Religious spaces preservation and the landmarking question

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Chicago Theologial Seminary
and Meadville School
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St. Iglasius/Christ the King
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Over the last 3 years the question of how and whether to preserve sacred spaces and whether they should be open to landmark status, even if their stewards oppose it, has come to the fore. At the same time local preservationists and their citywide allies approved First Unitarian in its removal of a steeple and passed on an addition by Augustana Lutheran, they rallied with Dr. Leon Finney to save Metropolitan Church as a viable place of worship, blew the whistle on the Archdiocese on changes at various structures, breathed a sigh of relief when Shiloh Baptist was bought for adaptive reuse, and drew a line in the sand over St. Gelasius in Woodlawn.

Visit the St. Gelasius page for a full discussion of the fight that led the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to reinterpret the Landmark Ordinance to open to landmarking structures no longer used for worship, and the realities of the outcome. That page also has papers giving the cases against and for such landmarking and on precedence of religious rights or public interest(s). History and Preservation in Depth has discussions of tangentially related resistance to tear-down expansion by Meadville-Lombard seminary, which in turn has sparked efforts to create a central Hyde Park landmark district, which in turn would lead to the question of whether to include the congregations in the district.

Later, Mayor Daley and a group of aldermen including Toni Preckwinkle (4th) supported proposed city legislation repealing the sacred space exemption in place since the 1950s, long before Ald. Despres got the "real" landmark ordinance passed. At the same time, Rev. Susan Johnson (Hyde Park Union Church, which is somewhat struggling at least with costs) is one of several widely-active clergy and laity seeking to come to an appropriate balance. She also seeks to revive an important group, Inspired Partnership, that funded place of worship restoration or reuse, with help from the National Trust, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Architecture Foundation and other preservation advocacy groups and foundations such as Driehaus. St. Thomas church and school, one of the most historic and architecturally important sacred spaces in Hyde Park, and thriving, takes a cautious approach, and it would also be outside the potential historic district. (Congregations/sacred spaces that could be in a district (esp. depending on where on University Ave. the district jogs east) are Augustana Lutheran, Calvert House Chabad, any worshiping in Chicago Theological Seminary, First Unitarian, Hillel, Hyde Park Union Church, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University Church.)

The issues are not easy, nor are the practicalities. Most of the places most in need of restoration or at least basic fix up are dwindling congregations, largely in impoverished to middle class neighborhoods--not all can get the kind of massive support Holy Family received in the Little Italy/UIC area. And many of these structures are both anchors and visible markers, visible memory, points of identity and pride--and, if used, Community Based Assets. But, even well-off congregations such as KAM Isaiah Israel find their city-landmarked building a massive burden. Involved is the never-fully-resolved ancient as well as constitutional question of when an imposed burden without compensation (which the state does not provide in this case) is a "taking" and when not.

And the landmarking also involves the very contentions question of religious rights. While the courts have most often ruled in favor o f"the public" and landmarking, the conclusion is not as clear as some preservationists think, and there is a fight over the direction and personnel of courts. Dr. Johnson, the pastor of St. Thomas (Fr. Lansang), Dr. Taylor of Pilgrim Baptist, and the Archdiocesan and Council of Church Leaders experts James Dwyer and Paul Rutgers respectively should be interviewed in depth on what approaches do or can ameliorate varied situations.

"This, in a sense, threatens the primary purpose [of churches, mosques and synagogues] and turns us into protectors of museums." James Dwyer, Archdiocese of Chicago

"These are tremendous buildings that have enormous history...their importance goes beyond the authority of the church leadership." Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois

"I think there has to be a discussion because some of the great churches and synagogues and mosques are being torn down in communities and they're the fabric of the communities." Richard M. Daley, Mayor of Chicago

"Churches... are markers of history. The preservation of these churches is exceedingly important." Dr. Hycel B. Taylor, Pilgrim Baptist Church

"For congregations that own their own property, this could put them out of business... Most churches have deferred maintenance issues, [but] where there is a robust congregation that is trying to maintain its building, I think that is something we ought to leave well enough alone.... It's an enormous need. Most congregations are ill-equipped to handle the legal issues as well as the complex architectural issues." Rev. Susan B. Johnson, Hyde Park Union Church

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Church leaders, aldermen look at landmarking and preservation/upkeep, new ordinance proposed limiting place of worship exemption

Hyde Park Herald, April 13, 2005. By Mike Stevens

A City Council committee last week put off a hearing on a controversial measure that would revoke the long-held right of churches, synagogues and mosques to resist a city landmarking ordinance. The measure, sponsored by Ald. Burt Natarus (42nd) and cosponsored by Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th), has caused concern among some religious leaders who fear forcing the protective status on unwilling churches might be an economic drain.

"We are hoping it will not pass," said Paul Rutgers, executive director of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. "This, in a sense, threatens the primary purpose [of churches, mosques and synagogues] and turns us into protectors of museums."

Since landmarking guards historic buildings from demolition, the Archdiocese of Chicago worries it could have to pay for the upkeep of Catholic churches that have closed due to dwindling membership, spokesman James Dwyer said. "We prefer never to close down anything but we have to be realistic about what we can and cannot keep open," Dwyer said.

The Archdiocese, which owns hundreds of churches and schools throughout Chicago, has been at the center of this controversy following last year's battle with Ald. Arenda Troutman (20th) and preservationists over plans to demolish St. Gelasius Church in Woodlawn.

If a church closes, the archdiocese normally does not sell the property preferring instead to re-use the building to serve the community, Dwyer said. For example, a recently shuttered Englewood church is being converted into a shelter for homeless veterans. But when they cannot find a use for an aging building--historic or not--demolition should be an option, Dwyer said.

Lisa DiChiera, advocacy director at Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, takes issue with Dwyer's argument. "It's not and economic hardship if you sell," DiChiera said. "These are tremendous buildings that have enormous history...their importance goes beyond the authority of the church leadership."

Mayor Richard M. Daley seemed to imply the same in February when he was quoted in the Chicago Tribune saying, "I think there has to be a discussion because some of the great churches and synagogues and mosques are being torn down in communities and they're the fabric of the communities."

The long-delayed condominium of St. Stephens Church would be and example of how a historic church building can be re-invented rather than razed, DiChiera said. [ed. note, many consider this little more than pseudo-facadectomy, the other choice in this case being total teardown.- Gary Ossewaarde]

St. Thomas the Apostle is no danger of closing its doors. Father Ferdinand Lansang said. "Our assembly members are growing. If it was the other way around it would be something else," Lansang said.

Not all churches have found landmark status constraining. Landmarking has helped fund-raising effort for the $2.8 million restoration of the Louis Sullivan-designed Pilgrim Baptist Church, said Dr. Hycel B. Taylor, the church's pastor. "Churches... are markers of history," Taylor said. "The preservation of these churches is exceedingly important."

Even if a church congregation favors preservation, imposing strict rules on maintaining historic elements of the existing structure can drain smaller churches' budgets, said Susan Johnson who is pastor at the Hyde Park Union Church. "For congregations that own their own property, this could put them out of business," Johnson said. A limited budget restricts the amount of restoration work Johnson's congregation at the Hyde Park Union Church can put into its 100-year-old building, Johnson said. "Most churches have deferred maintenance issues, [but] where there is a robust congregation that is trying to maintain its building, I think that is something we ought to leave well enough alone," Johnson said.

For 11 years, Johnson advised congregations on restoration and maintenance issues while working with the non-profit group Inspired Partnership. Inspired Partnership recently stopped operating after its grants ran out and city-funding did not come through. "It's an enormous need. Most congregations are ill-equipped to handle the legal issues as well as the complex architectural issues," Johnson said. "I could revive it."