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The now-demolished St. Laurence Church.
Photo by Noah Vaughn / Flickr

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Saving Chicago's historic churches: Preservationists prepare for a crisis (Part I)

With the Archdiocese in crisis, dozens of sacred spaces throughout the city are at risk of closure and eventual demolition

Throughout much of Chicago’s history, the spire of the Saint James Catholic Church in Bronzeville stood over the South Side neighborhood.

It witnessed many historic moments, from the construction of the first ‘L’ line in its alley to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. And throughout this time, the Bronzeville neighborhood saw many demographic shifts—from early Irish immigrants to becoming Chicago’s Black Metropolis.

The church stayed a constant in a dynamic neighborhood for 133 years. Then on a rainy summer day in 2013, a sledgehammer came crashing down onto the church’s roof, signaling the demolition of this historic structure.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced that within 15 years, nearly 100 parishes could be closed, causing renewed concern for the future of these sacred spaces. The announcement marks the beginning of a new frontier for historic preservation in Chicago, as an unprecedented number of structures are at risk, and successful preservation efforts will require a tremendous amount of cooperation, community engagement, and economic creativity.

The problem with vacant churches

Shortly after the New Year, Bishop Blase Cupich met with priests and advisers to outline a massive reorganization of the Archdiocese. In his announcement, Blase indicated that the church is faced with a perfect storm: a shortage of priests joining the seminary, declining mass attendance, and the deferral of maintenance bills for churches that are in need of attention.

All of these issues combined has put a squeeze on archdiocese resources and will force many parishes to either close or consolidate. And with the looming closure of potentially dozens of churches, there is now a threat of demolition for some of the city’s most important cultural and architectural icons. The sale and subsequent demolition of these spaces has become one of the biggest concerns for Chicago’s architectural preservation community, which would like to see more done to keep these buildings standing tall over our neighborhoods.

The potency of St. James’ demolition is that it represents yet another strike against the Archdiocese’s poor historic preservation record. Before the demolition of St. James, there was the destruction of St. Charles Borromeo in the Near West Side and then St. John of God in Back of the Yards, which was described as a “masterpiece” in the AIA Guide to Chicago. The latter is now an empty lot across from Sherman Park. And with the recent announcement that St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen is to close, there is now a real concern that this tall structure is next to meet the wrecking ball.

The demolition of St. Laurence Church
Photo by Noah Vaughn / Flickr

The protection of religious structures presents a unique set of problems. A particularly formidable roadblock is the city’s inability to step in to designate threatened religious buildings as a landmark. The city has powers allowing it to move forward with landmark designations for non-religious buildings in spite of owner consent, however, a 1987 revision to the Landmark Ordinance states that “no building that is owned by a religious organization…shall be designated a historical landmark without the consent of its owner.” And without protections, many of these buildings are left to deteriorate and ultimately face demolition.

While it may seem a bit strange that religious structures have this unique exemption, the move was deliberate. The origin of this amendment can be traced back to the resistance put forth by the Fourth Presbyterian Church towards landmark designation. Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, explains that many religious institutions are concerned that such a designation will keep “their hands tied” in how they utilize their properties. Beyond religious institutions, this is a concern many property owners have towards landmark designations. Bonnie McDonald, President of Landmarks Illinois, gives a more particular analysis.

“[The city] can step in, although they have some trepidation with any sacred space,” she said. Beyond concerns about the rights of property owners, attempts at landmark designation for religious spaces hits on issues of the separation of church and state.

Regardless, preservationists see the retention of Chicago’s sacred spaces as vitally important for the character of neighborhoods and maintenance of Chicago’s architectural legacy. Lynn Becker, author of the ArchitectureChicago Plus blog, and a critic of the Archdiocese’s handling of its structural inventory, described the city’s old churches as “among the most important visual markers in the urban fabric.”

Why should we care about these structures?

Chicago’s Catholic churches are among the most prominent visual connections to the city’s past and the ethnic communities that once dominated the neighborhoods. They provide clues to what ethnic communities make up Chicago’s diverse population through the languages engraved on facades, the style of buildings, and the saints for whom they were named.

Miller’s concern is that when buildings are demolished, their history and the culture they represent disappears too. “It’s the destruction of a community and a commitment,” he said. “These buildings still tell the story [of these communities] and I don’t think they were built by people who thought they would be anything other than a long-term commitment — for centuries perhaps.”

There is no universal reason why demolition is seen as a solution when religious buildings are no longer used, but in most cases it is likely a healthy mix of negligence and market demands.

“Because Chicago is so rich with the best of the best [in architecture], what is mediocre to us is the best that any other community could get, and we take it for granted,” McDonald said, adding that market demands also can sway a property owner’s decision whether to reuse or demolish a building.

“For religious institutions, they’re not paying taxes,” Miller adds. “This becomes land banking.”

The dismantling of St. John of God
Photo by Noah Vaughn / Flickr

Preserving the sheer number of spaces that could close in the coming years could overwhelm institutional ability to maintain these structures and fuel a preservation crisis.

Mary Lu Seidel, Field Director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, points out that in many neighborhoods, people are interested in saving old buildings. However, sentiments can change if maintenance is delayed and buildings turn into what residents view as blight, which can be especially pronounced in already struggling communities.

“People can get tired of seeing things fall apart in their distressed neighborhoods,” Seidel said. “Recently in Englewood, I’ve seen some negative public reaction about having to put up with a historic building that is deteriorating.”

Her initial sentiments speak to something preservations can build on. People like to see the character of neighborhoods retained and often identify their neighborhoods with important buildings like domineering religious structures. They act as constants in a city that can change rapidly, and are bonds to local history. They can connect communities from inside and outside the neighborhood.

“I visited an old church in Woodlawn last week. A conservative order leads mass in Latin,” Seidel said. “From what I understand, almost none of its congregants are from the immediate neighborhood. But as I stood there admiring the building, a man driving by stopped his car, rolled down his window and said, ‘It’s just beautiful, isn’t it?’”

For most Chicagoans, the interiors of sacred places remain a mystery, but Seidel’s anecdote indicates that people still care a great deal about the buildings in their neighborhoods, even when they might not necessarily understand or fully appreciate the Latin, Polish, Hebrew, or Greek spoken inside.

And this is the exact point that preservationists believe to be the most important. Even if the number of people attending religious services drops, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace fails to recognize great architecture or stop using religious structures as spatial identifiers. It doesn’t mean that many of these struggling South Side neighborhoods don’t deserve to have culturally significant structures.

What now?

Preservationists celebrated a recent win when the Shrine of Christ the King barely avoided the wrecking ball due to last minute donations and a property swap between the Archdiocese and the independent Institute of Christ the King. The Woodlawn church will be added to a list of church structures that were saved by grassroots efforts including Old St. Pat’s in the Loop and Holy Family in Little Italy.

Successful preservation efforts can be just as glaring as unsuccessful efforts. At a time when Chicago lost buildings like St. James or Prentice Women’s Hospital and even as contemporary buildings like the Thompson Center are now threatened, Miller believes that there is also a growing awareness for what’s at stake, but concedes to the fact that this conversation is really in its infancy.

The question remains if the Archdiocese and other religious institutions are willing to have this conversation. It is understandable that preservationists are wary based on the church’s previous handling of preservation efforts. McDonald described the last administration under Cardinal George as “intractable with regards to having any kind of dialogue openly” and Becker called it “ruthlessly unsentimental.”

The administration of Bishop Cupich is a chance for new beginnings, and preservationists hope to have a more receptive relationship going forward by how showing landmark designations are a win-win and a way to get the much needed financing for rehabilitation and redevelopment projects.

McDonald says there has to be an open partnership going forward to “save these spaces in the future.” And while she acknowledges that not every building can be saved, she explains there is a spectrum of preservation that includes full rehabs at one end and salvaging at another end.

“If it’s housing, you might lose the [building’s] interior, but you keep the exterior and the sense of place in the neighborhood,” McDonald explained. “The community is really what we’re trying to save.”

Before that fateful June day in 2013, people riding the Green Line in Bronzeville passed the century old edifice of Saint James. Many probably sat on the 'L' oblivious to its existence focusing on a smart phone instead. Those who looked up and east towards Lake Michigan though would have caught a glimpse of one of Chicago’s oldest churches. The limestone church and steeple would have been difficult to miss. It's safe to assume that at least a few of the passersby whispered to themselves, “beautiful.”

It's too bad nobody has ever said that about an empty lot.


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