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Music School Could Save St. Boniface Church From Wrecking Ball

By Alisa Hauser | April 21, 2016 12:12pm
 Photos of St. Boniface Church.
St. Boniface Church in Noble Square
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NOBLE SQUARE —  A music academy that wants to take over St. Boniface Church needs to create a plan for how they will buy the turn-of-the century structure at the northeast corner of Chestnut and Noble Street, a Cook County judge ordered on Wednesday.

Judge George F. Scully's order came after the church's owner, Phil Moeller, was told by the city that he must either repair the long vacant church at 1358 W. Chestnut St. or demolish it.

In light of the possible new buyers, Scully continued Moeller's case for another two weeks and asked Hyde Park's Chicago Academy of Music to come back to court next month with their plan.

Designed by architect Henry Schlacks, the 32,000-square-foot Romanesque-style church was completed in 1902. It closed in 1990.

After court on Wednesday, Michael Carter, co-founder of Chicago Academy of Music, said that he was working on "a public-private partnership" with a developer.

The developer would renovate the church into a music school, with the sanctuary slated for rehearsals and concerts.  The upper levels would offer apartment rentals or other housing, to be determined by the developer and community, Carter said.

Carter declined to reveal which developer the group is working with but said that Gensler Architects would renovate the building and Bulley and Andrews would oversee the build out.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said that the advocacy group was "hopeful" that the building could be taken over by the Chicago Academy of Music and if that happened, Preservation Chicago was requesting that the church receive landmark status. 

"The whole reason this church is standing is because 17 years ago it brought a lot of people together who wanted to see the church saved," Miller said.

Ald. Walter Burnett has previously said he would be supportive of any plan that the community wanted.

Carter said the question of whether the church would actually be saved was still "up in the air." 

"We are jumping on the plane trying trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together before we hit the ground," Carter said of the project, which he said he just started working on last week.

Three things are needed to save the church: a price agreed upon by the current owner, a developer to be able to say, 'I can do what you need' and the court to be able to say 'we accept the plan,'" Carter said.

A letter from the music school offering $1.2 million for the building was submitted to the court on Wednesday, Carter said.

Carter describes himself as an economist who "sees the value in music."  Carter's business partner, Kahil El’zabar, is a musician and composer who has worked with jazz legends such as Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie.

"Band does not exist anymore in most schools, which are missing the creative part that will amplify the minds of kids. It's Hyde Park, it's Pilsen, it's West Town where we can give access to students across the city who normally do not have great access to music instruction," Carter said.

Carter said the music academy was also looking to build a school in Pilsen's St. Adalbert Church, which community members have also been trying to save.

Moeller said he had already put more than $300,000 into St. Boniface for structural repairs and legal fees.

The latest city-mandated repairs, about a year ago, forced Moeller to spend $90,000 on securing the structure and "keeping it secure to the point that teenagers and homeless would not break in."

There is no onsite security but Moeller said he had a contract with a security firm that visited the property at night.

Two of Moeller's previous plans, a 56-unit senior apartment building and "a combination of affordable and market rate rentals," both fell through, Moeller said.  Those plans would have required demolishing the church.

Moeller said he supported Chicago Academy of Music's plan to buy the church.

"I am hoping they are serious buyers simply because I would love to preserve the church.  If they can really do it and have the funds and backing, I'm all for it," Moeller said. 

View of St. Boniface Church from Eckhart Park. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

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