Changing Skyline: In the rush to build houses, churches are discarded

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St. Laurentius Church. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)

There's a simple reason so many of Philadelphia's great religious buildings have been falling to the wrecking ball: Nobody is left to love them anymore.

That's not the case with St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church in Fishtown, built in 1882 with nickels and dimes collected by the neighborhood's Polish community. When the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in March that it planned to demolish the brownstone church at Berks and Memphis Streets - presumably to sell off the land for house lots - its partisans rushed to the virtual barricades to hold off the wrecking crew. Within days, they had researched, written, and submitted a 46-page nomination to have St. Laurentius placed on the city's Historic Register.

Their Web campaign has continued almost nonstop since, aided by supporters like Michael Greenle, a fourth-generation Fishtowner of Irish German descent who learned just enough Polish to serve as an altar boy in the 1980s, and Michael Blichasz, who attended countless family reunions after Sunday Mass and is now president of the city's Polish American Congress. But many of St. Laurentius' staunchest advocates are relative newcomers, like Oscar Biesert, who had never before set foot inside its soaring Gothic Revival interior. They can't imagine Fishtown without the stalwart neighborhood sanctuary presiding over its blocks of tightly packed rowhouses.

On Tuesday, the Historical Commission's designation committee will decide whether St. Laurentius is worthy of its protection. Its evaluation process is based on standards established by the federal government and relies on a checklist of technical criteria: Was the building designed by an important architect? Is the architecture distinctive or groundbreaking? Did any important events play out on the site?

The approach is meant to be as coolly rational as a death-penalty jury. Of course, such evaluations need to be strict because a listing on the Historic Register imposes a real financial burden on the property owner. And yet there is something soulless in the process. It tends to minimize the emotional role buildings play in our lives and the life of our city.

As the oldest Polish church in Philadelphia, St. Laurentius should score high in both categories, technical and sentimental. Despite its unassuming, side-street location - necessitated by anti-Catholic discrimination in the late 19th century - St. Laurentius was designed by one of the most important ecclesiastical architects of the day, Edwin Forrest Durang.

Thanks to Biesert, who prepared the preservation nomination, we know Durang based St. Laurentius' appearance on churches in Poland, using traditional elements to increase its visibility. Its single peaked gable is flanked by two copper-tipped bell towers that can be seen across the neighborhood. At the front entrance, visitors are welcomed by a trio of Gothic doors that resemble the prongs of a crown. Inside, the braided Gothic arches create a canopy over the main aisle, leading to a wooden altar decorated with painted religious figures, another Polish tradition.

The church is also part of a larger ensemble that is still intact, including a rectory and the St. Laurentius elementary school - all designed with the same elongated, pointed Gothic windows that seem to stretch up to touch the sky. The archdiocese deconsecrated the church in 2013 as part of a parish consolidation, but the school remains open.

Soon after St. Laurentius was closed, the church hierarchy sent in engineers who discovered faults in the towers and the stone cladding. Declaring repairs could cost $3.5 million, the archdiocese announced it would demolish rather than renovate.

St. Laurentius' partisans aren't buying it. They hired their own engineer, Rick Ortega, who works exclusively on historic buildings. Though he confirmed the problems, he doesn't see them as fatal. He also found the estimate for demolition unrealistically low. The expense, he suggested, could wipe out whatever money the archdiocese earns from the sale of the land.

Certainly, Philadelphia's archdiocese is stuck with far more buildings than it can use. But it's dispiriting that it has taken to treating their disposition as purely a business problem, compounding the community trauma brought on by the closings of so many churches and schools.

It's not only religious buildings that are disappearing. Philadelphia is in a moment of extreme transformation, when it seems old landmarks vanish overnight and strangers take their place. It's not by chance that two other perfectly good 19th-century buildings on Tuesday's committee agenda also are threatened with demolition: 3600 Lancaster in Powelton Village and 145-47 Sumac St. in Roxborough. Of course, the idea is to replace them with new housing.

This is what the city's crude tax-abatement policy has wrought. The new rowhouse construction has infused Philadelphia with fresh energy, but the city can't be just houses. It needs the punctuation of civic monuments - churches, schools, libraries, and even old factories. Without those larger structures to break up the relentless grid, our blocks would be run-on sentences, without meaning.

The presence of historic touchstones helps us adjust to the new development, especially in places like Fishtown, one of Philadelphia's oldest neighborhoods. Yet almost nothing there is protected on the city register. Just in the last year, Fishtown has lost a row of early 19th-century wooden houses on Allen Street. They survived the construction of I-95, but they couldn't survive the rowhouse boom that rewards demolition.

So maybe the most important standard for judging St. Laurentius' historic worth is this: Can you imagine Fishtown being Fishtown without it?


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