PennDesign professor part of effort to save local church

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Originally Published in The Daily Pennsylvanian

Though St. Peter’s Church is much farther from campus than Fisher Fine Arts Library, the building has almost as many connections to Penn. Both the church, on 47th Street and Kingsessing Avenue, and the library were designed by architect Frank Furness. The church has received a lot of attention and support lately, as it came in danger of closing, and it was ultimately saved by Penn affiliates.

Despite the great historical and architectural value of St. Peter’s, the church has been fighting a battle against demolition for the past couple of years. But after a long period of hard work by a number of different parties, the church will be going nowhere. According to PennDesign assistant professor Aaron Wunsch, Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, more commonly known as L&I, lifted its demolition order a few weeks ago.

Wunsch was a key player in saving St. Peter’s Church. After driving and walking by the site a few times, he noticed the church’s decline and deterioration — and wanted to revive it. “The building itself really stands out in West Philadelphia’s fabric,” he said.

The structure’s uniqueness and Wunsch’s admiration for Furness compelled him to get involved with the church. As an undergraduate at Haverford College, Wunsch met two art history professors, Michael Lewis and Jeff Cohen, who got their Ph.D.s from Penn, and they introduced Wunsch to Furness’ work.

At the time of Wunsch’s initial involvement, St. Peter’s looked doomed for demolition. The church could not bring its congregation back due to money and sizing issues, and pieces of the building broke off of the facade. Wunsch was not frightened by this, however. “A building that looks like it is in poor repair is not the same thing as a building in imminent structural failure,” he said.

In order to move forward, an engineering report was required to prove that the building could be saved. “Aaron was very instrumental in getting engineers involved to say that it was salvageable,” current owner of St. Peter’s and Penn alum Guy Laren said. Engineers confirmed, according to Wunsch, that “there was not risk of structural failure.”

Initially, Laren was worried about L&I refusing to lift its demolition order, despite the engineering report, so he leased St. Peter’s for a year in order to work on refurbishing the church to meet L&I standards. It took several months to stabilize the building, Laren said, and L&I came back a several times before finally giving up on demolition.

The future of the building is in the works. It is zoned to be a church, which means that the building must continue to function as such.

But Laren is looking to change the zoning. He has been working with two schools that plan to use 40 percent of the building and its outside space, something that Laren would like to see starting this summer. The function of the other 60 percent of the building has not yet been decided.

“Repopulating is our next challenge,” Laren said, but “good things are going to happen. Almost everyone I bring there is impressed with the light and airiness.”

University City District was just as instrumental in saving St. Peter’s as Wunsch was, according to Laren. UCD project manager Ryan Spaak played a big role in the project as well. Spaak is responsible for Project Rehab, a program designed to help owners with issues they may have regarding distressed real estate.

Specifically for the St. Peter’s project, UCD was responsible for “assembling the team that we had already put together, along with bringing forward potential offerings for the church as a sale became more relevant,” Spaak said. “Both myself and the community are extremely pleased to see the church being renovated and rehabilitated.”

“Not every historic building can and will be saved, but this can demonstrate that there is a reuse for them and we are proud to demonstrate that,” Laren said.

By PAT ZANCOLLI


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