Month: October 2019

How the Domes Got Tiled

E013 july 1956 dome 2Parish-led renovations in the 1950s looked good at the time, but changed an historic church.

Contractor Charles Kain recalled a long-ago project at St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia: “Early in the 1950’s we were approached by Bishop Joseph McShea,..the pastor…, to resurface the domes. They were quite old, in poor condition, and leaking into the church…The Bishop was proud of the fact that the domes could be seen as part of the skyline from a distance in the city on the highways going north and he wanted to maintain the character of the domes as they existed…We assured him that we could renew them with ceramic tile.

We consulted a tile contractor, Belfi Brothers, with whom we had done work previously. They advised us that the common bathroom tile was not sufficiently durable under exterior conditions and directed us to a tile manufacturer in upper New York State who made the type of exterior tile which would be appropriate. Next, I performed the structural calculations necessary for a domed structure. We determined that we should leave the existing dome in place to serve as a base for the superstructure, cover this with a four-ply fabric and pitch roofing membrane for waterproofing, then place a 3-inch thick reinforced concrete layer to accommodate the loads of snow and wind, then install the finished tile layer. We also divided the surface into eight quadrants, designed artistic patterns similar to those in the existing dome, and used a herringbone pattern for installing the tile.

The old dome had a base structure of masonry tile which was adequate to carry the necessary roof loads. One question asked was how this structure could carry the additional loads of the new concrete and tile. We explained that the old structure would have to carry the added loads only on a temporary basis until the new concrete dome on top could harden and become the basic supporting structure of itself and the normal roof loads…When we presented our design… to the Bishop, he…called upon…a structural engineer…to re-check my calculations…The Bishop…had previously read Latin descriptions of how some of the Roman domes were constructed…this confirmed his approval of our work.”

In the process of construction…we designed a small steel frame to roll around the dome on wheels at the base and at the top, enabling the workmen to reach all areas of the dome. For the exterior tile work, the tile setters, accustomed to placing tile on bathroom walls, had to experiment to get the flat tiles in a herringbone pattern on a spherical surface. Obviously, they succeeded.”

Fifty years later, when the joint between the big dome and the lantern at the top leaked, and the veneer of modern tiles peeled off, Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner and her team from Historic Building Architects were called in to study the original Guastavino dome underneath – a unique historic structure not understood by the 1950s parish contractors — and the engineering complications created by the 1950s concrete overlay. After considerable research and consultation with a variety of experts, they determined that the best available option was to remove the hazardous modern tiles and confirm that the 1950s concrete was working well to prevent water leakage. The simplest and cheapest solution was to paint the concrete dome to match the original dome tile colors. Paint samples were tested and left in place for several years and they did very well. However, a different paint product was ultimately used and that has not adhered to the concrete and has faded over time. It’s under warranty. We’re working on resolving issues and hope to get the dome repainted in 2020. So, as St. Francis de Sales himself once said: “Let us await our advancement with patience.”

 

 

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The main dome with the 1950 tiles, as it looked in the 1990s.

A000 aerial view

Star Harbor

 

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Star Harbor (4700 Springfield Ave.) in 1966

In the 1960s, as the youthful Baby Boom generation began to take over the news, their parents and grandparents sometimes felt left behind. The question became “Do we have a place for them in our fast-moving, youth-oriented society?”

The U.S. Government recognized vital needs. The Older Americans Act, signed into law on July 14, 1965, established the Administration on Aging within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and created Medicare, a health insurance program for the elderly; and Medicaid, a health insurance program for the poor.

Other social issues were more complicated. Vicky Perralta, the Filipino Program Director of the Philadelphia Center for Older People, told the Inquirer: “I have seen more elderly people die from sheer loneliness and isolation…” She offered a cultural perspective, based on “my being an Asian, where the old are really looked up to, where they are really loved, respected and wanted ‘till they reach their graves…”

Our parish developed a prototype solution, when Monsignor Sefton, along with Monsignor McDonough of Catholic Social Services, and Vicky Perralta, shared a common dream to create a space “for and by the elderly in their own neighborhood.

At the same time, our neighborhood was changing, which became part of the challenge. Our Parish 100th Anniversary Book points out that in the late 1950s, as longtime parishioners began to move out to the suburbs, new families of different racial and ethnic backgrounds — many of whom were not Catholic — began to move in. What was needed, then, was “the first community of its kind in the archdiocese, a recreational center for citizens regardless of race or creed.” (it is important to note that the word “citizen” was used, then, as a synonym for “people,” not to signify nationality!)

F006Monsignor Sefton purchased the former J.J. White Funeral Home on the corner of 47th and Springfield in 1966 and the Parish Centennial book notes that “many volunteers pitched in to clean, paint, repair, and decorate the former funeral home and make it an attractive place to meet.” Initial offerings – chosen by the community — included Arts and Crafts and Painting classes, as well as a discussion group, trips, and a “TV Lounge.”

The efforts were successful: the 1967 Parish Monthly Bulletin reports: “It was a joy indeed to see so many happy faces at the first Open House of our new enter for older citizens on Monday, September 18. Almost a hundred members and potential members spent the day inspecting the facilities at the center, lunching together and sharing in the afternoon’s entertainment. The future of Star Harbor seems assured because it has the enthusiastic approval of the people for whom it is designed. All the older citizens are invited to join. Many happy hours and welcome companionship are in store for them as they participate in the activities of the Center. Star Harbor is the fulfillment of a dream of Monsignor Sefton….His efforts in behalf of the senior citizens will be long and gratefully remembered…

Today, Star Harbor Senior Community Center is operated by Catholic Housing and Community Services in partnership with the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), and continues “to provide services to ethnically and economically diverse seniors age 55 and over,” encouraging older adults to “engage in activities they enjoy and find meaningful. Health and wellness is a top priority with offerings in exercise, health education, screenings, and immunizations. Lunch is available for all members that are 60 years of age and older. Breakfast is available for purchase.” A counselor is on staff for senior issues. Today’s offerings also include opportunities such as “Learning to Use Your Tablet classes for iPad or Kindle.” Membership is Free. Check it out!

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Star Harbor Senior Citizen Center, as in St. Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin, September 1967

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Concert at Star Harbor 1978

SFDS Parish Lending Library

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The SFDS Parish Bookstore was located at 4726 Baltimore Avenue

Our literary-minded St. Francis de Sales Parish has always kept up with local reading trends. Today, we have several book clubs; in the early 2000s, we had a library in the back of the church; long ago, we had a bookstore and lending library on Baltimore Ave.

The Journal of Library History reports that “Rental libraries were all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s coming seemingly out of nowhere and threatening to transform totally the reading and book buying habits of the American public.” On Baltimore Avenue number 4726 (Vientiane Cafe today) was the Terry Shop in 1939, run by W.A. Fares, and offering “unusual gifts” and a “lending library.” When that business left, SFDS took over and in May 1944, opened its own Parish Lending Library on the spot.

What did the lending library do? The Parish Monthly Bulletin noted that “The purpose of the Parish lending library is to make good literature easily available for everyone…” The library was open day and evening hours Patron membership of $5.00 allowed two books to be borrowed per week; an Annual $2 membership entitled patrons to rent one book a week at a fee of one cent per day; and nonmembers could rent single books for three cents a day.

The venture seemed to be successful: by its first anniversary, it had “a membership of 1,107 persons and over 200 of these are non-Catholics. It has on its shelves 1,576 volumes, all of the latest in Catholic books and the approved best-sellers. To date is has circulated 7,192 books among a variety of readers. The average patronage is 42 persons a day.” What were people reading?  Lists published in the Parish Monthly Bulletin included a variety of books such as  Communism and the Conscience of the West by Fulton Sheen; Powder Puff: the Adventures of the Easter Bunny in the City; The Remembered Face of Ireland by Josephine Hunt Raymond; Of Flight and Life by Charles Lindbergh; and More Murder in a Nunnery by Eric Shepherd among many others.

The Parish Monthly Bulletin also published a list of the 21 librarians. Census data from 1940 brings them to life: among them, Loretta Mulloy, who lived at 4811 Chester, was 18 in 1940, and the middle child of seven living at home with parents. Frances Cunniff, at 431 South 50th, was 31 in 1940, working as a clerk in a printing firm, living at home with parents and two siblings. Rita Duffy, at 4634 Chester, was a secretary/stenographer for a coffee importer. Her brother, age 32 and unmarried in 1940, was listed as “head of household,” with mother and ten siblings (youngest age 16) all living at home. Adele Smith, 1110 South 52nd Street, had attended three years of college and was a teacher, living at home with Mom and four siblings. Less than half were married, which makes sense: the library could have been considered a safe place to meet and socialize!

What happened to the Parish Lending Library in the end? Short answer: it moved to the basement (Choir Room) of the SFDS Little School in 1954. Long answer: The Journal of Library History concludes that “The rise of paperbacks and television, coupled with the increased cost of books after World War II, contributed to the demise of the rental business.

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SFDS Bookstore at 4726 Baltimore Avenue in 1948
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SFDS Parish Bookstore in 1948
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SFDS Bookstore in the basement of the Little School circa 1954