Polish church is the opposite of what he said he wanted to do when he bought the 19th-century, 8,000-square-foot building from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in January.
“I love the church itself,” he said then. “I think it’s an amazing project, and I was sort of enamored with the building. We are committed to keeping the church standing.” He noted that he still had to assess the infrastructure before making any decisions.
Concerns from residents and city building officials about the condition of the church, a brownstone from 1882 at 1608 Berks St. with two distinctive 150-foot spires that each weigh 500,000 pounds, peaked last year when pieces of the building’s facade crumbled, in one case with 6,000 pounds of rock breaking off a spire. It punctured steel scaffolding and fell within a fenced safety zone around the church, and the nearby St. Laurentius Catholic School had to close for two days. The archdiocese spent $135,000 to stabilize the building.
This summer, Fernandini hired two engineering firms, the Harman Group based in King of Prussia and Thornton Tomasetti in Philadelphia — at the request of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection — to review the infrastructure.
“It is our opinion that inaction at this time poses a threat to public safety,” Thornton Tomasetti said in a Thursday letter to Fernandini. Repair of the church, the firm said, was possible at the cost of more than $4.5 million.
The Harman Group’s assessment of the ill-maintained church on June 3 found cracked mortar — the severity of which was exacerbated by moisture, freezing, and thawing — disconnected wall corners, and large cracks at windowsills.
The spires, which had “obvious visible deterioration” from at least 2013, were the most pressing concern, Thornton Tomasetti said in its letter to Fernandini last week. The firm listed 10 reviews from engineering or restoration professionals since 2013, all of which reported severely degraded infrastructure.
The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections said it asked the city’s Historical Commission to meet quickly when it received the two engineering reports.
“L&I’s position is that because of increased deterioration, the condition of the towers must be addressed promptly,” Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the department, said Monday. “Waiting and seeing is so longer a viable option. L&I does not have a position on what the method for addressing the problem should be.”
Fernandini was not available for comment.
The request to demolish the church on an expedited schedule appeared to have taken local residents by surprise.
“We cannot continue to allow this bamboozling of our processes,” Oscar Beisert, a Philadelphia preservationist, wrote on Facebook. “... This is absurd.”
Some locals have witnessed the drawn-out quarrels over the church since 2014, when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed the church out of worry that the building was “in danger of collapse.”
The next year, the archdiocese said it intended to demolish St. Laurentius, a move that drove locals and preservationists to successfully add the church to Philadelphia’s historic register in an effort to protect it.
Leo Voloshin, a local developer, bought the church with Linden Lane Capital Partners the next year with the plan to maintain the church’s exterior, but convert the interior into 23 apartments. The purchase price was not disclosed.
Voloshin’s proposal drew the ire of a neighborhood group in Fishtown, the Faithful Laurentians, which appealed to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and the Commonwealth Court about a zoning permit Voloshin received to convert the church into apartments.
In 2019, the Commonwealth Court said the Faithful Laurentians did not qualify as an “aggrieved party” because its members had not identified themselves as members of the group at a Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting on Nov. 1, 2016. The court upheld Voloshin’s permit.
Despite the victory, “after defending the zoning permit in court for several years, the developer eventually capitulated and walked away from the project,” according to an overview of the demolition application. “Other prospective buyers who might have rehabilitated the building came and went, scared off by the lengthy litigation.”
In January, Fernandini, the church’s current owner, confirmed that Voloshin had transferred St. Laurentius’ agreement of sale to him. But in the years before the handoff, Fernandini’s lawyer said last week, “the façade and masonry primary structure continued to degrade and, most unfortunately, the towers have become irreversibly unstable.”