The Philadelphia Historical Commission said Friday that it needed more time to decide the fate of the crumbling, century-old St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown after its owner — fearing that the building faces imminent collapse — had asked to demolish it.
After hearing from structural engineers who disagreed about how unstable the church actually is, the commission referred St. Laurentius’ demolition application to its architecture committee for review later this month. Members of the public also testified at the virtual hearing, which lasted about three hours.
David J. Perri, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, said he had considered the demolition application an urgent matter and hoped the commission would come to a decision Friday about the 19th-century church, which has been the subject of a years-long legal dispute between developers and residents of the Philadelphia neighborhood. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed and deconsecrated St. Laurentius in 2014 out of concern that the church would collapse.
“We cannot emphasize enough that time is of the essence as this building continues to deteriorate and the latest engineering reports suggest that a failure beyond the loss of facade stone can be expected,” Perri wrote in a letter to the commission on Thursday.
Since 2013, numerous engineers hired to assess the church have noted severe cracking in the plaster and “obvious visible deterioration” in the spires. Last year, 6,000 pounds of rock fell off the church’s facade and landed in an enclosed safety zone that had been constructed around the building as a precaution.
Humberto Fernandini, a New Jersey developer who bought St. Laurentius in January from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, hired two structural engineers to assess the stability of the church. The engineers — one with the King of Prussia-based Harman Group and the other from Thornton Tomasetti in Philadelphia — both concluded that St. Laurentius had decayed substantially.
Janis Vacca, an engineer with the Harman Group, predicted “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,” according to a June 14 report she submitted.
The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which had fiercely advocated to protect St. Laurentius — a historically designated site — hired its own structural engineer, who provided competing observations Friday.
“The structure clearly has reserved strength,” said Justin M. Spivey of the Northbrook, Ill.-based firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, adding that the church had remained standing over seven years of various engineers recommending that the building needed dire attention.
The architectural committee is scheduled to meet July 28. The next historical commission meeting is planned for Aug. 14.