Posts Tagged ‘church preservation’

Great Chicago Churches

June 11, 2010

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.

Preservation Religion

December 12, 2007



10th chr sci

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

The preservation of religious structures has been on my mind because I lectured on the subject in Planning class Monday, and also because I met Thursday with Bob Jaeger and Tuomi Forrest of Partners for Sacred Places, a national organization that helps religious congregations fulfill their mission with their buildings, which is to say that they help save religious buildings. And I was thinking about it because I was in Washington Friday and the
Post reported on the landmark designation of the Brutalist Christian Science Church pictured here.

The church was designated over the objections of its owners, something that can’t be done in Chicago thanks to a last-minute, one-sentence amendment duct-taped to the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance 20 years ago. Twenty years ago is when the “church” preservation issue emerged as a national concern and I developed some expertise by virtue of experience in the issue, being involved in local efforts to save Holy Family and St. Mary of the Angels churches (successfully), doing a citywide survey of historic houses of worship in 1990, and serving on task forces and committees that created a local “church” preservation group, Inspired Partnerships, that operated through the 1990s. We also tried to challenge the “church exception” to the landmarks ordinance and failed, not because our 1st and 14th amendment issues were wrong, but because the case was not ripe.

So, I was glad to see the Washington designation, and I happened to have this picture because when I was in Washington a year ago I was struck by the building’s architectural beauty (don’t tell anyone here at SAIC that I used that word, please). That’s how it is supposed to work: you see a building that you think is a landmark and then the city landmarks it.

Now, many religious vigorously oppose landmark designation because of the separation of church and state. Actually, they vigorously oppose landmark designation because of their desire to maximize real estate value, but the “official” reason is separation of church and state. I debated this issue in the letters section of the Wall Street Journal back in 1990 with the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, the cause of our little ordinance patch. It was proposed for designation, opposed it, and the alderman created an exception for all active houses of worship.

I seem to recall a News of the Weird article where some Catholic diocese opposed landmark designation because they needed to maximize their real estate values in order to pay legal judgements and damages against pedophile priests. Did you see that?

Anyway, one of the things I like to remind my students about separation of church and state is WHAT THE CONSTITUTION ACTUALLY SAYS, which is actually in the Bill of Rights, so I suppose if you are a big Federalist (strict constructionist) you can whine about how the Bill of Rights was itself tacked on, but I would counter that a lot of us have gotten used to these ideas about free speech and press, peacable assembly, fair trials and even that old chestnut equality. In fact, it is the very first amendment that gives us a free press and free speech and the right to assemble and complain to the government AND… what we call separation of church and state. But that’s not what it says, it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It says two things: 1. Government can’t create a religion (the establishment clause) and 2. Government can’t prevent you from practicing your religion (free exercise clause).

The funny thing is, our big argument against allowing churches to get out of landmark designation is the establishment clause itself! Because if the government says every kind of building except a house of worship can be landmarked – what is that action but an establishment, a government sanction of religion?

Besides, all these religions are tax-exempt, which I would even construe as an establishment, although to be fair certain religions are more economically sound than others. Which is probably why the Christian Scientists in Washington are complaining – they are a diminishing denomination and need their value more than megabuck churches. Still, I have no crocodile tears for building owners who got a free pass on property taxes for generations and then whine because they can’t all of a sudden become real estate developers.

Saved By Technology II

November 1, 2007

I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I always include a lecture called “Churches, Theaters and Other Difficult Buildings”. These buildings are “difficult” because they are functionally obsolescent: They were designed for large public assemblies in a pre-automobile era, and nowadays assemblies don’t happen so much. Vaudeville movie theaters combined live and cinematic entertainment and we don’t do that anymore either. Movie theaters today need to have lots of screens for maybe 200 people each, and even big markets like Chicago can only support a handful of live performance venues of 4,000 seats or so. Churches become obsolescent when denominations change, as they have in Chicago neighborhoods for over 40 years, and despite the lingering religiosity of Americans, many people are in exurban superchurches or use religiosity as a wedge against preserving historical features of their buildings.

The problem with “functional obsolescence,” as the Modernists learned to their chagrin, is that even obsolescence becomes obsolescent. Non-functional uses become functional again. Two things gleaned from media lately: First, Wired reported with typical overstatement that soon every movie would be made in the new three-dimensional digital technology about to premiere with Beowulf. (They’ll probably use modern English, which is a shame – I would have liked a bit of “hige sceal pe heardre, heorte pe cenre, mod sceal pe maere pe ure maegen lytlap*” action) Wired quotes some dudes sayin’ that this is as big as talkies were 80 years ago, which meant and means a big capital investment for every theater. The second item was an announcement that Block 37 (20 years vacant and most assuredly NOT MY FAULT) might host a luxury movie theater. Granted, there will be seven screens, but I see a shift here.

Movies go 3-D to compete with the latest tiny tinny box (iPod ) just as they did 60 years ago during the first 3-D craze when they were competing with tiny tinny televisions. But think about the physical plant – big investment in tech for projection might favor bigger halls and fewer screens – recall that the other 1950s industry invention was the drive-in. I’m thinking this could make big white elephants like the Uptown or New Regal useful again as 3-D theaters. The mania of 20-somethings for vinyl LPs and hookahs proves the attraction of group entertainment for a overindividualized generation raised on crappy sound and teensy images.

Now, the real questions are: does this trend play out? Is Wired just blowing smoke? Do operators rehab big old movie palaces or just build new? Sustainability and green-o-rama help us here, but it is only a hunch for now. There is always some sharpster looking to take the easy way out and fill those landfills. Still, it is intriguing and might make these buildings less difficult.

Churches are another question, although the end of the latest Great Awakening suggests that we are not in the kind of religious growth period that gave us all of the “religion don’t have to follow zoning or building codes” laws of the 1990s. And heck, they might jump on to the 3-D trend too if Mel updates his gorefest Christ. Or not. Then we would have to follow the European model: no one goes to church but no one tears down a church.

How do they do that?

* cognoscenti will recognize the Anglo-Saxon passage is from the Battle of Maldon, not Beowulf.

Another church burns

October 10, 2006



jol chri epis4

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Joliet’s Christ Episcopal Church burned this weekend. I will really miss this one and it is apparently a total loss, although the quaint Gothic tower pictured here survives. This one was intact – had a fantastic interior with clustered columns and a real nave-like nave – which means the ceiling read like a boat. It was an 1887 masterpiece of picturesque Gothic by Frank Shaver Allen, who gave Joliet a lot of grace.
Harrah’s casino has meant a lot of money to Joliet, mostly in exchange for that grace. Harrah’s has demolished a dozen buildings in Joliet – many made of local limestone like Christ Episcopal, mostly for parking. It wanted this beautiful church because of its location, and it wanted to demolish it.
Christ Episcopal was on Landmarks Illinois’s Chicagoland Watch List last year, because Harrah’s has been breathing down its neck. Harrah’s wanted the site for parking, as the congregation left some time ago.
A local group bought it and decided to convert it into a concert venue.
Harrah’s would not have liked that. This most successful of multinational corporations apparently operates on the old communist principle: no competition. I remember a decade ago when the only Starbucks in Joliet was INSIDE the casino. They wouldn’t even let Starbucks out!
The fire solved a hell of a lot of “problems” for them in one fell swoop. And destroyed a landmark whose memory will add more to the city than Harrah’s ever could, even if Harrah’s had not taken away so much.
No word yet on whether the fire was suspicious. A task force is investigating.