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The history of Pilsen's ghost church

A hollow church at 19th and Peoria looks like something from a Hollywood studio back lot.

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Zion Evangelical Lutheran, at 19th and Peoria in Pilsen, is a nice old church, made of gently worn red brick. It has a 90-foot-tall bell tower, a heavy wooden front door, and its name carved on the facade in old-fashioned German Gothic script. All it's missing, really, are stained glass windows, an altar, pews, and back and side walls. If you look through the iron grates on either side of the main wall, you'll see a well-kept lawn, interspersed with a few trees and piles of stone that once made up the building's foundation.

The church didn't always look like a shell on a Hollywood studio back lot. From 1880, when it was first built, until 1979, when most of it was destroyed by a fire, it was a functioning house of worship—although its original congregation abandoned it in 1956 after most of Pilsen's German population had moved elsewhere. Postfire, John Podmajersky Jr., who already owned much of east Pilsen, bought the property. But he procrastinated on developing the site, and in 1998, a windstorm nearly finished it off.

The day after the storm, a group of descendants of the original congregants visited Podmajersky bearing an old book in German that chronicled the church's early history. The developer was so moved by their story, he told the Tribune's Rick Kogan two years later, that he restored the building's facade and tower and planted the lawn. He intended to build artist studios too, but has yet to get around to it. The Podmajersky company declined to answer any further questions about the space.

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