3411 West Douglas Boulevard has had many lives. At one time a church, and before that a synagogue, the Lawndale building has an imposing limestone facade topped with an enormous ornamented arch. The 99-year-old structure dwarfs the surrounding houses.
But inside it is in shambles. There are gaping holes in the roof; the floor is littered with debris; the stained glass windows are cracked. What was once a house of God now looks like a victim of his wrath.
The building, Anshe Kanesses Israel, was once the largest synagogue on the West Side. In 1962, Chicago Jews started moving to the suburbs and the neighborhood became predominantly black. Anshe Kanesses Israel turned into the Friendship Baptist Church. Now a faded sign beneath the arch bears the name of Shepherd’s Temple, a later congregation that hasn’t met since the 90s. Â Left to vandals, water damage, and structural neglect, the building has become a public safety hazard. On December 21st, the City Department of Buildings issued an emergency demolition order, warning that the building is “in imminent danger of collapse.”
The demolition order has sparked action among a diverse group of Chicagoans–ranging from Preservation Chicago to community activists in Lawndale–who are now rushing to save it from the wrecking ball. Some want to save it for its history: as a synagogue it could seat 3500 people, and as a church it hosted a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. Some want to save it for its great architectural beauty: the impressive Byzantine Revival facade, the archway, the stained glass. And some just want to save it because Lawndale doesn’t need any more demolition orders.
To save this building–Anshe Kanesses, Friendship Baptist, Shepherd’s Temple–the activists will need to find an organization willing to buy a wrecked building in an economically depressed neighborhood. They will need to find an organization with a vision and, more importantly, cash.
“It really needs an angel to come and rescue it,” says Jonathan Fine, the president of Preservation Chicago.
They have a month to find one.
Robb Packer, an amateur historian, has written two books on the forgotten synagogues of Chicago, and he bubbles with enthusiasm for the subject. He has a lot to say concerning Anshe Kanesses Israel: the synagogue, built in 1912 by Russian Jews, was the first and largest of the 60 synagogues that would eventually dot the West Side. “It boggles the mind what a second-generation bunch of greenhorns were able to achieve,” he says. The congregation had “over 3000 members, 150 torahs, a school and a library.” A great center of learning, it was open 24 hours a day: “you could be there at midnight and see people studying,” he says. And the synagogue attracted “the most famous rabbis and cantors, ever.”
For Packer, documenting forgotten Chicago synagogues is something that transports him to a different time. “It paints a picture of Chicago that will never exist again,” he says. Lawndale once had around 125,000 Jewish residents. On West Douglas Boulevard alone there were three major synagogues and the Hebrew Theological College, which was demolished in October 2010 after two decades of vacancy. The Jewish People’s Institute, the epicenter of Jewish life on the West Side–and where Packer attended pre-school–now houses the Lawndale Community Academy, a public school just a block away from Anshe Kanesses.
Packer is pessimistic about the fate of the old synagogue–in fact, he says that its odds of survival are “zero.” His pessimism may spring from personal experience; since beginning his work in 2001, 50 or 60 of the over 400 buildings that he’s documented have been torn down.
“Chicago doesn’t care. Chicago doesn’t have a heart for its cultural gems,” he says. “I wish it did. In this economy there isn’t the will to do anything.”
However, Carey Wintergreen, an architect spearheading the effort to save the building, disagrees. He admits that “the city of Chicago has a long history of demolishing vacant buildings no matter how architecturally or historically important they are,” but he believes that this case is different.
He spoke with Beth Johnson, the special project coordinator for the city’s historical preservation division, who indicated that the city could be willing to appeal the emergency demolition permit on one condition: the preservationists must present a viable plan for someone to buy the building and keep it secure.
“They would work with us in court if we had a plan and backers,” says Wintergreen. “What we’re looking for is the concept, the organization that would potentially be interested in the building, and at least enough funds to make the building secure.”
There is only a small chance that in today’s economic climate someone would finance the complete renovation necessary to make the building useable, but Wintergreen argues that for almost the same cost as tearing down the building, it could instead be “mothballed.” Mothballing refers to the process of completely sealing a building to protect it from vagrants, vandals, and the elements. All the openings would be bricked in, and the roof would be reinforced with a protective membrane. Once the building is sealed, they would wait to make further improvements until the economic situation improved, or more cash came in.
“We could secure the building so that the historic structure could, five or 30 years from now, become the centerpiece of the future revitalization of North Lawndale,” says Wintergreen.
While local TIF funds or federal HUD grants might contribute to this process, Wintergreen warns that “the city may not buy the idea of mothballing the building with no concept for its future use.” To that end, Wintergreen, who is on the board of directors of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, has been working with Preservation Chicago, Landmark Illinois, city agencies, libraries, and community groups to find someone with a plan for the building and the patience to wait an unspecified amount of time to use it.
“These vacant religious structures are an incredible challenge because they are so large and so difficult to re-purpose,” says Fine, whose organization listed 3411 West Douglas as one of its Top 7 buildings in peril. Nevertheless, he says that they’re “going to continue trying to find a party interested in re-purposing it. We’re not gonna give up until forced.”
Lorean Earles, a Lawndale resident who heard Dr. King’s 1965 speech at the Friendship Baptist church, says she hopes the building can be turned into a community center. “I would hate to see them tear it down,” she says. “I’d rather see it stay there, find something to put in there to help the community.”
The building’s current owners are Abundant Life World Outreach, a North-side ministry. After purchasing the building in 2007, Abundant Life’s Pastors Steve and Tracy Bartlett could not afford to renovate it or keep it secured–nor could they pay the numerous fines they received for not complying with safety codes. The pastors could not be reached for comment, but Wintergreen says that they bought the building for $500,000, and the city will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars more to demolish it, leaving them with over half a million dollars in debt and a vacant lot in Lawndale. It’s a fair guess, then, that they’re eager to sell to a new set of hands.
What’s clear, though, is that doing nothing is not an option. “You can demolish a building just by letting it sit,” noted Fine. If the city allows the building to stand as is, it will only continue to deteriorate and pose a serious public safety risk. Squatters could break in, start a fire for warmth, and accidentally cause a conflagration. Mothballing may be the only way to save the building from destruction, either by wrecking-ball or gravity.
For that, they need someone with “money and a plan,” says Valerie Leonard, a community activist in Lawndale. Her desire to save the church stems not only from its architectural and historical significance, but from what she calls a “visceral” reaction. The mortgage crisis, a slowing economy, and scores of foreclosures have led to the existence of over 1500 empty lots in Lawndale. “You get to a point where enough is enough. We’ve got enough empty buildings and enough vacant lots with nothing on it but trash,” she says. “It’s not good for your psyche [to get] rid of something culturally, architecturally significant.”
Even those who have no memories of the church or only notice it as they walk down Douglas Boulevard would be affected by the building’s disappearance, she claims. The lot would be an “eyesore” and instill a “feeling of despair.”
As such, Leonard has started a petition to stay the demolition. With over 500 signatures, the petition shows that “something about this building has struck a chord against racial and cultural lines.” Leonard estimates that 30-35% of the signers are from North Lawndale, 30% are from the North Shore, a heavily Jewish suburban community, and the rest are from other locations around the city, even from other countries.
Leonard says that she was told by the local alderman’s chief of staff, Trina Mangrum, that a public hearing will be held concerning the building near the end of February. At that hearing, most likely, they will announce the company awarded the demolition contract. So, according to Leonard, the preservationists have a month, at best, for “somebody to come out of the woodwork who’s got money and a plan.”
If they succeed, the temple will be mothballed instead of destroyed, and there it will wait, on 4311 West Douglas Boulevard, until a better age arrives.