St. Francis de Sales is Getting a New Lease on Life

Mr. Fox

We've had so many posts on this site lately about beautiful ornate churches up for sale, it's starting to get a little weird. Today, for a change of pace, we have news about the restoration and preservation of a church. Nice.

You might say it's fitting that this roughly $16M, 15-year restoration project at the St. Francis de Sales Parish, located at 4625 Springfield Ave. is taking place in West Philly and is largely funded by resources allocated through neighbors’ efforts. This community has a knack for being home to forward thinking projects like the Mariposa Co-op, for example, a market that has promoted local, fresh food for forty-one (!) years.

View from 47th St.

This Byzantine church looks like a marvel you might have spied in Istanbul rather than around the corner from Dahlak. It was built in 1907 by Spanish architect and builder Rafael Guastavino. Guastavino also designed Grand Central Station in New York. His tile-work is famous and the 60-foot diameter dome that caps the church is the only exposed Guastavino dome remaining in the country, according to Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner of the Historical Building Architects, the restoration/preservation team.

View from Springfield St.

While an assessment of the structure was completed two decades ago, efforts to restore the church began only two years ago. To do the work, HBA team members developed innovative, non-destructive techniques to assess the condition of the Guastavino tiles (on the series of domes), brick, stone, and terra cotta on both the interior and exterior. They used professional climbers to sound each roof tile and map the condition in a CAD-based program, which linked condition photographs to the locations. They also used video to map the effectiveness of the below-grade drainage system and designed an emergency implantation plan to protect people inside and near the church. To do much of this work, they had workers suspended from the dome with mountain climbing gear.

Closeup of a smaller dome

When work started in 2010, emergency fixes to protect the sanctuary and pulpit were implemented. Scaffolding protects the altar from potential falling stone. Netting lines the sides of the sanctuary.

Phase I renovations, which cost $2.5M and recently concluded, included repair and renovation of the roofing and rainwater conduction systems. Structural stabilization at the lantern and main dome involved complex “needling” together of the mason walls. The dome was repainted using Guastavino’s original watercolors.

“People forget you have to maintain buildings,” said Radcliffe-Trenner about why old churches often deteriorate, get sold and razed. People get overwhelmed and after years of neglect, the costs of repair become too high.

The next part of the project, Phase 1B, will involve repairing the brick above the altar, filling all the leaks, which occur as stone dries over time, and repointing stones along S. 47th Street. The Archdiocese is helping fund the project, which recently received an award from the University City Historical Society.

“I think this is architecturally quite extraordinary and unique,” said Radcliffe-Trenner. “There is nothing like it left in the U.S.”

--Lou Mancinelli