The Philadelphia Historical Commission officials say they need more time to decide the fate of a shuttered 19th-century church after the New Jersey developer who bought it earlier this year asked to demolish it, saying the crumbling structure faces imminent collapse.
After hearing Friday from structural engineers who disagreed about the stability of St. Laurentius in Fishtown, which neighbors and former parishioners have been campaigning to save for years, the commission referred the demolition application to its architecture committee for review later this month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Commissioner David Perri of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections said he considered the demolition application an urgent matter and had hoped for a decision Friday.
“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,” he wrote Thursday in a letter to the commission.
The church was built in 1882 with the donations of Polish immigrants. In 2014, the archdiocese of Philadelphia announced its closure, citing “vertical cracks” and a “heavily deteriorated” facade that threatened collapse without restoration that would cost an estimated $3.5 million. Supporters said their estimates totaled only $700,000. The historical commission added the church to the city’s historic register in 2015.
Concerns rose last year when pieces of the facade crumbled, in one case with 6,000 pounds of rock breaking off a spire, puncturing steel scaffolding and falling into a fenced safety zone around the church, prompting closure of nearby St. Laurentius Catholic School for two days. The archdiocese spent $135,000 to stabilize the building and the city's licensing and inspection department said in December the structure appeared to be in better shape.
In January, the church was purchased from the archdiocese by developer Humberto Fernandini, who said he was committed to keeping the structure standing but was “still evaluating the structural integrity of (the building’s) towers.”
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Two engineers hired by Fernandini, 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. In a June 14 report, Harman Group engineer Janis Vacca 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.”
But a structural engineer hired by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia said the structure “clearly has reserved strength.” Justin Spivey of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates of Northbrook, Illinois noted that St. Laurentius had remained standing for seven years despite dire assessments by a number of engineers.
The commission's architectural committee meets July 28 and the full commission is scheduled to meet Aug. 14.