Fishtown fought to save St. Laurentius church’s twin spires for 6 years. The neighborhood just lost.

St. Laurentius Church spires

St. Laurentius from above. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Fishtown is slated to lose another landmark — the skyline-piercing spires of St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church on Berks Avenue.

Citing imminent danger of collapse, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted Friday to allow the owner of the crumbing 138-year-old church to tear down its long-neglected towers.

The partial demolition recommendation came after hours of deliberation, including emotional testimony from neighborhood residents who had fought to save the neighborhood landmark for years.

Six commissioners — Emily Cooperman, Steven Hartner, Dan McCoubrey, Labaron Lenard-Palmer, Betty Turner, and Robert Thomas — voted to support demolition of the degraded spires, as did Mark Dodds, the city’s policy and planning program manager, and David Perri, commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.

“Demolition needs to begin as soon as possible,” Perri said during the call, describing the church as a public hazard that had put people in danger twice in the last year when heavy stones fell from the facade onto scaffolding above a busy street.

The commission and Department of Licenses and Inspections said they intended to preserve other elements of the building, including the building’s ornate facade.

“The facade along Berks Street must be protected or reconstructed,” Perri said.

Humberto Fernandini, a New Jersey-based real estate developer, purchased the church in 2020, less than a year after a 6,000-pound stone fell from the building. Despite the obvious challenges, Fernandini initially showed enthusiasm in restoring the building. But that changed after engineering inspections revealed major structural flaws, Fernandini and his attorney, Matt McClure of Ballard Spahr argued.

As public deliberation drew to a close, Perri asked for more empathy from the developer and his lawyer.

“You make this so difficult for us, because you’re always hesitant about any type of commitment to preserve the facade of this building that means so much to the community,” Perri said. “I mean, it’s like it’s an afterthought.”

Commissioner Jessica Sanchez voted against the motion while John Mattioni recused himself and commissioner Kelly Edwards abstained from voting.

Gilberto Gonzalez did not attended services at the historic church, but raised his three children under the gaze of its tall, pale blue steeple and had hoped the building would be saved.

“What’s it going to take to bring attention to these communities, and important structures like churches?” Gonzalez said in July. “It’s destroying the fabric of the neighborhood.”

John Scott, a longtime Fishtown resident described the commission’s decision to take down the towers as  “devastating.”

“We thought the building could be saved,” he said.  “At the same time, we think the commission probably did the best they could and we are relieved the facade could be preserved.”

The streets around St. Laurentius Church is blocked due to falling debris and slated demolition. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Conflicting testimonies

Polish Catholic immigrants built St. Laurentius. The structure, erected in 1882, provided a place of worship for more than 130 years.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese closed St. Laurentius Church in 2014 after citing severe structural damages to the building — a claim that drew skepticism from some parishioners. The church received historical designation by 2015 — a movement largely galvanized by local activists.

Developer Leo Voloshin presented a plan to develop apartments within the church, keeping the structure and design intact, but those plans were met with strong opposition by local residents.

Ultimately, Voloshin backed away from the property, and Fernandini purchased the church in January 2020.

Opinions surrounding the church’s fate came to a head at the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s July meeting. Residents, attorneys, and engineers deliberated the church for hours via Zoom during the public meeting. Two engineers hired by Fernandini argued that the church was in danger of imminent collapse.

Amid conflicting statements and long testimonies about Fishtown’s history, the decision concerning the church was delayed another month — until Friday’s meeting. McClure, on Fernandini’s behalf, expressed enthusiasm to work with L&I as a demolition plan begins.

Fishtown residents and preservationists decried the church’s demolition, while the Fernandini and McClure team labeled it a threat to public safety. Fernandini did not make a statement during the meeting.

Jan Vacca, an engineer hired by Fernandini, told the historical commission it didn’t make sense to preserve any part of the church structure.

“To be very clear with you, I don’t see salvaging of any portion of this church,” Vacca said. “It’s almost like a frontal lobotomy, which is a horrible thing for this church.”

Vacca said she toured the church with employees of JPC Group, a company that specializes in large-scale demolition — JPC expressed concern about the building’s precarious condition.

“There was a lot of discussion, as to even during demolition, what would happen if there were a cataclysmic failure of these towers to get them down,” Vacca said.

Fishtown residents at the meeting and preservationists opposed demolition — instead requesting to stabilize the towers with some form of scaffolding. Justin Spivey, a structural engineer, proposed bracing the towers to keep the building intact while further evaluating plans for the church. Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia hired engineer Phillip Rennie, who works for the firm Plan B, to draw a scaffolding concept that could keep the structure safe without demolition.

Several residents came forward with the same question: If the towers are so dangerous, according to Ferdanini’s team, then why is there no scaffolding present now?

“We’ve heard over and over and over again that stabilization is required. But today, there are still no braces. There have not been any evacuations,” said Scott.

Dana Fedeli, who identified herself as a voting constituent, noted that despite several storms throughout the summer, Fernandini did not “take any meaningful steps to reinforce the building.”

Kevin Brett, a Fishtown resident and attorney, questioned Fernandini’s apparent invitations for people to tour the building — a YouTube video published on July 8 shows a video blogger exploring the church’s interior.

“It’s hard to take seriously [the] applicant’s perspective that this is a public interest issue, when the applicant is gratuitously inviting people into his property,” Brett added.

Brett cited text messages from Fernandini inviting residents into the church, but his testimony was cut off by Historical Commision Chairman Robert Thomas.

Thomas cut multiple testimonies short during the meeting, including public comments from engineers, preservation activists, and a developer.

“Please stop stifling public comment,” Paul Boni commented on the meeting’s public Q&A forum. “It’s embarrassing to the [city.]”

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