Dismantling of the twin church spiers that define the Fishtown skyline could begin as early as Wednesday, the culmination of years of efforts to preserve and demolish St. Lawrence, the neighborhood’s landmark and former 19th-century church century.
Nearly a year ago, the Philadelphia Department of Licensing and Inspections issued a demolition permit for the brownstone church at the corner of Berks and Memphis streets, saying the building was unsafe. Now the church’s owner, developer Humberto Fernandini of 1600 Berks LLC, is moving forward with plans to replace the church.
When L&I issued its demolition permit last September, the department said it determined the building was structurally unstable and at risk of collapse and needed to collapse. His conclusion matched that of the owner’s engineers.
L&I had previously said only the deteriorating 150ft towers of the church should be demolished and the rest of the building could and should be preserved. But L&I conceded last year that with the building structurally compromised, removing the towers would cause the church to collapse, so the rest of the building would also have to collapse.
L&I cited a report from the owner’s engineers and other reports that documented the deterioration of the building. An analysis said that without action the church would fall in a few years, according to L&I. Thousands of pounds of stones have fallen from the church in recent years.
Before demolition work could begin, utility companies had to move the poles and wires that encircled the property. It took longer than expected due to labor shortages and pending demands, according to L&I.
The building’s demolition is complicated by its neighbor, St. Laurentius Catholic School, which teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade. L&I said in the spring that, for the safety of the children and because the school year was almost over, it had ordered the developer to wait until the summer to begin demolition of the towers, which overlook the school.
Workers have already removed non-structural materials from inside the church.
Before exterior demolition can begin, the developer must complete site preparations and receive final approval from L&I. As of Monday afternoon, L&I had not given that approval. The start of work is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.
Because the church sits next to a school in a dense neighborhood of townhouses, workers will pull down the church’s slender spiers by hand. The rest of the church will also be demolished almost entirely by hand. This means viewers will see the building gradually crumble, not in a sudden cloud of dust.
The riskiest and most difficult element of the demolition is the removal of the tall spiers of the church. They will take two to four weeks to descend. The rest of the demolition will take a few more weeks.
L&I plans to inspect the property daily during demolition. Depending on the terms of the demolition permit, a special third-party inspector must also be on site.
The Philadelphia Historical Commission has told the developer that it must preserve or reconstruct the facade of the church in any new development, and the developer plans to preserve it. Saint-Laurent is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
St. Lawrence Church was a Roman Catholic church built in the 1880s with donations from Polish immigrants. It has been a landmark for generations of Philadelphians.
Neighbors fought for St. Laurentius to get a spot on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which they did in July 2015 over objections from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. A local architectural historian said the church “represents the history of immigrants” in the city and is a symbol of the architectural style of the era in which it was built.
» READ MORE: For now, Saint-Laurent is safe from destruction (as of 2015)
The archdiocese closed the church in 2014 after engineers said the building was unsafe. He was desacralized.
Neighborhood residents and conservationists cite the building as an example of “negligent demolition” – a practice in which a property is allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that the only option left is demolition.
A former developer planned to convert the church into apartments, but a small group of residents took legal action to block the plan. Legal challenges drove this developer away.
The current developer, Fernandini, bought the church from the archdiocese for $50,000 in January 2020. He initially said he wanted to keep the building and convert it into offices or apartments. The architectural committee of the historical commission noted that it had made no attempt to shore up the church in the first months after the sale before asking the city to let it be demolished.
Plans for the redevelopment of the church site are still being developed. The city issued a zoning permit in January for an eight-story multi-family residential building covering more than 45,000 square feet with 49 residential units. But the permit was challenged.
The city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the appeal, a decision the landlord is now challenging in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.