"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.
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.
church itself, the bells of the 130-foot tower are silent; the stained
glass of the great rose windows 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
Saint Boniface was founded in 1864 as a home for Chicago's great wave
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 competition took on the form of a charette-taken from the name of
cart used by 18th-century architectural students to rush their drawings
the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Today it refers to an intense effort to solve
architectural problem in a short period of time.
"We had 72 hours start to finish," says Studio/Gang/Architects'
Schendel. "Everyone did." "We had a blast," adds Studio/Gang
architect Jeanne Gang.
The competition had few rules. The church building had to be preserved,
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,
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
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 useof
green, sustainable architecture to bring a new urban amenity to the community.
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
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 "he most
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.
has been receiving positive notice for her Starlight
Theatre renovation at
Rock Valley College in Rockford, with its star wall of curving
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,
it's easy to see why. While the CHA's 20-story Eckhart
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
New high-end town-homes 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 no longer be able 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
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
of the elements-the church, the apartment towers, and a vocational school
proposed for the center of the site.
Studio/Gang makes the most novel use of the school's facade. It's
as a landscape, says Schendel, laid on a 45-degree incline that
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
The jury cited the Studio/Gang proposal as most exciting scheme
in terms of
architectural risk-taking, but praise like that is becoming the
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 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
signaling a full surrender to what he calls plop architecture-towers
Plaza and River
East Center. 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
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
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
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
of the free exercise of religion, Chicago still operates under a 1987
ordinance, the handiwork of 42nd Ward aldermanBurton 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
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
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
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