Great Chicago Churches

Twenty years ago when I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we did a survey and planning study of historic houses of worship in Chicago. This was one of many preservation responses to a crisis in church preservation spurred on by the 1987 closing of two huge Catholic churches that were imposing neighborhood landmarks, Holy Family Church (1857) on Roosevelt Road, and St. Mary of the Angels Church (1920) in Bucktown.


Both churches were ultimately saved, and restored, but a larger issue had been exposed to a wide public, and there were many responses to the crisis. A new church preservation group was formed, a state legislature panel inquired into the problem, and a lot of effort was sponsored by local groups like Landmarks Illinois, including the survey, which was called Spires In The Streets. We also led church tours in the 1980s and 1990s, so I got exposed to dozens upon dozens of historic houses of worship in Chicago. I have my favorites. About four dozen of them. Here are a couple I have visited recently.


Our Lady of Sorrows, West Washington Boulevard, East Garfield Park. This one (1890-1902, Englebert, Pope and Brinkmann) is a stunner. It is nice on the outside, but on the inside it is a revelation – like you are in St. Peter’s in Rome. They even have a replica of the Pieta, and altars running up and down the side aisles.


Last Thursday I was down at St. Thomas Apostle in Hyde Park, Barry Byrne’s 1922 attempt at the first modern Catholic church. I am actually there a lot, and our historic preservation graduate students did measured drawings of the building this past fall. It’s modernity lies in the unobstructed interior and thrust altar, while the exterior is a warm skin of brick that wraps around corners with delicate serrations and hand-modeled terra cotta ornament that sets off the roofline and windows. There is no steeple or side aisle in this resolute but not strident modernist statement by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I paired St. Thomas Apostle on a tour last year with Louis Sullivan’s amazing Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral of 1903, which is also being assiduously restored.

But these all are somewhat well known – there are many that are undiscovered, or at least little viewed by those outside of their congregations because they are off the beaten track.

Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1899 by Hugh Garden as Third Church of Christ Scientist, West Washington Boulevard.

First Baptist Congregational, built in 1869 by Gurdon Randall, on Union Park at Ashland.

Eighth Church of Christ Scientist, Leon Stanhope, 1910, on South Michigan Avenue

Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, originally built as 41st Street Presbyterian Church by John Long, on South King Drive.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E., built by and for the city’s first African-American congregation in 1891.

First Church of Deliverance, built by Walter T. Bailey in 1939 – an amazing Art Deco structure that pioneered gospel music radio broadcasts.

Kenwood United Church of Christ, William Boyington and Otis Wheelock, 1888, made of Maryland granite and a great example of Richardsonian Romanesque style.

And of course, one of the great Chicago treasures: Second Presbyterian Church on South Michigan Avenue, with its awe-inspiring Arts and Crafts interior featuring the city’s finest collection of stained glass, including a wealth of Tiffany windows.

Now, these last eight examples are all protected as Chicago Landmarks, and they all chose that status. All eight (and many others like them) were landmarked by largely African-American congregations in inner-city neighborhoods. Chicago Landmark status was a way to save their church. Most of the churches and other houses of worship in Chicago that are official Chicago Landmarks share these characteristics. Back in 1987 the city attempted to landmark Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue, a prosperous congregation in one of the city’s best locations. The resistance led to a change in the landmarks law that prevented houses of worship in active use from becoming landmarks unless they sought the status.

Of course, politically, few aldermen would landmark an active house of worship without the owner’s consent – it would be a bad move politically. So, in fact, most of the houses of worship landmarked before 1987 also actively sought the status.

This of course, is K.A.M.- Isaiah Israel synagogue, a Chicago Landmark built in 1922 by Alfred Alschuler. It is now the SAFEST place on earth to attend services, because it sits across the street from Barack Obama’s house.

The effort to preserve historic houses of worship received another boost last year when Chicago again became home to a preservation organization focused on this problem – Partners for Sacred Places, founded in Philadelphia in 1988, opened a Chicago office led by Gianfranco Grande. If I had a spare minute, I would help them out, because they are doing great work helping congregations learn how to preserve these often challenging, large buildings.

I have more favorites to show you, but it will take several more blogs to do so….

October 2011 Update:

Always liked St. Nicholas Ukrainian on Oakley – Worthmann & Steinbach, with 13 domes and great murals added for the millenial celebration in 1988.

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2 Responses to “Great Chicago Churches”

  1. Nika Says:

    These are such beautiful churches. I was especially interested in the First Church of the Deliverance. I have never seen an Art Deco church.

  2. karl wills Says:

    recently I was lucky to buy about 60. 4 x5 inch negatives off ebay of Chicago Churches all taken round the 1930’s,they are just amazing images stunning.

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