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L&I grants demolition permit for Fishtown’s St. Laurentius Church

Demolition work at the 19th-century former Roman Catholic church could begin by mid-November. It will be a shocking end to a yearslong fight by neighbors and the city to save the church.

This photo from January 2019 shows a facade being repaired at St. Laurentius, a former Roman Catholic church, at 1612 E. Berks Street in Fishtown. Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a demolition permit on Thursday, agreeing with the owner that the building is a safety hazard.
This photo from January 2019 shows a facade being repaired at St. Laurentius, a former Roman Catholic church, at 1612 E. Berks Street in Fishtown. Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a demolition permit on Thursday, agreeing with the owner that the building is a safety hazard.Read moreMargo Reed

The historic and structurally unstable St. Laurentius Church, a beloved landmark with soaring spires that define Fishtown’s skyline, is set to be demolished after years of requests by the owner to tear it down.

The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a demolition permit for the building on Thursday, agreeing with the owner’s engineers that the large brownstone church built in 1882 is in danger of collapse and must come down. Demolition will be a shocking end to a years-long fight by some in the community and the city to save it. In years past, the department recommended the demolition of only the deteriorating 150-foot twin spires and disputed claims that the building was too unstable to preserve.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission had recommended that the prominent towers of the former Roman Catholic church be demolished but that the owner, developer Humberto Fernandini of 1600 Berks LLC, try to save as much of the building’s facade as possible if safe to do so.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Historical Commission passes motion to demolish St. Laurentius church’s twin spires

In the owner’s demolition permit application, an engineering report said that without the towers, the facade in between would collapse because of structural instability and deteriorating stones. Thousands of pounds of stones have fallen off the church in recent years, and L&I has required fencing to protect pedestrians.

“Given that the building as a whole is already structurally compromised, it is inevitable that the removal of the entire north side of the building will further destabilize the property and lead to collapse,” Karen Guss, spokesperson for L&I, said in a statement. “Therefore the remaining portions of the property must also be removed.”

Guss said the owner’s engineering report was “conclusive” and comes in addition to other reports documenting the ongoing deterioration of the building, including one that said the church would fall in the next couple of years if nothing is done.

Neighbors and preservationists said the owner’s neglect has brought the church to its current state and mourned the dashed plans to adapt the building for new use, which was the owner’s initial stated plan when he bought the property. A previous developer had planned to preserve the church and turn it into apartments, which the city’s zoning board approved, but a small group of residents sued to block the reuse. Legal challenges drove away that developer, setting the scene for current demolition plans.

» READ MORE: St. Laurentius sold to new developer, ending years-long questions about historic church’s fate

“The Historical Commission is saddened that this day has come,” spokesperson Paul Chrystie said in a statement. “In its approval of the demolition of the towers, the commission required that the facade be retained or rebuilt in any new development. That requirement remains, and if safety requires that the facade come down now, the commission expects that any new development will include the facade.”

Demolition of the church at the corner of Berks and Memphis Streets will need to be a delicate process. The building is surrounded by rowhouses and sits next to a school, which has had to close in the past because of stones falling through scaffolding. The church will be demolished almost entirely by hand and an engineer will monitor work on-site, in addition to L&I inspectors who will perform scheduled and surprise checks, according to Guss.

Demolition is not expected to begin before mid-November because of necessary preparation and safety work, Guss said. The property’s owner needs a street closure permit from the Streets Department to stage equipment and has to work with Peco to take down utility poles that are in the way.

L&I has discussed safety requirements for the demolition with the owner and contractor, who will have to give the city a schedule of what work will be done when, Guss said. The department is requiring the owner to hold meetings with community members before work begins and during the demolition.

The owner’s engineers have determined that the safest way to demolish the building is to start on East Berks Street and take down the towers by hand, Guss said.

» READ MORE: Stones fall from crumbling Fishtown church, prompting school next-door to close for the day

A.J. Thomson lives around the corner from the church and was a member of the parish. He called St. Laurentius “an icon in our community, one of the last connections to the 1800s.”

His daughters attend seventh, sixth, and fourth grades at St. Laurentius Catholic School, and his oldest daughter is a graduate. Thomson was part of a group of neighbors who fought for the church’s spot on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, achieved in July 2015 over the objections of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“If it has to come down for the safety of my community, I certainly will not stand in the way of that,” Thomson said. “But the developer better make damn sure he protects the school and the residents of every property that abuts this property. Because we’re gonna be on him like white on rice.”

» READ MORE: Former parishioners work, pray to save doomed St. Laurentius

The archdiocese closed the church, built using donations by 19th-century Polish immigrants, in 2014 after engineers determined that the building was unsafe. Fernandini bought the building from the archdiocese for $50,000 in January 2020, initially saying that he wanted to keep it intact and convert the interior into apartments or offices. The church has been deconsecrated.

But the Historical Commission’s architectural committee noted that he did not move to shore up the church in the first months he owned it before asking for permission to demolish it.

Oscar Beisert, an architectural historian with the newly established preservation organization Keeping Society of Philadelphia, who helped the church win historic designation, echoed a shared frustration among those who have fought for years to save St. Laurentius: If the church is imminently dangerous as the owner has been saying for more than a year, why has nothing been done before now?

» READ MORE: St. Laurentius placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places

“The city could have figured out a way to save this building,” he said. “But that’s not the city we live in.”

He said he hopes the developer will preserve components of the church.

“It represents the immigrant story in Philadelphia,” he said. “While it may have structural issues, it’s still a great symbol of the architecture of that time and of those people and their aspirations.”