St. James Catholic Church – endangered on the south side


Since 1875, St. James Catholic Church has stood watch over this section of the city on the prairie. But the remaining time of its vigil may be measured in mere months.

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The towering church stands at 2942 S. Wabash Avenue, housing a congregation founded in 1846. St. James was designed by prolific Catholic architect Patrick Charles Keely, whose designed hundreds of Catholic churches during a time of vast Catholic expansion in America, including Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral downtown.  St. James was built for an Irish congregation, replacing an 1853 building lost in the great fire, and was touted as the most expensive religious building in the city to that time. The October 10, 1875 cornerstone laying was preceded by a parade of Irish societies that stretched out over 2 miles and eventually brought an unruly crowd of 20,000 to the site. (Tribune Oct 11, 1875). Services were begun and the building was formally dedicated on May 23, 1880.

Designed in the French Gothic Revival architectural style, the exterior is suffused with beautiful stone carved details:




St. James was badly damaged in a fire on December 21st, 1972. Many of the original stained glass windows were lost due to the firefighting efforts required to save the building itself. After the fire, parishioners rallied and funded the considerable repairs themselves, with no help from the Archdiocese.

The intervening 40 years have taken their toll on the venerable structure; electrical, heating and plumbing systems are outdated, and there is concern over the roof structure and the stone facade. After citations were issued by the city, the parish erected protective scaffolding around the church, closed it off, and began holding services in a secondary building next door. As Lee Bey recently reported, the Archdiocese wants to demolish the church this year. More recently, Gazette Chicago reports that a 90-day reprieve has been granted, as supporters try to rally interest in the building and possibly find a buyer. (With IIT within spitting distance, I can’t help wondering if they could become partners of some kind.)


Lynn Becker puts all of this into a larger context, citing with his usual eloquence and insight the role of churches like St. James on the city landscape and the difficulties they face as congregations change and move away. His post also shares some of the grand churches that Chicago has already lost over the years, in a heartbreaking series of photographs.

The Archdiocese cites a cost of $12 million to get the building back into functional condition, vs. $5-7 million for a new building. But as I often tell people who complain about high costs of living in Chicago – you get what you pay for.  Will a $5 million building look like this? Will it even come anywhere close?


$12 million is nothing to sniff at, to be sure. But what will the legacy be if that money is not spent? In ten, twenty, fifty years, what will matter more?

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St. Demetrios and the Pod Buildings From Beyond!

This is the older portion of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (1929, 2727 W. Winona), a touchstone of Greek cultural life in Chicago for eight decades:


And this is the interior of the sanctuary:

It’s nice and pretty and all that. Yadda yadda. What really makes this church pop, though, is the St. Demetrios Cultural Center – a pair of gleaming pod-like additions to the north and south sides.



On both sides, a round vestibule section greets visitors, acting as a foyer for larger adjoining spaces. The north wing houses an auditorium (with some cool funky recessed lighting), a library, and various smaller rooms. The south wing is part of the church’s affiliated school, and contains a gym, locker rooms, game room, classrooms, and stairs.


Ground was broken on the Cultural Center in October 1962, and the motherships opened their doors in 1964. The additions are almost symmetrical, and wrap the full backside of the church, save for the southeast corner of the block. There, a single house stands untouched. Was it a holdout? Was it used by the church?


The buildings are exquisite – covered in a shimmering aqua blue tile highlighted with flecks of gold, set amid stainless steel window mullions and broad expanses of glass, and decorated with fabulous dimensional lettering, also in stainless steel.


The north pod features this cool curvy fountain. If you rent out the auditorium for an event, you can pay a bit extra to have the fountain running too.


This is complete design, top to bottom – the tile and stainless steel set the motifs and are carried to the interior, and even onto the entry overhangs. When was the last time you saw a tiled overhang?



The tile has seen better days – in quite a few places, individual tiles are missing. One panel on the south pod has almost fallen off entirely.

The pod buildings were designed by the still-extant firm of Camburas & Theodore; they submitted an earlier design illustrated in the March 9, 1960 Chicago Tribune, a more staid stand-alone building which was discarded (and looks too big to fit on the portion of the block left open by the church building.)

Church Conversions

What happens to a church when the congregation moves on? There are four basic answers: demolition, abandonment (which often leads to demolition), reuse (by a new congregation), or adaptation.

Adaptation is rare. Church sanctuaries are specially suited to their particular purposes: the frequent meeting of a large group of people witnessing a singular recurring event. Functionally speaking, the only similar purposes in modern society are movies and plays, and the world only needs so many playhouses. Most adaptations require some radical alterations to the space.

Nobody likes to see the grand space of a church sanctuary obliterated, but if the alternative is the complete loss of the building, it seems like a palatable trade-off. And, surprisingly enough, it is a compromise that’s been made quite a few times in Chicago.


3516 N. Sheffield, in Wrigleyville, is one of the more extreme examples. Here, almost the entire existing building was hacked away, leaving only the front facade and a low portion of the side walls. Out of this fragment grows an entirely new condominium-style building. Even the front window was removed, covered up with a new bay window projection.


This was originally the Lake View Swedish Church (later the Lake View Evangelical Free Church), a congregation begun in 1887. Faced with the relocation of its members to the suburbs, the church moved out in 1954 to a new building at Touhy and Melvina in the northwest suburbs, becoming the Edgebrook Evangelical Free Church.

The old building on Sheffield was occupied by the Church of Christ, Presbyterian, a Japanese congregation formed during World War II to serve relocated Japanese residents; it held services in both English and Japanese to meet the needs of first and second generation Japanese-Americans. This congregation in 1998 moved out west to the Albany Park neighborhood, near Kimball & Peterson; the old building was converted to residential use by a developer who hoped that preserving the old structure to some extent would give him a better shot at a zoning variance. 1 The most ingenious use of the old structure is here, where a former sanctuary window opening now admits light and air to an enclosed porch.



A similarly radical reconstruction happened to 916 N. Western Avenue, an 1888 church building previously home to Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, a Bohemian and Slovak church that closed in 1989 due to a dwindling congregation and rising debts.2 3 The conversion removed the roof and interior, and includes new balconies on the front facade.


But not all church conversions are so destructive. This 1893 church at 2558 W. Cortez retains its original form and still has the sanctuary space largely intact4 Of course, it’s easier to keep such a space intact when it’s being changed to a single family home.


This was originally the Evangelical Bethany Lutheran Church, built in 1893 in what is now Ukraine Village. Around 1925 the congregation relocated west (to a building that still stands at Wabansia and Narragansett, near Oak Park); the Good Shepherd Polish National Catholic Church congregation – Kościół Dobrego Pasterza – moved in, presumably in 1929, based on the cornerstone. It’s not clear when the congregation moved out, but today this modest little church has been converted to a not-so-modest home, which sold for $600K in 2010. No word on what the adjacent rectory house is now used for.


A series of conversions in Lakeview near Belmont best illustrate the common church conversion, in which new floors are constructed within the existing building envelope.

The former Elim Swedish Methodist Church, 1021 W. Barry at Kenmore, was built in 1898, with the cornerstone laid in September of that year. Swedish-language services were discontinued in 1942, when the Swedish conferences were merged nationwide with English-only ones. The building was converted to condos in 1983.


Upper floor units in this conversion retain some of the rafters and eaves of the original sanctuary. 7 A ground-level garage has been added as well.

Trinity Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church – 3101 N. Seminary at Barry – is an 1896 building, constructed to house a congregation founded in 1883. The church’s second pastor, who served from 1901 well into the 1920s, gained some notoriety for his remarkable resemblance to President Hoover. Trinity Swedish Lutheran was followed by the Church of the Valley Assemblies of God – per the sign which remains attached to the building!


3055/3057 N. Clifton at Barry is a deep mystery – I can find only 1931 and 1937 references to it as Lake View Baptist Church.



Church conversions do not have to be pedantic or mundane. Witness the former First German Baptist Church (Ersten Deutsche Baptisten Kirche), 1658 Superior at Paulina, now the “Sanctuary on Superior”. This handsome converted church, dating from 1888, still retains a portion of its stained glass5 6, making for some truly spectacular residential spaces.7



A remarkable restoration

A heartfelt congratulations to the congregants of First Baptist Congregational Church on Chicago’s near west side.


This venerable church was damaged in the intense blizzard that struck Chicago in February of this year. Rooftop masonry was dislodged and tumbled to the street – and through the roof, into the sanctuary. The damage to the historic building was considerable, and it was immediately boarded up.


In far too many cases, this would be the beginning of a long, slow decline for such an aged church in an older city neighborhood. In this case, however, quite the opposite happened: insurance, bolstered by donations from an enthusiastic and sizable congregation, covered the damage and spurred additional interior work. The south size of the sanctuary is getting a new roof, a work still in progress, and the organ pipes are still out for repairs.


But the bulk of the interior work is finished; and thus, this Sunday, a mere seven months after the blizzard, churchgoers returned to the sanctuary for services.

And what a sanctuary it is!


First Congregational was begun in 1869 as Union Park Congregational Baptist (architect: Gurdon P. Randall.) It opened in 1871; later that year the Great Chicago Fire burned much of the city to the east (though it never came close to the Union Park area.) Union Park Congregational housed city offices for a time in the fire’s aftermath; it would go on to have a long, storied history; in the 20th century, it has been a common stop for visiting presidents.




First Baptist Congregational was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

  • Photos of the damage from FBCC’s site
  • Damen Avenue Churches

    Sometimes I snap a totally random photo, and it winds up haunting and fascinating me for ages afterwards. So it was with a shot of a near west side church I took in 2007, the New Holy Bethel Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God.

    I returned a few weeks ago to photograph it more intently. Only when I put the old and new photos side by side did I realize that the building has lost the roof and upper section of its turret. There’s been some reroofing work, but the roof – the whole exterior, in fact – is in pretty rough shape. The windows were bricked in long ago, and nearly all the stained glass is gone.


    This modest Romanesque church stands at 1960 W. Adams at Damen, right by the United Center, though prior to Chicago’s 1909 street renumbering, its address was 739-741 Adams. The founding congregation was the Seventh Evangelical Church, later the Adams Street Society. They erected a building which would commonly be referred to as the Adams Street Church, with a cornerstone date of 1888. (Other articles refer to it as the “Evangelical Church at Adams Street and Robey”, Robey being the previous name of Damen until 1927, and the “Adams Street Church”. Most of these articles are the planned topics of Sunday sermons at various churches around town, while one describes the departure of one of its first ministers.) From its purchase in 1885, the church property was embroiled in a massive court fight between two factions of the Evangelical Church of North America. The congregation was also involved with the early Temperance movement.


    In 1928 it was sold to a Greek Evangelical congregation, the sales posting in the Tribune noting that “many prominent men” went to the church in the past. A 1953 newspaper ad notes that it was then a branch of the Church of God.

    New Bethel is one of a string of churches along Damen Avenue:

    * West Side Community Church – 1937 W. Adams at Winchster, east of Damen

    The cornerstone of St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church was laid on February 22, 1886, and services were taking place in the new limestone building by May. Built at a cost of $38,000, it suffered a severe basement fire in December 1886, but quickly rebuilt. In 1950, police were twice called to the premises to break up scuffles that arose over the pastor’s attempt to sell the church to the West Community Church, a black congregation, and the previous congregants’ refusal to allow the new owners to take possession or enter the building.

    * Greater Union Baptist Church – 1956 W. Warren at Damen
    William LeBaron Jenney, 1885

    This fantastic church building wears some of its history proudly on its facade – a 1950s cornerstone relates that the GUBC was organized 1908, and purchased the building in 1928. Its original builders were the Church of the Redeemer. More on the church building’s history can be found on GUBC’s website. The exterior features superb terra cotta ornament and stained glass.




    * Gospel Temple M.B. Church – 1958 W. Washington Blvd. at Damen

    This modest red brick church has a bizarre mansard roof that plunges down between the towers over the entrance. My guess is that there was a much more formal entrance originally, and that this was a way to shoehorn in some office space a long time ago.

    It was originally the Church of St. Andrew, dating back to at least 1886.


    The thing about these churches is, churches don’t just build themselves. For four churches to have gone up on this one little stretch of road, there must have been a sizable population in the area a hundred years ago. Today, there’s almost nothing – just vast fields of parking for the United Center.


    When planning for the stadium, originally meant to be a new home for the Chicago Bears, began in 1987, much of the area was already vacant land – 73%, according to the stadium architects, a figure that sounds about right based on some skimming of Historic The area was devastated by the 1968 riots and never recovered.

    historic aerials

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    Stadium plans called for the demolition of over a hundred buildings. Banding together as the Interfaith Organizing Project, several churches in the area led the fight against the monolithic stadium, decrying it as a playground for the suburban rich, and protesting the thousands of elderly and empoverished neighbors that would be displaced.

    Plans for a new Bears stadium seem to have quietly died off… only to be revived as an enclosed arena for the Bulls and Blackhawks a few years later. The churches were only able to save themselves; their neighborhood was destroyed. The early newspaper announcement of the stadium plan makes mention of “pedestrian malls”, “urban” planning, physical connections to the neighborhood, trees and grassy knolls that would screen the parking lots, economic benefits to the residents of the area – all a hilarious fiction. Destroying the neighborhood was sold as somehow saving it. It’s an Orwellian twist of language that continues to be used today by powerful developers who want to get poor people out of their way.

    The result – major building survive, while the fine-grained context that gave rise to them, supported and nurtured them, are washed away. 125 years after the West Side was developed, the surreal sight of an urban church in a parking lot is all that remains.


    Lake Street Church, Evanston


    Lake Street Church is Evanston’s oldest (designed 1872 by architect Cass Chapman) and, for my money, the most beautiful. It’s Victorian Gothic – tall, narrow windows with pointed arches, and a general sense of verticality. The exterior is a simple affair of plaster (not original; when opened, the building’s brick walls were exposed), with only a few bits of ornament emerging at the corners.


    The simplicity without anticipates the elegance within. The sanctuary is a space defined by dark wood and stained glass in the earth-hued range of tones that inspired both the Prairie and Arts and Crafts movements.



    The element that most defines the space is the 2nd-level gallery, which wraps nearly the entire space. According to the head usher, it originally wrapped the entire space until a later remodeling (confirmed by a Tribune article from the building’s 1875 opening.)



    The head usher shared a couple of other interesting tales. This was the church of Jimmy Carter’s daughter, so the President and his wife would occasionally attend services. This would bring the Secret Service pouring in, of course. Being a community church, most of the congregation was recognizable by face to its ushers. A stranger in the gallery turned out to be one of the agents.




    Lake Street Church was originally the First Baptist Society of Evanston, organized in 1858. Today the church is the oldest public building in Evanston, and an officially designated city landmark.



    A later addition forms a courtyard space north of the sanctuary, and contains offices and meeting rooms. The stone Gothic design works well enough with the older building, but lacks its powerful and charming Victorian verticality.


    Chicago’s Holy Corner

    From the downtown intersection of Clark and Madison, you’re within a two minute walk of a Catholic church, a Protestant church, and a Jewish synagogue. And all three are well worth the visit.

    First United Methodist Church (The Chicago Temple)

    The Chicago Temple is the tallest church building in the world, and the only skyscraper in Chicago with a religious spire. It’s a 1922 design by architects Holabird & Roche, in a French Gothic style. When it opened in 1924, it was the city’s tallest building.




    At ground level, the wood-lined main sanctuary is open for most or all of the day; you can wander in just about any time for a look. (Being downtown, that means there’s sometimes a few homeless folks hanging out in the colder months, though the forbidding entrance lobby with its security guard makes it a bit uninviting.)



    Those stained glass windows are an illusion – there’s no trace of them on the outside of the building, and they remain brightly illuminated day and night.



    The stained glass is done in a traditional style, but with some contemporary subject matter, including Jesus blessing the skyline of the city and the highrise itself.


    The sanctuary reaches some impressive heights, particularly when you consider the load of an entire skyscraper is carried above it.


    But those heights pale compare to those of the Sky Chapel, just below the spire.




    Long-planned, the chapel wasn’t fitted out until 1952, when a bequest by the widow of the founder of the Walgreens chain made it possible. Despite the changing times, the chapel is fairly conservative in style – though the stained glass continues the theme of bizarre subject matter begun in the sanctuary below.




    And once again, just in case you forget where you are…



    City Hall's green roof

    Chicago Loop Synagogue


    This Midcentury confection is slotted neatly into the street wall. Designed by architects Loebl, Schlossman and Benett in 1957, the Loop Synagogue opened its doors in 1958. The building is adorned by a 1969 sculpture entitled “The Hands of Peace” on the outside, by sculptor Henri Azaz, with stylized hands against a background of Hebrew and English letters spelling out a traditional Jewish prayer.


    There’s a sort of slow, deliberative elegance to this building. You can almost feel the architects pausing contemplatively, stroking their chins in thought perhaps, before finally selecting these wonderful huge wood door paddles.


    Beyond those doors lies a simple passageway with offices and other spaces. The main worship space is on the second story.

    The beautiful wall of stained glass was designed by American artist Abraham Rattner and installed in 1960. Based on the “let there be light” Torah passage, it depicts an abstract, metaphysical cosmos flecked with ancient Hebrew symbols.



    The rest of the space is spare and clean, befitting its Modernist origins.




    St. Peter’s Church


    Wedged between two adjoining buildings, St. Peters Catholic Church gives the impression that it was carved out from a solid rock face. Solid, planar walls contrast startlingly with deeply hewn entrances and window openings, creating one of the best facades in the city. Unlike the contemporaneous Queen of Heaven mausoleum, this 1953 church (architects: Vitzhum and Burns) shows a mix of modern and historical influences.

    A three-story high crucafix by Austrian sculptor Arvid Strauss completes this compelling composition.


    Like the Chicago Temple, the doors of St. Peter’s are always open (again, meaning there’s usually a few homeless guys hanging around, along with a smattering of curious tourists and the usual downtown office workers.) The space inside is vast, befitting the epic facade outside. Seemingly every surface is gleaming polished stone.



    Deprived of natural light, the designers had to turn to other tricks to give the space a sense of holiness. Illuminated sculpture niches serve in place of stained glass windows, portraying the life of St. Francis of Assisi.


    The building’s lobby is notable primarily for its wonderfully ornate doors.


    If you’ve walked past this place, take five minutes to duck inside. It’s well worth the time.


  • A history of the church from Heavenly City at Google Books.