With its chunky tower, curvy corners, and antennalike cross, Our Lady of Loreto in Southwest Philadelphia has the look of an early, art deco airport terminal. That's no accident. The small parish church is near Lindbergh Boulevard, on the way to Philadelphia International Airport, and it was designed to celebrate the miracle of flight, of both the religious and technical kind.
Now home to the Grace Christian Fellowship, the building was constructed in 1938 to serve the Kingsessing neighborhood's tight-knit, Roman Catholic Italian community. It is not lavish by any means, but its buff-colored, streamline moderne facade gives it a commanding presence on a block of redbrick rowhouses. Most fascinating is the way its decoration fuses the new imagery of air travel with the traditional imagery associated with Our Lady of Loreto, the patron saint of aviation.
Many residents in this part of Kingsessing had experienced their own kind of flight when they emigrated from Nusco, near Naples, to Philadelphia in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, the community had swelled to 1,200 families, enough to support their own sanctuary. They picked Our Lady of Loreto as their patron and hired architect Frank L. Petrillo to design the building.
According to Catholic tradition, Loreto, Italy, is the site of the house where Mary was born. Of course, that was not its original location. As the story goes, the structure was transported there by winged angels after upheavals in the Middle East in the fourth century.
Petrillo's design cleverly links that story with the great technical advance of the 1930s: commercial air travel. Because streamline moderne's strong, horizontal lines evoked speed, it was a favorite architectural choice for new airports' terminals.
It's more unusual to see the style adapted for a religious building. Philadelphia Airport didn't get a purpose-built terminal until 1940, but Petrillo's square, somewhat stubby, belfry is strongly reminiscent of the air traffic control towers then going up in other cities. The effect is reinforced by the openwork metal cross, which suggests a radar antenna.
Instead of pilot instructions, the tower broadcasts a religious message. A tile mural depicts Our Lady of Loreto being borne aloft with her house. She is surrounded by angels - and early prop planes. Petrillo also carved a winged crest in sandstone above the door. The emblem is nearly identical to the pins Pan Am flight crews wore then.
Like other streamline moderne buildings, Our Lady of Loreto features a smooth facade. But look around the corner and you'll see familiar Philadelphia brick. They are laid with randomly protruding "clunker" bricks, giving the walls a rough, artisanal texture that contrasts sharply with the refined public facade. After all, Our Lady of Loreto was a parish church for a modest immigrant community that hadn't forgotten its roots in the Italian countryside.
Our Lady of Loreto is at 62nd Street and Grays Avenue and can easily be reached on the Route 36 trolley.