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Developer Wants To Demolish 105-Year-Old Church; Preservationists Cry Foul

By Paul Biasco | February 2, 2016 6:32am
 A deal between an unnamed developer at the Saint John United Church of Christ would make way for the demolition of the church, according to its pastor.
Saint John United Church of Christ
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LOGAN SQUARE — Preservation groups are trying to save a historic 105-year-old church from being demolished to make way for what they say will be "cookie cutter" condos.

A developer is in final stages of discussions with St. John United Church of Christ on a deal that hinges on a zoning change for the land, according to multiple people familiar with the negotiations. The zoning change would allow for a larger building, and more housing units, to be built on the land.

According to the church's pastor, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) has been working with the developer and church to OK the zoning change to make way for demolition.

"He's on board," said Charlotte Nold, the 73-year-old pastor of the church.

Moreno (1st) did not respond to several requests for comment.

While the pastor of St. John United Church of Christ agrees that demolition of the historic church is not her first choice, she said it is the only way to continue its mission.

"We didn't have a choice," Nold said. "It's like a mother getting up when her baby is crying in the middle of the night. She gets up to help the baby. We need to save the church, and this is the only way to save it."

Nold said a real estate agent representing the church is finalizing a deal that would include the church and a lot on each side of the structure. The plan is to build three condo buildings on the land, according to Nold.

If the deal goes through, the church would move into a parsonage next to the current church and use the money from the sale to renovate the building and continue hosting services and operating the church's food pantry.

The biggest issue preservation groups take with the proposal is the zoning change, which they argue gives developers incentive to demolish the building to make way for more density than currently allowed.

"You are dooming the building, and with it you are erasing the memory of the congregation," said Andrew Schneider, president of Logan Square Preservation. “Logan Square Preservation doesn’t believe that development policy should encourage ... their demolition.” 

The church, 2442 W. Moffat St., is on a residential block and considered desirable real estate due to its proximity to the Western Blue Line stop and the 606.

The entire property, including the parsonage, was listed for $1.57 million last year.

The sale price of the church, attached with the presumed zoning change, was not available Monday.

While the pastor said the deal was expected to be inked any day now, there have been no community meetings to discuss the zoning change.

Moreno's chief of staff, Raymond Valadez, told Logan Square Preservation there will be "additional community review" in the next few months when the group asked about the possible zoning change last week.

One of the main reasons the church, with its small congregation, was placed on the market was due to a crack in the exterior wall, Nold said.

The city forced the church to pay for a scaffolding along the sidewalk at a price of about $1,000 a month after a stone gargoyle that fell off a South Loop church killed a woman in 2014.

Nold said city inspectors cracked down on churches after that tragedy.

She estimated that fixing the crack would cost about $200,000, which the church does not have.

Preservationists, including Schneider and Ward Miller, who runs Preservation Chicago, argue that a developer could repair the structural damage and find another use for the building, likely residential, or that another congregation could move in.

The church was built by noted German-born architect Hermann Gaul, who designed numerous Chicago area churches, including St. Michael's Church in Old Town.

It also includes stained glass windows by Franz Xavier Zettler, which the pastor said she plans to save and move into the parsonage if the sale goes through.

"Here, one of the nicest buildings along that corridor will most likely be demolished and replaced with another cookie-cutter development," Miller said. "It really damages the integrity of our city and our community, and it's really unfortunate, especially in a neighborhood where we have all come together as multiple organizations to grow and be different from all of the neighborhoods you will see along the lakefront.”

Nold said the property had been on the market for a little less than a year and that several potential buyers have sought to save the church.

"The buyers who want to save the church don't have it put together well enough," she said of their deals. "We need money. It's going to cost some to renovate and take the walls out here in the parsonage."

Cracks in the brick exterior of the church can be seen above the stained glass window. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

The preservationists fighting the sale and demolition said there was precedent and a market in the neighborhood for repurposing churches.

Miller pointed to a similar instance where a church in need of repairs sought a zoning change as part of a redevelopment deal — a request that was rejected by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square voted to sell its building in early 2015 and after weighing a number of offers, unanimously voted on selling to New Community Covenant Church.

In another case, a circus school is moving to turn a 107-year-old church at Kimball and Wrightwood avenues into a training center.

The St. John United Church of Christ project should serve as an opportunity for the community, local politicians and the city to come together to discuss the importance and opportunities of preservation in Chicago, Miller said.

"This is another tragedy, and it's whittling away the important elements of our city," Miller said. "If we are not careful and we don’t create more opportunities for reuse and restoration, we are going to have a city that looks like any other place. We are a city of architecture. I think we have to embrace that, and it can't just be in the central city, the Loop, it needs to be in the neighborhood as well.”

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