Text Size
  • A
  • A
  • A

Holy Speculations: Academic Analysis of St. Laurentius Uncovers Hyperbole and Truth


Another month has gone by and St. Laurentius still stands.

The more-than-century-old building has been closed to parishioners for Mass since March of last year, and closed as a structure entirely since this past October in accordance with a decree by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. The Archdiocese (AOP) holds that the structure is no longer safe for occupancy, and stands by its intention to demolish it.

Some former St. Laurentius parishioners wish to save the church, rehabilitate it and possibly repurpose it as a community center. Their coalition, Save St. Laurentius (SSL), was formed to challenge the Archdiocese and its decisions.

SSL first appealed to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in Rome. The Archdiocese claims the Vatican has denied the appeal but reserves the documents that would confirm that decision for exclusive internal use.

Assuming the Catholic Church doesn’t help, the secular world offers SSL other options. The group has applied with the Philadelphia Historical Commission to obtain protected status for the structure.

Erin Coté, a preservation planner with the City of Philadelphia, didn’t offer an opinion about whether the Commission will grant St. Laurentius protection, stating only that it “assesses each project based on its merit.” If Laurentius did qualify, she said, “demolition could only be approved by the Commission [itself].”

Coté also confirmed that City Council could write the Commission a letter in favor of SSL. Council President Darrell Clarke has publicly supported the plan to save the church.

The official press office story from the AOP, however, remains the same: St. Laurentius was closed out of “concern for the safety of parishioners, students and the surrounding community.” But there could be a financial component to the decision as well.

The AOP held about $350 million in long-term liabilities as of the 2012 fiscal year. It’s also looking forward to making some substantial legal payouts over the next few years. “Nine civil cases alleging sexual abuse by clergy were filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2011,” according to a recent audit. 11 more were filed between  2012 and 2013.

Rather than declare bankruptcy, the Archdiocese adopted austerity measures. They’ve since been liquidating real estate, reducing staff and have sold large pieces of their cemetery and hospital operations to private firms. St. Laurentius is just a small piece of the $7.6 million pie  that makes up the real estate that the AOP has put on the market this past year.

Front of St. Laurentius

The saga on St. Laurentius continues on with no resolution./Max Pulcini

Interested parties disagree with regard to how much it will cost to fix St. Laurentius. The AOP commissioned a report by engineering firm O’Donnell & Naccarato, which estimated the cost to fix the church at around $3.5 million. SSL has furnished a different estimate after commissioned engineering reports by Ortega Consulting and independent contractor Poleski Historical Preservation, which reported estimates between $600,000 and $700,000. SSL is working to raise enough money to fix all needed structural components of the building that are required in order to get it up to code with Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections standards. L&I has not come down on either side, having reportedly not denied any of the engineering reports commissioned by the AOP and SSL.

The Spirit has been covering this saga for months and feels that what has been missing from this heavily contested, litigious and (at times) incomprehensible debate surrounding this church is an independent analysis of each engineering report and their respective findings. Ideally, this independent report would be conducted by someone with well grasped understanding of the technical nuances of historical engineering and appropriate practice.

With that in mind, The Spirit sought the insight of John James Pron, Professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art for 37 years before retiring as professor emeritus in December 2012. Pron was born in Northern Liberties and was raised catholic. He is a graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s engineering program, specializes in the areas of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of historic architecture and has taught the history of architecture, including Philadelphia architecture, for many years.

Pron’s academic background in architectural history allows him to understand the formal characteristics of many styles and his professional background affords him the designing, drawing and model making skills to create real-world proposals. Pron is not, however, a professional structural engineer, nor does he directly oversee the construction of buildings by working with contractors. He is a college professor with a strong background in architectural history and a theoretician able to project past ideas onto present and future contexts.

Pron is familiar with both of the engineering firms that produced reports regarding the church’s structural integrity:

“I know [O’Donnell & Naccarato] to be one of the very best structural engineering firms in this city and they have a long history of working with [the city’s] most outstanding architectural firms as well as providing support for the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects,” Pron said. “I frankly cannot imagine that anyone in the local architectural community would criticize the quality of their work and their professional ethics on any level.”

Pron also praised Ortega, SSL’s commissioned engineering firm.

“Richard Ortega, I know him personally, though I have not seen him in several years. I did hire him to teach structural design to Temple architecture majors,” Pron said. “I know him to also be a highly respected practitioner, totally professional in his dealings, ethical, hardworking and an excellent communicator of the basic principles of structural design.”

High praise aside, Pron’s analysis shows considerable discrepancies between each of the engineering firms’ reports.

The O&N report states that the towers of the church are damaged and in structural danger:

“Brownstone turrets at the corners of the east and west towers are deflecting as much as 6” at the top of each turret. The deflection is visible from a vantage point on the top of the sidewalk protection.”

Conversely, the Poleski and Ortega reports attribute this bowing to inherent aspects of the building’s architectural design. SSL stated the following as part of their official recourse document to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy:

“What O’Donnell & Naccarato [report] failed to realize was the method of construction done in the mid 1800’s. The builders used optical illusion to make towers look higher. They narrowed the circumference of the turret as they went higher. It is this architectural illusion that the O&N inspectors incorrectly identified as a dangerous leaning of the towers of St. Laurentius Church.”

Pron agrees with the Ortega and Poleski reports, and referred to this architectural device as “tapering”.

“Indeed, it is correct that the architectural device of tapering as one goes vertical emphasizes the vertical element—and that is the very nature of Gothic—and Victorian neo-Gothic: [Such is the design of St. Laurentius], to use the architectural forms to push one’s eyes—and heart—upward to the heavens,” Pron said. “The goal was to build as tall as possible. Furthermore, it was not unusual to gently inflect vertical lines inward to increase that perception of tapering into the cosmos.”

St. Laurentius' towers

According to James Pron, St. Laurentius’ towers exhibit an architectural technique called tapering./Jack Grauer

The reports mention the building’s alignment, but Pron says that those may not be quite as serious as some findings suggest.

“Nothing was, or is ever, perfectly constructed, so a stone building made of interior rubble faced with finer cut facing stone [as St Laurentius is] might indeed be a few inches, or even a few feet, out of alignment,” Pron said. “So, it does seem to me that the 6” deviation noted by O&N is probably very minor. It more than likely was even constructed that way and should be no threat. There are so many many towers in Europe that lean, famously the Tower of Pisa, which is 16 feet out of alignment and still stands.”

Pron argues it’s important to keep the structural nature of St. Laurentius within the context of other similar brownstone structures built in the region at the same time. The use of brownstone in the Philadelphia region in the 19th century has proven problematic.

“Brownstone is vulnerable and, if it is peeling away from its rubble stone schist backup, it is a problem.“

The reports do see eye-to-eye in other areas. Problems regarding the deterioration of the brownstone and the deflection pulling away from the backup rubble stone are raised as key issues in all three reports. Their collective findings regarding these points appear to be at the crux of what is wrong with the church structurally. Pron echoes that sentiment.

“The threat, I would think, is much more from the cracking, spalling and splitting that O’Donnell & Naccarato noted both inside and outside the tower. That is evidence of problems, not the slight misalignment. And if [O&N] noted measurable changes over a single season, then yes, I would see that as a reason for definitely being alarmed [over the building structural integrity],“ Pron said.

Pron also notes that it is not uncommon for serious structural changes to happen to the church over a single season as opposed to a lengthy deterioration. Philadelphia has had several rough winters over the past few years. Another rough season for a distressed building could have tragic consequences.

“A structural calamity is more often quite sudden and the history of architecture is full of those immediate collapses, like the Bell Tower of San Marco in Venice, which is one of the iconic church towers of Italy,” said Pron.

In Pron’s analysis of the all three St. Laurentius reports, he stresses the need to keep in mind additional costs associated with demolition. The Archdiocese notes that the cost of demolition would be in the range of $1 million. SSL contests this estimate, citing calculations in the Ortega report that state the added expenses of evacuating residents living in close proximity to the site, the removal of specialized tiling, utility and electrical services, and other expenditures would surpass $3 million.

Additionally O&N’s report calls for “hand demolition” as opposed to a wholesale demolition effort with the use of a crane. Pron’s assumes this was taken into consideration when estimating the demolition costs.

Once again, Pron is more of an academic historian and architectural theoretician than active practitioner; his professional background doesn’t qualify him to evaluate the finer points of cost differences regarding demolition and other factors of repair between the various St. Laurentius reports. But his analysis does raise interesting points.

Assuming it’s even a possibility, does SSL have the money to save SSL? A recent official bank statement for SSL obtained by The Spirit shows that a total of $31,111.95 has been raised and is on hand as of April 30th. This amount falls short of what is needed by even the group’s most modest estimate of $600,000. The group also cites in their recourse document to the Vatican’s Congregation an estimated $475,000 in pledges, but those have not been collected and are without guarantee.

SSL has taken to online crowd funding to supplement their attempts to save the church. As of June 1st, the campaign has raised $36,587 out of their $700,000 goal, with 214 days left.

Patricia Kinsman oversees the fiscal management of SSL and points out the logical reasons regarding why more funds have not been raised to date.

“I think we have slowed down on the fundraising because the fate of the building was so unsure, and so people weren’t giving money because we were not even sure if [the AOP was] even going to let us use the money,” said Kinsman. “So that is what has made it difficult to raise the cash donations but that is the whole point of the pledges. Those are the people pledging so that if we win the appeal process [to the Congregation for Clergy in the Vatican] and they let us fix it.”

St. Laurentius Steps

Members of the former St. Laurentius parish have rallied together as “Save St. Laurentius” to dispute the Archdiocese decision to close and demolish the Fishtown church./Caiti Weiser

The AOP remains skeptical of the SSL engineering estimates.

“I don’t know what [SSL] is like between cash in-hand and pledges. If we are looking at bandaid fixes were going to be right back in the same spot once again. The $3 million figure is the figure you need to fix it,” Kenneth Gavin, spokesman for the AOP, said. “That level of funding has not been raised by the community in the past year, and even if the church were to be fixed they are still looking at deferred maintenance costs for this. I don’t see it as viable”.

Some members of the neighborhood also cast a similar shadow of doubt and skepticism on SSL’s plan to save the church, regarding both its long term fiscal and generational sustainability in a community with changing demographics.

The Spirit received a handwritten letter from the Riverwards resident named Charlie C. which reads in part:

“I am all for Saving St. Laurentius Church… if realistically possible but I am concerned and worried that it is not… and that [SSL] can not bring themselves to that acceptance. They don’t seem to understand that the parish could not afford it, to maintain it, to insure it, heat it, light it, staff it. I can not image how much liability insurance on that building would cost.”

Charlie C. understands the church’s historical and cultural significance, but fears the forces of reality may end up writing it into the history books.

“It’s a tough time to be a catholic in Fishtown nowadays and that’s a sad shame.”•

Save St. Laurentius will be meeting with the Committee on Historic Designation of the Philadelphia Historical Commission for help in preserving the church on Tuesday, June 9, 9:30AM in City Hall, Room 578.

The Spirit | Hyperlocal done differently
Advertise Now

Related News