Next Wednesday the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation will consider a nomination of the interior of Fishtown’s St. Laurentius church.
Developer and neighborhood resident Leo Voloshin has proposed a residential reuse plan for the former Catholic church, and proponents of the plan say this is the only feasible way to save the building. In 2014 the Archdiocese of Philadelphia deconsecrated the structure and the next year sought to demolish it. Voloshin made the only offer on the building, and its sale is contingent on acquiring all necessary permits.
Should the church’s opulent interior finishes be designated as historic, current plans to convert the building into 23 apartments would no longer be viable..
“It would make our plan to save St. Laurentius by converting into apartments impossible. It would make any repurposing into a viable self-sustaining business impossible,” Voloshin said. “I think it would be unfortunate because that would have the opposite impact of what it seeks to do.”
But some neighborhood residents and former congregants argue that converting the church into apartments would privatize a cherished community space and render the interior illegible. They are desperately seeking alternative plans and in the meantime seek to forestall Voloshin’s plans despite warnings that their defense of the whole building could result in total demolition.
The nomination of the building highlights the gorgeous artwork that adorns the church, although the Archdiocese shuttered the building in years ago and John Wisniewski of Friends of St. Laurentius filed the nomination on October 27, 2015. The building is currently closed to the public and the current state of the interior is unclear.
In addition to including photos of the resplendent interior, the nomination also highlights St. Laurentius’ history as one of the first Polish Catholic churches in America and its design at the end hands of noted ecclesiastical architect Edward Forrest Durang.
“It’s very magnificent from the outside, but inside it's spectacular,” said Venise Whitaker of the Faithful Laurentians. “It’s almost like a sunset. Brown and gold to oranges and peaches and blues. it should be able to be shared for decades to come.”
If the committee were to approve the nomination next week it would be sent on to the full Historical Commission for consideration in the new year.
Asked whether he felt the Faithful Laurentians stood a chance next week, the Preservation Alliance’s Patrick Grossi that it is entirely possible the Committee on Historic Designation could be swayed.
“The committee is always very forthright that that their job is to evaluate the historic merits of the property,” said Grossi. “When discussions about financial hardship or the logistics of designation, or the opponent of the property owner come up they tend to not let those arguments sway their evaluation of the historic merits. On those grounds, it’s entirely possible the committee would recommend approval.”
Such a hotly contested nomination of the inside of a building is without precedent in Philadelphia’s recent history. Interior designations are exceedingly rare because they’ve historically been the locus of legal controversy. In 1995 the interior of the Boyd Theater received a nomination that the State Supreme Court ruled illegal because the city’s preservation code didn’t specifically mention interiors.
“It was a disaster,” recalled Kathy Dowdell, who sits on the Preservation Alliance’s advocacy board. “After that it was such a hot potato that no one wanted to raise the possibility again.”
In 2008 Councilman Bill Green advanced legislation in City Council to enable the designation of public interiors, again prompted by the Boyd.
But only two interiors have been added to the local register: City Council’s Chambers and parts of the Family Court building. The last nomination for an interior was for the Blue Horizon’s auditorium, but the Commission did not designate.
The potential of historic protections for St. Laurentius’ interior is the latest speed bump for Voloshin and his partners. Last month the Zoning Board of Adjustments approved the variances required to begin construction. But a 30 day appeal window followed the ruling and Whitaker of the Faithful Laurentians tells PlanPhilly that their lawyer filed an appeal on Monday.