The "Bonifac . . . 1902" inscription on the cornerstone at Saint Boniface Church at Chestnut and Noble is all but weathered away. Chain-link fence cordons off the entire lot. The ground where a convent stood is strewn with bricks, and the school survives only as a boarded-up ruin. The tall arched windows on its top floor are open hollows, and the remains of the collapsed wood ceiling lean up against the back interior wall. In the church itself, the bells of the 130-foot tower are silent; the stained glass of the great rose windows has been dispersed to other churches and replaced with plywood. Water funnels down toward a rusting steel column, pews have been scattered like the remnants of a shipwreck, and the only congregation is the great flock of pigeons that roosts in the sanctuary's upper reaches.
Saint Boniface was founded in 1864 as a home for Chicago's great wave of German immigrants, and it went on to serve Polish and then Hispanic parishioners before dwindling attendance forced its closure in 1989. It's just one out of hundreds of once thriving churches and schools that have been shut down or consolidated since the Archdiocese of Chicago began keeping records in 1844. In June 2002, three Catholic churches--Saint Gelasius, Saint Laurence, and Saint Leo--all closed on a single day. The archdiocese has taken increasing heat over how it has handled its discarded buildings, and it responded with an architectural competition for an adaptive reuse of Saint Boniface and its adjacent property. The winner was revealed last week, but the church's fate is still far from certain.
The archdiocese says the competition, announced in May on the same day the convent was demolished, arose out of discussions with 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, the Chicago Department of Planning, and various community groups. The blue-chip jury included such heavyweights as architect Stanley Tigerman, IIT dean of architecture Donna Robertson, David Bahlman of the Landmarks Preservation Council, developer Charles Shaw, Chicago Architecture Foundation curator Ned Cramer, and archdiocese chancellor Jimmy Lago.
The competition took on the form of a charette--taken from the name of the cart used by 18th-century architectural students to rush their drawings to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Today it refers to an intense effort to solve an architectural problem in a short period of time. "We had 72 hours start to finish," says Studio Gang Architects' Mark Schendel. "Everyone did."
"We had a blast," adds Studio Gang principal architect Jeanne Gang.
The competition had few rules. The church building had to be preserved and the facade of the school used somewhere on the site. Each participating firm had to consult with a developer or other expert to verify that the components in the proposal were economically viable, and each firm received a $4,000 honorarium, with the winner getting an additional $8,000.
There were four entries. (All are on display through September 14 in the CitySpace gallery of the Chicago Architecture Foundation at 224 S. Michigan.) Booth Hansen Associates offered a simple yet elegant proposal that turns the nave of the church into a tree-lined garden opening onto a plaza, with apartments created within the space of the side aisles lining the nave. Annex/5, the in-house design studio for the firm of A. Epstein and Sons, stressed a variety of housing types: conventional apartments in sleek glassy towers, loft space for work and living in extended "finger buildings" below, and starter studios on the ground floor. "The archdiocese was looking for prototypes that could be used at other locations," says Annex/5 design principal Andrew Metter, "but that may not work, because each neighborhood is different. So we suggested drawing on the secular history of the saint after which each church was named. For Saint Boniface, the legend is that he introduced the Christmas tree"--the evergreen--"to Europe in the 700s as a symbol of everlasting life. We reflected this by extending Eckhart Park, across the street, into our design through the use of green, sustainable architecture." This translates into elements such as plantings to create green roof systems, landscaping above the parking garage, and a glass screen along the southern exposure of the towers to both provide shading and serve as a wind scoop to bring natural ventilation up into the apartments.
Annex/5's plan uses the actual church building as a day-care center, a choice mirrored in the winning entry from Brininstool + Lynch, whose new curtain-walled, 20-story condo tower, Vue 20 at 1845 S. Michigan, brings a clarity and transparency of design to a neighborhood where it is in short supply. For the Saint Boniface site, their proposal consists of a private health clinic in a new building to the north of the church, a community center in the church building itself, and two new buildings with 57 units of housing set aside for "families with specific challenges," ranging from developmental and mental disorders to multigenerational family care situations. Brad Lynch says the services these residents need would be among those offered in the church space. "They won't have to travel to other institutions for these services, and it will help relieve placing undue duress on the family."
The centerpiece of the church restoration is a large, glass-enclosed room, to be used for day care for infants and toddlers. The rectangular room, with translucent glass along the sides and clear glass on the ends, floats high above the floor of the nave, supported top and bottom by a series of thin crossbeams that connect to the church's steel columns. "Because of water damage," says Lynch, "we'd need to strip away the stone and plaster to get to and repair the original steel, but then we can also reinforce those columns to be strong enough to support the glass room." The proposal would replace part of the church's eastern wall with glass, which would help flood the nave--and the glass box--with light. It's a kind of architectural colloid, the modern suspended within the traditional. "The church space, in itself," says Lynch, "moves people. We felt if we added elements there would be an interaction between the new and the old that would make the space an even richer environment."
The jury saw the Brininstool + Lynch entry as being "the most creative and most viable architectural solution," saying it "communicates a sense of history and a sense of community. The design projects quietness and stability, and includes substantial flexibility for future uses."
The most innovative proposal came from Studio Gang Architects. Jeanne Gang has been receiving positive notice for her Starlight Theatre renovation at Rock Valley College in Rockford, with its "star wall" of curving concrete, punctured with backlit porthole windows of varying sizes, and a roof that opens up in six petal-like segments to reveal the night sky. The developer the Gang team consulted was interested in senior housing, and it's easy to see why. While the CHA's 20-story Eckhart Apartments, just across the street, provide housing for nearly 300 low-income residents, changes in the community may point to a need for more market-rate senior housing. New high-end townhomes and rows of colorful old houses rehabbed to pristine perfection point to West Town as being a neighborhood in the throes of serious gentrification, where soon aging, long-term residents may find themselves unable to afford the skyrocketing property-tax bills. Gang's proposal offers a possible out: 105 units of market-rate housing for seniors, in two 11-story minitowers that are notched like puzzle pieces to accommodate courtyards, giving all apartments a corner exposure. For the church structure itself, Gang envisions retail space at street level, and above it a great hall made up of the grand open space of the actual nave, to be available for meetings and rented out for events. A grand staircase rises 18 feet to the great hall, marking a "commons level" that links all of the elements--the church, the apartment towers, and a vocational school proposed for the center of the site.
Studio Gang also makes the most novel use of the school's facade. "It's rendered as a landscape," says Schendel, laid on a 45-degree incline that rises from the sidewalk to the commons level. The lower limestone facades provide seating around the grassy lawns that fill in what were the openings for doors and windows. The higher level is brick, and here the tall arched window openings become colored-glass skylights to illuminate the lobby of the vocational school. They emulate the stained-glass windows of the church, as do the mobile, colored-glass sunshades on the facades of the apartment blocks, which serve as bookends whose lighter hues and contemporary profile provide a gentle contrast to the dark, traditional brick of the church.
The jury cited the Gang proposal as the "most exciting scheme in terms of architectural risk-taking," but praise like that is becoming the kiss of death in Chicago architecture, and not just in competitions. Jury member David Bahlman, appearing on WBEZ before the winner was announced, lauded the entries but called them all "a little wacko from a preservation point of view" as he recoiled from the possibility of people actually sitting, eating, and spilling coffee on the Gang group's angled facade.
A true believer like Bahlman can be forgiven for sometimes confusing preservation with embalming, but the Tribune's powerhouse critic Blair Kamin is signaling a full surrender to what he calls "plop architecture"--towers such as Grand Plaza and River City East. In a recent Sunday think piece, he reviles them with relish, but what's his solution? Abandon Chicago's legacy of Sullivan, Root, Wright, and Mies. Shun the best architects of our time in favor of mediocrity with a gentler face, from such locally "correct" firms as Lucien Lagrange, whose weakness for topping off his concrete towers with mansard roofs from the French Second Empire mark a man dedicated to upholding traditions that were dead before he was born.
Kamin talks about concentrating on improving the quality of what he calls "the basic building blocks--the background buildings," but the hideous 600-plus-foot towers he so rightly condemns aren't background buildings--they're violent pokes in the eye to the city's skyline. They're overtaking and overpowering Chicago's architectural treasures, and the only antidote is work of a similar scale and quality.
Kamin's prescription threatens to reduce Chicago to the status of Anytown, U.S.A. Architecture is a game of inevitable compromise. If you set high standards at the outset, you have at least an outside shot winding up with something worthwhile. If you aim only for the middle, it's all but certain the end result won't be anything you want to take home to mother.
It's no different with preservation. Just letting buildings sit there decaying greases the skids for failure. The archdiocese's approach to Saint Boniface after its 1989 closing can be said to have been one of malign neglect--board it up, fence it in, and let it rot to the point where demolition becomes the only option. It's the kind of strategy usually associated with slumlords, but to be fair the archdiocese, with its centralized control, shoulders a burden not shared by Protestant denominations, whose churches usually stand and fall on their own. In contrast, the archdiocese is responsible for 375 parishes and a portfolio of real estate insured at more than $1.25 billion, much of it aging and expensive to maintain.
Even as the winner of the Saint Boniface competition was being announced, the archdiocese was in the midst of another battle, over the closed Saint Gelasius in Woodlawn, where the city in late July revoked a demolition permit because the church is listed as "orange" in the city's Historic Resources Survey. That rating is short of official landmark status but means the church possesses "potentially significant architectural or historical features," which makes it subject to an ordinance that mandates a 90-day delay in issuing demolition permits.
For Chicago, protecting religious structures is especially difficult. Despite a 1990 federal ruling that landmark laws are not an infringement on the free exercise of religion, Chicago still operates under a 1987 ordinance, the handiwork of 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus on behalf of Michigan Avenue's Fourth Presbyterian Church, that exempts all churches from landmark designation. The bottom line is that the city can delay demolitions but not stop them. Repealing the ordinance should be a top priority for anyone concerned with preserving Chicago's great religious buildings The archdiocese's readiness to demolish its unused churches is ironic, since, probably more than any other institution, it has seen firsthand how quickly things can turn around. As recently as 1983, Old Saint Patrick's, west of the Loop, was down to four registered members. Twenty years later it's back up to 3,500 households and is in the midst of a major expansion. Its sister survivor of the Chicago fire, Holy Family at 1080 W. Roosevelt, once had 25,000 parishioners, of whom only a handful remained by the time it closed in 1984. An announcement of impending demolition in 1987 sparked outrage and jump-started the creation of the Holy Family Preservation Society, which raised $3.5 million to restore and reopen the church. It now sits smack in the middle of a residential and commercial building boom along Roosevelt Road.
As with most competitions, there's no guarantee that any of the ideas coming out of it will be put to use. The archdiocese has a September 15 deadline for bids from developers, and although it has stated it wants to preserve the building, there's nothing to stop it from regretfully coming to the conclusion that the only viable bids mandate demolition. The final result will be a good indicator of the depth of the archdiocese's commitment to doing a better job of disposing of its unneeded buildings.
Neighborhoods decline and revive, but for one-of-a-kind buildings like Saint Boniface or the Uptown and New Regal theaters, once they're gone, they're gone for good. Even the most distressed neighborhoods have essential buildings that define their character. If we find a way to keep them safely on ice, they'll be there to help the revival when things turn around. As for how we're handling them now? Well, you could say that even Ted Williams is getting more considerate care.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.