THREATENED: Chicago Loop Synagogue Faces Uncertain Future

Chicago Loop Synagogue, 1957, Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett, 16. S. Clark St. with stained glass by Abraham Rattner and “Hands of Peace” sculpture by Henri Azaz. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Chicago Loop Synagogue, 1957, Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett, 16. S. Clark St. with stained glass by Abraham Rattner and “Hands of Peace” sculpture by Henri Azaz. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Chicago Loop Synagogue, 1957, Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett, 16. S. Clark St. with stained glass by Abraham Rattner and “Hands of Peace” sculpture by Henri Azaz. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

“The Chicago Loop Synagogue was founded in 1929 to serve the religious needs of Jews working downtown as well as Jewish visitors to Chicago. The current building was designed by Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett. It was built in 1957 to replace a structure on the same block that had been lost to fire. The entrance is marked by a sculpture by Henri Azaz called “Hands of Peace” that features a blessing in both Hebrew and English. A wall of stained glass by Abraham Rattner breaks the reserved minimalism of the sanctuary, leading one critic to describe it as ‘perhaps the most beautiful synagogue interior in the United States.’ (Open House Chicago)

“Just three stories high and hemmed into a small 5,000-square-foot lot, the building at 16 S. Clark St. is a small jewel box situated amid this city’s dense urban fabric. Exuding an aura of cool simplicity, the structure’s facade is composed of glass, metal and concrete planes. Its name is etched in delicate gold lettering: Chicago Loop Synagogue.

“The only consistently operating Jewish house of worship in Chicago’s Loop, the 1.5-square-mile area touted as the second largest business district in North America, the Loop Synagogue has been unusual since it was conceived in 1929. Few members live anywhere nearby. Before the pandemic, most popped in for lunch or a prayer service during the workday while spending Shabbat at their home synagogues in the suburbs. In recognition of that unusual arrangement, dues top out at $180 — meaning that the congregation’s 400 members generate far too little revenue to keep operations afloat.

‘We are in dire straits,’ administrator Mary Lynn Pross said. Overall, operating expenses for the building run approximately $400,000 a year, and the synagogue has no endowment or large donors.

“Letting go of their mid-century modern structure, however, is hardly the ideal answer. Never mind that it is an architectural gem or that the congregation’s most significant asset – its property located just blocks west of Millennium Park – is worth millions. Relinquishing the building would also doom the fate of Chicago Loop Synagogue’s monumental stained-glass window.

“Designed by the renowned New York-based artist Abraham Rattner especially for the synagogue, the work was the subject of a 1976 exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a 1978 exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Insured for $1.5 million, the spellbinding window is simply too large to fit anywhere except where it sits now: inside the prayer space for which it was created. To create the work, Rattner drew inspiration from the opening passages of Genesis, honing in on the hidden meanings of the words ‘… and there was light’ to channel cosmic creative energies of the Divine.

“After two years working on conceptual and design schemes, Rattner spent another year engaged in the window’s fabrication in the Paris studio of stained-glass artist Jean Barillet (where other American synagogue stained glass has also been fabricated). The scale was expansive. At 40 feet wide and three stories high, it was devised to fill the entire eastern wall of the synagogue. Jutting into the prayer space from the far-left corner of the window, Rattner incorporated the ark that would house the Torah scrolls. He surrounded it with flames – integrated into the glass – leaping up and out, drawing attention to the presence of God in the very heart of the sanctuary.

“Today the synagogue’s vast space, cathedral-like in its openness, is dominated by the window. A kaleidoscope of blues and purples pierced by electric shades of yellow take on the forms of planets, trees, Hebrew letters and the Israelite tribes hovering and extending toward one another. Those who enter are ‘awestruck,’ Blau said. And Pross, who herself is not Jewish, recalls people dropping into the building before COVID-19. ‘They came just to sit in the sanctuary. It’s hard to explain to someone who has not been here. You have to be in that room, with the light streaming through that window … the experience transcends religious identity.’

“Lee Zoldan, the congregation’s president, has convened a task force charged with imagining a new future for the congregation and its building: one that will generate revenue while allowing them to preserve the Rattner window intact and continue meeting in their space. Possibilities include identifying an organization to co-locate in the building, such as an education center, a theater or an event space. The most desirable of the options on the table: create a national sanctuary for synagogue stained-glass. Envisioned in part as a light-and-color experience and in part as a museum, this ‘stained-glass sanctuary’ would provide dissolving synagogues across the county safe haven at Chicago Loop Synagogue for their own colorful windows.

“‘I don’t want to see it divided up into pieces and sold off as scrap,’ Zoldan said, pausing and taking a deep breath before continuing.’ That window has been the centerpiece of our sanctuary since the day it was installed. We are attached to it. The window, our location, our historic building — they are all integral to who we are.'” (Cooper, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 4/14/21)

Preservation Chicago has outreached to Lee Zoldan to discuss possible options for the preservation of the building, including the magnificent art-glass windows and sculpture. This includes consideration of the building as a Designated Chicago Landmark. This designation could protect the building’s exterior features and interior sanctuary and make it eligible for Adopt-a-Landmark funding.

Read the full story at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Future in question for Chicago Loop Synagogue and its monumental stained-glass window, Alanna E. Cooper, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 4/14/21

Chicago Loop Synagogue, Open House Chicago


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