A matter of opinion in Fishtown: St. Laurentius estimates

As the battle over the fate of St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown moves into its next phase, a common paradox in preservation debates arises again: dueling estimates.

Professionals hired by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have said that stabilizing and repairing the church, built in 1885 by Edwin Forrest Durang, one of the era’s foremost ecclesiastical architects, would cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. Demolition, on the other hand, would cost $1 million, the firm estimated.

But an architect-engineer recruited by Save St. Laurentius, a group of parishioners representing one of the city’s oldest Polish churches, said that the building, at 1608 E Berks St., could be reborn for a comparatively cheap $700,000.

The discrepancies may be due more to the clients’ goals and the end product than the conditions being evaluated.

And once the work gets underway, the eventual costs may be much higher – or require less – in a structure designed more than a century ago.

Exploratory phase

Last week Joel Darras, a representative of O’Donnell & Naccarato Structural Engineers, the firm employed by the Archidiocese, was completing a three-day “exploratory review” of the church. On a scaffold erected around the second story of the building, Darras was working with a subcontractor who was taking samples of the facing and examining structural cracks beneath the brownstone.

Darras explained that O’Donnell & Naccarato began looking at St. Laurentius in 2013 while conducting city-mandated inspections of 80 churches throughout Philadelphia. Five to seven of them, he recalled, were considered unsafe, and all but one were brownstone buildings like St. Laurentius.

“Our primary concern is public safety, and we are obligated to report unsafe conditions,” Darras said. The estimate to make the church at Berks and Memphis Streets safe was “based on a rough order of magnitude,” taking into account similar types of repairs on other buildings and “potential contingencies” during reconstruction, he said.

“We’re not a contractor; we are an engineering firm providing an estimate,” Darras said. The scope of the exploratory review conducted last week is “more widespread” than the previous inspections. Once the review is completed and the results known, requests for bids can go out to contractors. Darras did not know when the results of the exploratory review would be made public.

He noted that if the congregation pursues restoration rather than demolition of the church, “unforeseen conditions could be exposed” when the work begins. If scaffolding is needed to stabilize the church’s distinctive towers, that cost alone could deplete the congregation’s budget, and “you could still potentially have unsafe conditions,” Darras said.

A specialist’s view

Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania, said engineers and contractors who specialize in historic buildings look at sites differently than their mainstream counterparts.

For example, the developer of St. Peter’s Church of Christ, the 114-year-old church designed by Frank Furness at 47th and Kingsessing Streets, had asked the engineer he usually employed to review his plans for a mixed-use redevelopment of the property. “The guy declared the site a lost cause without much investigation, missing key details such as the fact that the main sanctuary was built on a steel frame,” Wunsch said. A specialist in historic preservation, rehabilitation and structural evaluation was able to determine that the building could be saved.

A church designed by Durang in 1894, St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic, on the 2800 block of North 9th Street, didn’t fare as well. “That building was deemed dangerous because its tower was supposedly unsound,” Wunsch said. “At the end of the demolition process, the tower was still standing. Turns out it was self-supporting.”

Matters of faith

For their review of St. Laurentius, the parishioners turned to Richard Ortega, who founded Ortega Engineering five years ago. Before that he had been director of preservation technology at RMJM Hillier, and he created the first technical committee on preservation engineering for the Association for Preservation Technology.

His $700,000 estimate and plan to save the church building has been called a “band-aid” by a spokesperson for the Archdiocese.

“It’s not a band-aid,” Ortega said. “You can get a good long-term solution” for that price.

“There will always be contrasting professional opinions as long as those being asked to look at the buildings are asked different questions” by those who hire them, Ortega said.

When he came on board, Ortega was asked by the parishioners whether their building had to be torn down and would it really cost $2.5 million or more to save it.

“They weren’t interested in historic preservation, but in saving it as a house of worship. I said, basically it has lots of problems, but there’s probably more than one solution to solving those problems and it doesn’t necessarily involve as high an estimate.”

Ortega said he explained that the church tower design was flawed, and the walls were tenuously designed when they were built. “With deterioration over time, they’ve gotten worse. They are even less stable,” he said.

But the walls “only enclosed what you have in the towers. There is a very large timber frame anchored at the base of the towers. The masonry itself is just cladding. You really don’t have to tear everything down. You can take the cladding off and keep the towers,” Ortega told the parishioners.

A new veneer could then be added, “and you’d have control over the cost. It would be less than rebuilding the towers and less than what they have in [O’Donnell & Naccarato’s] estimate. That’s a way to have your church and keep it for less money. But it’s not a historic preservation solution.”

A flaw in the tower design is another issue, and the building was condemned because of the danger posed by the towers. The 19th-century mason who built them inserted iron rods to support the towers, but the rods are dependent on the walls, which have grown weaker over time. Ortega said other means of establishing continuity in the walls around the towers and bracing those walls should be explored.

“Here you have a congregation that is devoted to their building. It’s very admirable that there’s a building out there that people care about, people who love that building for what it gives them. They want that church there, regardless of other considerations,” Ortega said. “Decisions are being made about the building as if it’s just a business decision. But these are people of faith who really love the symbol of their faith.”

Ortega thinks there could be a “middle ground” for St. Laurentius. “Perhaps they can see their way to a design that makes it look a little different, but there’s some way to keep the building they love.”


Contact the writer at alanjaffe@mac.com.


WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal