PennDesign prof helps save West Philly church from demolition

A 115-year-old church in West Philadelphia that was days away from being demolished by the city was saved by the efforts of neighborhood resident and PennDesign assistant professor Aaron Wunsch.

The house of worship, St. Peter’s Church of Christ at 47th St. and Kingsessing Ave., was built in 1900 and designed by famed architect Frank Furness, who also designed Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts buildings. Wunsch says the parish house, built in 1892, and adjacent church building were designed in “characteristically Furness” style.

In addition to stained glass windows and beautiful woodwork, the structure contains semi-circle columns positioned in the aisles that are made of exposed yellow brick and topped with ornamentation that Wunsch describes as “a hybrid between a golf ball and a dandelion puff” that he says only Furness could have created.

“This building looks like a conventional Gothic Revival church on the outside, and then it has these [unique] features on the inside, and you see, that’s our guy,” Wunsch says.

In June, when Wunsch heard about the church’s imminent demolition due to safety concerns, he began contacting city officials about saving the historically significant structure. After reaching out to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) and not hearing back from anyone, Wunsch contacted former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, the chair of Partners for Sacred Spaces. Wunsch and Goode had worked together to save another Furness-designed church in South Philadelphia in 2012.

“We were asking [the Department of Licenses and Inspections] to do something that was going to be clearly politically difficult. Had I been doing this myself, it just would never have happened,” Wunsch says. “This is where Wilson Goode clearly made a difference.”

Wunsch also presented to L&I a structural engineer’s report that showed that although there was some loose roof slate, the building was structurally sound. In addition, the engineer discovered that the building was constructed of steel, which city inspectors apparently did not know.

“While I’m glad we’ve saved this particular building, I’d be especially gratified to see its story make Philadelphians think twice before reflexively declaring that our city’s churches are functionally obsolete and impossible to reuse,” Wunsch says. “That just isn’t true.”

In January, the building was sold to Guy Laren, a local developer. Renovations are underway to transform the buildings into commercial space. Several private schools have already expressed interest.

Frank Furness church