In recent years, the archdiocese of Philadelphia has seen a major decline in parochial school and church attendance. This decline has forced the archdiocese to go through several rounds of closings and mergers of both catholic schools and churches throughout the city. In 2013 alone, the archdiocese either merged or closed over 35 parishes, many of which dated back to the early 20th century. One of the churches that was part of this list is St Laurentius in Fishtown.
As a new resident of the neighborhood when this news broke, it was hard to avoid the rallies of parishioners and neighbors who banded together to try to save their church. The passion of the community was like nothing I had ever experienced. Roses adorned the steps for months, signs were posted all over the neighborhood to “save St. Laurentius,” a website was published to document the appeals and countless meetings were held.
I questioned how a church, which seemed to have such a thriving community would even be considered for closing, but the truth of the matter was, the building was in a state of disrepair and had been closed for worship months before the archdiocese officially announced its fate. Scaffolding lined the exterior for at least the three years that I have lived in Fishtown and the archdiocese was not interested in funding the repair of the heavily deteriorated facade. Parishioners offered their own money for the repairs and even to buy the church from the archdiocese themselves. Both offers were ignored.
In 2015, despite two years of appeals, St Laurentius, the city’s first Polish Catholic Church, was deconsecrated and slated for demolition.
The fight did not end there. Soon after the fate of the church was made public, parishioners started a petition to have the city of Philadelphia’s Historic Commission register the over 130 year old church. These efforts and passion of the community did not fall on deaf ears. In July of 2015, the church met the criteria for the nomination. Shortly after, the twin spired landmark of Fishtown designed by ecclesiastical architect of many churches throughout the city, Edwin Forrest Durang, was granted the designation. St Laurentius was saved.
After that day it has sat, covered in scaffolding and surrounded by a chain-link fence to further deteriorate. The future of the building had been unknown until I recently caught wind that the archdiocese had sold the building to a developer for $1. The sale is not officially completed and the price tag is not confirmed either, but developer Leo Voloshin is part of the agreement. Should all go well with the deal, he plans to turn the beloved church into apartments.
So how could a historically registered building be converted? Turns out, the designation only protected the building’s exterior and the neighbors are now fighting, once again, for a designation for the interior.
I attended a Fishtown neighborhood meeting last week where future projects that will make their way to the local zoning board for approvals were announced. When the St Laurentius apartment conversion project was mentioned as being presented in June, audible sighs filled the room. It’s clear this project still tugs at the heartstrings of locals – myself included. I wonder if there is a conversion for this site that would better preserve the interior architecture and if so, if that or any proposal would be met with the same opposition from the parishioners. Would it be better for the building to sit in a preserved ruin memorial forever or an interesting adaptive reuse project that could give back to the community?
As an interior designer, I would love to see this beautiful interior preserved as much as possible. If that means that it will sit vacant for years to come, than I think it may be worth sacrificing some of the architecture to allow for a new use that may be of added value to the neighborhood. I’m not sure the neighbors would agree. Ideally the space would become public and be appreciated by the loyal parishioners for years to come but it just seems unlikely a developer would be on board with a project that would probably not have as high of a return on their investment as something like an apartment conversion would.
This city has lived through the demolition of many unique buildings, most notably those of famed architect Frank Furness, but in recent years, we’ve seen an influx of developers who are more interested in finding ways to reuse our existing buildings. It seems they are feeding off young creatives’ strong desire to live, work, or simply visit interesting spaces that are a nod to the city’s history and which show the bones of the sites’ past. There are already so many examples throughout Philly that have been successful and the idea of a church conversion is nothing new. In fact, there is a perfect example just a few blocks from St. Laurentius. On the 1300 block of E. Susquehanna, a church has been converted into beautiful single family home complete with a photography studio. Many of the original details are still intact and the result is a completely unique and inspiring space.
SILOAM M.E. CHURCH, NOW THE STUDIO FOR DOMINIC EPISCOPO PHOTOGRAPHY
Dominic and his family purchased the building in the early 2000s and have spent the past years meticulously renovating and restoring the property. They also rent out a few lofts and work studio spaces to offset the costs.
CHURCH OF THE NEW JERUSALEM NOW CORPORATE OFFICE SPACE
Many in the Philadelphia design community know this building as home to CFI, the sole Knoll dealer in the area. A beautifully preserved and well-executed office rehab that was completed in 1989. Historically, the church was built for the Swedenborgian religion between 1881 and 1883 by architect Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr, who was the founder and head of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture department. In the mid 80s, when the church was met with a decline in fellowship, the congregation set out to find a developer who would best preserve the church’s integrity. Local architect, Mark B. Thompson spear headed the project and the outcome is truly amazing. I have a friend who works in the space and I recently asked her about her experience there. She mentioned that her favorite time of day is 3pm, when the light shines through the stained glass and beautifully fills the space. She also sometimes catches herself staring at the woodwork on the ceiling and finds the overall atmosphere to be very calming.
ST. AGATHA ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Renamed “The Cloisters” in the 1990s after its residential conversion. Like St. Laurentius, this church was designed by renowned architect Edwin Forrest Durang. While most of the interior was preserved in this conversion, the exterior has a few modern additions. It is said that the quality of life for the neighbors has much improved since this project was completed. With the details of the church preserved, such as the altar and baptismal font, the building is a desired place to live.
WISSAHICKON METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH NOW TERRACE STREET CONDOMINIUMS
Located in Manayunk, this conversion completed in 2003 saw little of the artifacts in the interior preserved, but after completion it had gained support from the community as an eight unit condo building. I imagine the renovation of St. Laurentius looking very similar in the end.
After learning of so many local projects similar to the proposed St. Laurentius conversion, I believe I can support a project that would create a new sense of community as long as the developer would do their best to preserve as much as they can of the existing architecture. I hope that when all is said and done, the neighbors can too – finding peace in knowing they didn’t completely lose the building to demolition.
I’ll be attending the zoning meeting in June to sit in on the developer’s presentation of the proposed design and to hear how the community reacts to the plans. Be sure to check back for an update.
For more information, or to join the cause, please visit https://savestlaurentius.org/
1. PHOTO OF ST. LAURENTIUS CHURCH. PHILLY.COM
2. PHOTO OF ST. LAURENTIUS STEPS. SPIRIT NEWS OF THE RIVERWARDS.
3. DOMINIC EPISCOPO PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO. BENNER, CONRAD.
4. DOMINIC EPISCOPO PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO BATHROOM. BENNER, CONRAD.
5. INTERIOR PHOTO OF CFI. HTTP://STREETSDEPT.COM
6. PHOTO OF THE CLOISTERS. HTTP://HIDDENCITYPHILA.ORG/
7. PHOTO OF TERRACE STREET CONDOS. TREND VIA CITY SPACE.
8. PHOTO OF TERRACE STREET CONDOS. TREND VIA PHILLY MAGAZINE.