A church on the verge

This is St. Boniface Catholic Church, in the Pulaski Park neighborhood on the near west side, at Chestnut & Noble Streets.

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Closed since 1990, this imposing 1902 building made it onto 1999’s Landmarks Illinois Most Endangered list for the whole state.

It’s an absolutely wonderful church building, no two ways about it. The side elevation could pass for the main facade of a lesser church. In front, the main portal has a delightful array of patterned columns, each with a different design.

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Today, the venerable building is in a sorry state. Roof leaks have gone unchecked over the side aisles, developing into miniature roof collapses, and the interior is pretty well trashed. Efforts to secure the building by walling up the main entrance with concrete block have failed, as the wall stands broken down, the security fence pried apart, and the door’s portal windows shattered out.

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A small rectory building stands behind the church. Sadly, a school building to the east and two convent buildings have already been lost.

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Things might be looking up for St. Boniface. A web site devoted to the church reports that, after over ten years of the community fighting to save the building, a developer is moving forward with plans to renovate and redevelop the property.

Renderings of the proposed construction may be seen here. To put it mildly, it’s a pretty aggressive intervention. It essentially adds a 6-story building that wraps around 2 sides of the church, completely burying the building’s white-brick-clad eastern facade, (a side that was meant obscured by the other buildings previously on the site). The plan cuts lots of windows and skylights into the facade and roof. Some changes, such as the new round porthole windows on the lower towers, blend right in (they match the round windows on the tall tower), while others could use some refinement – I sure hope they aren’t actually going to destroy the tall arch-topped aisle windows behind the tall tower, only to replace them with stacks of punched openings. The roof skylights could likewise be visually unified somehow, tied together into a single element rather than a scattered patchwork of squares. And couldn’t the rose windows be saved?

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The new construction also replaces the rectory building. It’s not clear why the vacant land to the east isn’t used for this additional housing instead – perhaps it wasn’t part of the land deal; perhaps it was the only way to avoid having multiple buildings with multiple services. But the loss of the rectory is damaging to the complex as a whole, diminishing its integrity further. The building is nothing too special, but it’s definitely integrated with its parent structure.

Overall, the preservation purist in me cringes, but the realist side of me recognizes an economically viable renovation when I see it. If it’s this or total demolition, then bring on the construction crews.

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I tend to go back and forth on historicist churches. On the one hand, they’re wonderful, no doubt about it. They’re elaborate and ornate and embody thousands of years of tradition. On the other hand, I look around at all the flowering creativity of churches from the 1950s and 1960s, where every church could be something brand new under the sun, and start to have dismissive feelings about yet another French Gothic or Italian Renaissance styled church.

But then I find a place like this, a handsome, magnificent church that overwhelms in its splendor, and all those doubts go flying out the window. The preservation of a building like St. Boniface is a moral imperative.

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Read more on St. Boniface at Saint Boniface Info.com, a comprehensive site about the church. Be warned, your heart will break when you see the vintage photos of the interior before its abandonment.

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3 thoughts on “A church on the verge

  1. Pingback: The Trail of Churches, Part 1 – St. John Cantius | A Chicago Sojourn

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