Elizabeth Blasius: Should a historic church be turned into condos to "save" it?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Elizabeth Blasius studies historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is an archivist at the Chicago Cultural Center.]

In a contest sponsored by The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the public will determine via online voting (which ended October 10th) how one million dollars is to be distributed among twenty-five historic Chicagoland sites. The demarcations between "sacred" and "secular" sites are not always clear—Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral clearly fits in the former category and the Independence Park clubhouse in the latter; Bohemian National Cemetery may be harder to classify. But the contest raises important issues concerning the preservation of sacred spaces, which can hardly be ignored in any urban environment.

Those that frequent Chicago Avenue just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway know St. Boniface church well; cats and pigeons know it intimately. The giant shipwreck of a building silently overlooks its rapidly changing West Town neighborhood, both relic and fixture among increasingly desirable real estate. Enormous rose windows are bandaged by plywood; doorways are stuffed with concrete blocks; bricks shift and spall from top to bottom. The building is mummified, shrouded by chain link fence, bejeweled with red and white signs warning "Private Property—No Trespassing." The bell towers and rooflines teem with life; flocks of birds and tufts of weeds feed off the structure like a giant coral reef.

This bold-shouldered Romanesque skeleton, designed in 1896 and dedicated in 1904, was once a place where thousands of turn-of-the-century German-Americans (in 1900, one in four Chicagoans was a German immigrant) came to worship. But the late 1950s saw a radical change in West Town: The Kennedy Expressway sliced its way through the city to link Chicago's Loop to O'Hare International Airport. Thousands of buildings were razed to make way for mass automobile transit. Many Chicagoans, displaced or not, saw the construction of multiple highways in the area as an opportunity to move their young families into formerly inaccessible suburban communities. Decreased attendance made St. Boniface's massive original structure unnecessary, and as with many parishes, upkeep became difficult for the aging congregants. St. Boniface became an architectural albatross, its bricks and mortar outliving its intended use.

Massive protest ensued when the Chicago Archdiocese closed St. Boniface in 1990, from community members whose major life events had occurred there. For structures such as warehouses, storefronts, power plants and schools, the issue of adaptive reuse—adapting a building for new uses while retaining its architectural integrity—is simple. Adaptive reuse, for which Chicago has set many significant precedents, provides a more sustainable, energy-efficient option than demolition. It allows for another chapter in a building's history, exposes those who inhabit the space to important architecture, and often contributes to neighborhood revitalization. An old building simply needs to find a new "user," and the work can begin.

But for a building that houses a particular type of emotional memory, development into a project that seems not to match the integrity of the original purpose can be just as difficult as demolition. In the case of an adaptive reuse project meant to generate income, the market must be comfortable enough with the new use to patronize the services that are housed within the structure. For many, the transformation from a sacred space to a commercial venture is inappropriate. Community members whose Catholic rites of passage took place within St. Boniface may not be receptive to the space being transformed, conservatively, into condominiums. One imagines that they would be even less receptive to a restaurant or a nightclub (like Chicago's Excalibur, in what once was the Chicago Historical Society). So St. Boniface, like thousands of religious spaces from behemoth Neo-Gothic cathedrals to one-room storefront churches, now stands dormant and decaying.

But what does it mean to preserve the integrity of a sacred space? Can a religious structure be reused for non-religious purposes, and still retain its emotional cohesion? As the emphasis on environmentally sound neighborhood revitalization continues, religious structures like St. Boniface will have to be adapted to changing times; the public, then, must face the challenge of reconsidering what space means in an emotional sense. The adaptive reuse of a sacred space doesn't have to be disrespectful; with appropriate financial backing, spaces like St. Boniface can be transformed lovingly into useful modern structures, which both celebrate the buildings' original uses and restore their significance. With thoughtful attention, architectural and spiritual integrity can be preserved simultaneously. A building's intended use may deteriorate long before its stained glass and bell towers, but it should still have a chance to prove itself an asset beyond worship.

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