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Saving Chicago’s historic churches: Practical preservation is possible (Part III)

Communities value historic churches and the services provided by them

Saint Adalbert of Prague was an unexpected and reluctant force behind efforts to reform Medieval Catholicism, often ruffling the feathers of those who were secular and religious. Fast forward nearly one thousand years, and now Chicago’s St. Adalbert Church in Pilsen, which was named after the patron saint of Bohemia and Poland, faces an uncertain future.

Over the course of its life, the church has acted as a humble servant to generations of immigrant communities. It is now being forced to the forefront of a battle over the future of Chicago’s unused and underused religious spaces. One wonders, if walls could speak, how would St. Adalbert’s church feel about its high profile reputation?

Recently, 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 Archdiocese is facing major challenges

When buildings are torn down, we focus on physical losses—the conspicuous holes that are either left empty for too long, or quickly filled in. The human loss can go easily forgotten. We build structures to serve human needs, but when buildings do eventually disappear, the variety of services it provided and the history of its residents can also disappear with them.

For those who grew up in these communities, many look at these structures as not only a neighborhood resource, but a thing of beauty. For these residents, the demolition of historically and artistically significant churches is viewed as something sinful and a disparage to the city’s cultural history. However, the closure and demolition of churches is often necessary to keep the Archdiocese financially afloat.

This mission of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago is broad and includes a range of services. According to a statement from Susan Burritt, Media Relations Director at the Archdiocese, more than 79,000 Chicago area school children are taught in diocesan school. In addition, over one million area residents are served by its social services annually, as the Archdiocese provides the resources to run 351 parishes in Cook and Lake Counties.

This is no small feat. The financial constraints are simultaneously growing worse as fewer people attend church and less money is raised to pay for operations. This puts pressure on many of the church’s most basic operations and its ability to maintain infrastructure.

“Archbishop Cupich’s new planning initiative, ‘Renew My Church’, is focused on renewing parish vitality,” Burritt said via email. This includes “ensuring that individual parishes have the parishioner base and resources to offer vibrant ministries and outreach in their communities.”

This theme of creating “vibrant ministries and outreach” speaks to the goals of many religious communities nationwide, but also the problems facing them. On one end, religious communities are responsible for noticeable and important landmarks. These can be expensive to maintain. On the other end, they still have a job to do. However, it’s important to consider who is responsible for semi-public spaces?

“We take our architectural heritage very seriously and are committed to preserving this heritage as much as possible,” Burritt said in her statement, but adds that the Archdiocese’s finances are consumed in its primary efforts: to better advance the mission of Christ. Priorities have to be made.

Preservation can be viable

For preservation advocates, programs that improve an institution’s economic vitality can successfully pair with preservation programs. Mary Lu Seidel, Field Director for the Chicago office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation feels that religious structures are important community assets. They’re bases for social services and their semi-public facilities act as community centers. They’re also iconic structures that create a sense of neighborhood identity. In her opinion none of this should nor must be lost.

“The biggest mistake that can happen is not going to community residents first to hear what they want,” she said. The church itself becomes an institution, as are the lost services. Seidel thinks projects with more community engagement are more successful, because they speak for a community’s needs.

This alone won’t lead to successful preservation projects. Money remains a problem and a lack of funding can derail the best ideas. Indeed, St. Adalbert’s, which has been slated for closure since February this year as part of a restructuring of six Pilsen parishes, received a $3 million donation that still might not be enough money to save it. But, creating strong partnerships is one way to help get beyond such continuing problems.

“Re-purposing churches that are only a social service agency are not often economically viable re-uses,” Seidel said. "Combine those social services with an event center or retail or housing… then it becomes feasible.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an old gymnasium provides a spatially relevant example. The gym’s large open space was converted into offices for student resources including many scholarship offices. The spaces are small and have mostly shared facilities and can be rented for a low cost. It is something like a social services public market.

Another service-oriented example is the old Stony Island Arts Bank, which was converted into a community space by artist and University of Chicago Arts + Public Life Director Theaster Gates. It houses various archives, event spaces, galleries, and offices.

These are particularly pertinent examples in a time of insecure public funding and austerity, which puts strains on social services and non-for-profits.

“State budget cuts and budget stalemates are devastating to social service agencies,” Seidel said. “It’s a human travesty honestly… they are scrambling to find ways to avoid significant layoffs, serve their clients, and not have to shut down their operations.”

Partnerships can be a win-win-win situation. Cultural and social service organizations in need of cheap rent can sustain their operations while financially supporting religious communities. Meanwhile, these institutions stay in their communities, or new ones add to those available to residents.

In Lakeview for example, the Broadway Youth Center (a service of the Howard Brown Center) and TimeLine Theater Company share spaces with Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ. That’s not to mention the dozens of community theaters using religious spaces to stage amateur productions.

Photo by Ann Fisher / Flickr

Unintended consequences

Successful preservation projects can have unintended consequences including neighborhood gentrification, or the perception of gentrification. Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, acknowledges this, but feels preservation is an important tool for communities to protect their architectural heritage and soften the blow of gentrification.

“There is no way to really stop gentrification,” Miller said. “All neighborhoods in all cities… continuously evolve… But, landmarking can encourage specific kinds of development.”

While he doesn’t think landmarking can stop gentrification, he does think it can “bring about a more sensitive gentrification,” which is more respectful of communities. A community with a landmark building or district is less likely to be rapidly developed, and new development is often done with a greater sensitivity to the prevailing heritage.

It also has quality of life benefits. This ranges from preserving sight lines and building setbacks to natural light to environmental sustainability. Bonnie McDonald, President of Landmarks Illinois, puts it simply: “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

Environmentally, preserving buildings has a significantly lower impact than building new. That’s even the case if buildings are built to high efficiency standards, according to a report from Chicago Cityscape. The energy required for demolition and construction, material procurement and transportation can consume significantly more energy that refurbishing an older building.

Retaining buildings is also a way to retain the architectural scale of a neighborhood while adding new residential units, commercial spaces, or other assets. Seidel thinks there is no neighborhood in Chicago that wouldn’t benefit from new housing and thinks former religious spaces should be taken advantage of to accomplish this.

Communities need to have a say

Ultimately, communities need to be engaged as key players in this process. Part of successful preservation will be finding ways to convert structures in a way that serves the needs of the people who live closest to them, but also understanding the limits and ambitions of these communities and not prescribing preservation as a one-size fits all solution, but one of many tools.

For many people, the closing of a church is viewed as a great loss. It’s the closure of a community center. For others, it’s a physical disconnect from the past, from community history or family history. For some, it is the mere nature of things and for others, again, it is an aesthetic loss that harms the vivacity of the city’s physical character. Demolition can cause unwanted holes in the neighborhood fabric or the flattening of a dynamic neighborhood skyline punctuated by steeples. For almost everybody, it is something though.

St. Adalbert’s story hits an emotional chord, because it is so typically Chicago. It was built to express the aspirations and dreams of a community and later became a microcosm of Chicago’s melting pot culture, adopted and re-adopted by new ethnic communities. For others, the connection is a familial one, including for me personally—my great-grandparents were married there. Hundreds of such stories exist. They connect us to these buildings and they remind us that our connections to this city runs deep.

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