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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Suburban in their day

The great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a watershed moment for the city. Beyond obliterating much of the city and triggering an architectural golden era, it also resulted in the city requiring brick construction within its limits. Thousands of brick buildings went up in the decades that followed, giving the Chicago cityscape its distinctive style.

Northside United Pentecostal Church
Northside United Pentecostal Church – Andersonville

Outside the city, however, other communities were growing. Suburban areas like Ravenswood and Lakeview would eventually be annexed by their burgeoning neighbor… but not before they erected a number of churches that, unlike their Chicago cousins, could still be built of wood.

Resurrection Covenant Church
Resurrection Covenant Church – North Center

A number of these older buildings dot the Ravenswood area. One is a landmark. Others are less well known, and evoke the feeling of a small town church, something you’d expect to find a stone’s throw from farmers’ fields. Mostly they are simple in style, lacking elaborate detailing, substituting plain cathedral glass for stained glass designs or just dispensing with the whole colored window thing altogether.

Christian Community Church
Christian Community Church – Ravenswood

Below are a few that I’ve explored in more detail:

Summerdale Community Church – 1892

Originally Summerdale Congregational Church, if the stained glass transom window is any indication.

Summerdale Community Church

Summerdale Community Church

Summerdale Community Church

Summerdale Community Church

Addison Street Community Church

As simple as a country church, with handsome dark wood beams holding up the ceiling. Simple frosted, yellow-tinted windows give the space an otherworldly glow.

Addison Street Community Church

Addison Street Community Church

Addison Street Community Church

Addison Street Community Church

All Saints Episcopal Church – 1883

All Saints is a landmark building, a rare Chicago example of Stick Style design. Designed by architect John C. Cochrane, the AIA Guide to Chicago notes that it’s probably the oldest wood frame church in the city. The building is having its share of troubles today; if I’m remembering right, the tower and front porch are pulling away from the rest of the building.

All Saints Episcopal Church

All Saints Episcopal Church

All Saints Episcopal Church

The windows make use of simple materials to create complex patterns; colored cathedral glass is arranged in diamond patterns to create walls of color. Combined with the lovely structural elements and the overall composition of space, this is perhaps the most architecturally satisfying of the bunch.

All Saints Episcopal Church

Lake View Presbyterian Church – 1888

If All Saints Episcopal is the queen of the wood frame churches, then Lake View Presbyterian is the king. Built in an equally rare Shingle Style, this landmark near Wrigleyville is jammed tightly into an urban site. The interior disappoints on some levels; it is sparsely ornamented, and an 1890 addition changed the orientation of the sanctuary, leaving an oddly structured space that is somewhat at odds with itself.

Lake View Presbyterian Church

Lake View Presbyterian Church

However, all is forgiven once you’ve seen the sun shine through the building’s jeweled stained glass windows.

Lake View Presbyterian Church

Lake View Presbyterian Church

Lake View Presbyterian Church

Lake View Presbyterian may also be the most heavily used of these churches; the day of my visit, a table with snacks and refreshments had lured a large crowd, that was still lingering and socializing a good 30 minutes after the serviced ended.

Baha’i House of Worship

It is far and away the most grandiose building north of the city limits; even within Chicago, it has few peers. As Sheridan Road leaves Evanston, the Baha’i House of Worship stands like an alien spaceship by the Lake Michigan shore.

Baha'i House of Worship

This fantastic building was made to be a landmark. Construction took over thirty years, beginning in 1920 and not completed until 1953. Only 25 years after completion, it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

Baha'i House of Worship

Architect Louis Bourgeois worked on the design for eight years. Though he strove to create a timeless style that incorporated symbolism from the world’s major religions, you can take one look at his ornamental style and tell right away he was looking at the works of his contemporary, Louis Sullivan. Unsurprisingly, he worked in Sullivan’s office in the late 1880s.

Baha'i House of Worship

Baha'i House of Worship

Gracefully overlapping curved forms evoke the idea of vegetation and geometry, all the while tautly bound within the confines of the building’s surface. The lamp, by contrast, reveals the building’s long period of assembly, spanning two architectural eras: it is pure MidCentury Modern.

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Likewise, columns on the periphery of the interior are utterly unadorned.

And what of that interior? What payoff awaits within that grand dome? Oh, it’s worth it!

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Your gaze is drawn up… and up.

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The dome is beautiful by night…

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But by day it truly and literally shines, as flecks of daylight slip in between the curving openwork of the dome.

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Just how they constructed this magnificent trick remains a mystery to me.

This building shines gloriously by day or night, in all weather. Even in the dead of night, it casts warm light onto its surroundings.

Baha'i House of Worship

The Bahá’í House of Worship is one of only seven such buildings currently in existence. They share with it several design concepts, such as the 9-sided circular design, a single open space within, a lack of any representational decoration, and a surrounding setting of gardens. The building is open daily, and if you arrive at the right time you might just have the whole magnificent space to yourself. It won’t last, though, as a steady trickle of visitors comes to see this unparalleled marvel.