by Peter Von Buol
Originally published in Inside-Booster and Skyline Newspaper, April 4, 2018
(Reprinted in its entirety with permission from Inside Publications)
The fate of a historic 117-year-old church building in Lincoln Park remains uncertain as its small congregation is considering offers from residential real-estate developers. If demolished, an R-6 zoning designation for part of the property would allow for construction of a high-rise residential building.
Located at 2700 N. Pine Grove, the Second Church of Christ, Scientist was designed by Solon S. Beman, the architect who designed Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood for railroad-car magnate George Pullman. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama designated the community as Pullman National Monument.
Last November, the church’s congregation had hosted a community meeting to inform the public of their current situation and to reach out for help. The congregation today is too small to afford and manage such a large facility. Among those in attendance was Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a non-profit that advocates for architectural preservation. Miller and his staff approached a non-profit foundation to purchase the property. After the meeting with that foundation’s leadership, Miller was confident a solution had been found.
“We were able to encourage a Chicago-based foundation to consider a purchase of the building from the congregation as a cultural center for Lincoln Park. This would include addressing the $4 million of repairs said to be needed by the real-estate consultants. The foundation and Preservation Chicago met with the church board as well as with their real estate consultants. Afterwards, we met with Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and her staff to discuss the overall idea and to consider an offer for the building as a community center for the arts, lectures and presentations,” said Miller.
A building designed by Beman for the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Evanston is today being used as a state-of-the-art 550 seat performance space of the Evanston-based Music Institute. The Evanston building has a similar design to the Chicago sanctuary and its reuse could serve as a blueprint for Lincoln Park.
“The building is an amazing structure. Preservation Chicago even had discussions with members of the community. We [had been] hopeful for this amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Lincoln Park Community and our City, with the recent directive of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to bring the arts and neighborhood cultural centers to the communities of Chicago. The mayor has gone on record saying he wants to extend the concept of downtown’s Chicago Cultural Center to the neighborhoods,” Miller said.
At Chicago’s Columbian Exposition-World’s Fair of 1893, Beman had designed the Greco-Roman-inspired Merchants’ and Tailors’ Building. That building earned Beman an award for architecture and demonstrated he ranked among the best of the best of his era. Beman used these same techniques when he worked on the design of Second Church of Christ, Scientist.
“Beman was a master in achieving a beautifully proportioned Classical-style structure,” Miller said.
Unlike other Christian denominations, Church of Christ, Scientist buildings were typically designed free of religious symbols or stained-glass windows and the Beman-designed church in Lincoln Park was no exception. Therefore, were the building to be used as a cultural center, not much would be changed.
“[It’s generally] free of the more-typical religious iconography found in most religious buildings of its time. This building is of the finest quality construction, in both design and craftsmanship. Beman was one of Chicago’s top-tier and legacy architects of the late 19th and early 20th Century,” Miller said.
While the building was designed for the local congregation, it also was meant to have national impact. It had been built to serve as a model for Church of Christ, Scientist churches around the country.
Beman worked with Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science to create a model and prototype for a spiritually-uplifting building and sanctuary space. These religious structures were to be an example of “a perfect prototype” for future Christian Science Churches, both in Chicago, and throughout the country,” Miller added.
After the congregation rejected the deal offered by the Chicago-based foundation Miller expressed his disappointment.”
Despite the many community benefits of a gathering space and cultural center for Lincoln Park, which was to be sponsored, programmed and curated by a Chicago-based foundation (perhaps in partnership with the City of Chicago), the offer of preserving the building has unfortunately gone to the wayside. The small congregation wants to perhaps best monetize the property for a large residential development, in what is an already-dense environment. This is all unfortunate. The church’s 700-seat auditorium is in marvelous condition. [The building] could be so much more than perhaps “a facadectomy” on a tall building or mid-rise residential structure,” Miller said.
According to Miller, had the church building become a cultural center, it would have brought a new vitality to the community.
“Everything from Senior Citizen events for the local non-profit The Village Chicago (formerly known as Lincoln Park Village), to classical music concerts, art exhibitions and maybe even a small Chicago Public Library branch like the Waterworks Branch inside the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station. It could have even hosted programs for the Lincoln Park Conservatory and the Lincoln Park Zoo. All of those events could have been held in this very special space and under a large gilded dome,” Miller said.
If the congregation sells the building to a real-estate builder, most-likely the church will be demolished for a residential high-rise. Had the building not been a religious house of worship, according to Miller, it would have long-ago had landmark status.
Currently, the building is listed as an orange-rated building on the City of Chicago’s Historic Resources Survey. As such, when an application for a demolition permit is made, a 90-day delay is automatically triggered. This is meant to provide time for the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks to make an informed decision on fate the property.
“It’s tragic, in a sense, that our elected officials and the ownership of the church, built by the community with nickels and dimes in 1902, cannot come together with the City officials to figure a way to make such ideas a reality. We can close roads and completely reconfigure the historic Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park and South Lake Shore Drive for a Presidential Center and golf course to the tune of $175 million-dollars plus — but yet we can’t seem to figure a way to make a historically significant orange-rated classical-style building with a stone-columned arcade and magnificent dome, repurposed as community cultural center in one of Chicago’s most desirable and celebrated neighborhoods. That’s really both upsetting and tragic. Let’s come together as a community and city to make this work, save this remarkable and beautiful building and grow a more healthy, livable and dynamic Chicago in the process –whatever it takes,” Miller said.