Sunday, August 28, 2011

Something out of nothing

The saga of St. Boniface in the neighborhood of Eckhart Park on the near northwest side of Chicago continues. I have been a little out of the loop with this building and was pleasantly surprised yesterday when I learned from the posted signs shown here in the picture, that the property has been sold and the church building will remain, to be re-developed into senior housing. Here is an article from the Sun Times from way back in December of last year.

St. Boniface has stood empty since 1990 when the Archdiocese of Chicago closed it and several other struggling parishes within its domain. Many church buildings have since been sold to other denominations and continue to serve as places of worship. Some have been torn down. One church, St. John of God in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, has been dismantled and will be reconstructed in another location in the suburbs. Others like St. Boniface have remained empty, awaiting definitive decisions on their fate. The old church has fallen to the ravages of the elements without the benefit of maintenance and despite its being architecturally significant, has come very close to a date with the wrecker's ball because of its dangerous state of repair.

Sadly I have to admit that I all but wrote off the beautiful church a couple of years ago.

Last October the church and property were sold to a developer who agreed to save at least part of St. Boniface. The original plan was to gut the interior of the church, what's left of it that is, and demolish most of the exterior walls, but leave the distinctive towers and front elevation intact. A new building would then be woven in between the towers and facade. Studies however showed that the partial exterior demolition would not be structurally feasible, and a new plan keeps the church intact and constructing an entirely new building on the adjacent lot to the east, once the site of the parish school, which is even better news from the preservation angle. You can read out it here.

This was all made possible through a complicated land swap deal that involved the city, the Archdiocese of Chicago and private interests. If it all comes to pass, and hopefully it will, this will be a major victory for the Coalition to Save St. Boniface, the members of the Eckhart Park community, and Preservation Chicago, among others, who worked tirelessly to save the building against tremendous odds. They deserve to be commended.

It would be nice of course if the building had remained in its original capacity as a functioning church. St. Boniface, the work of the Archdiocese's preeminent architect, Henry Schlacks, was a jewel both inside and out. But the neighborhood despite being populated by many Catholics as I wrote before, is saturated with Catholic churches, and simply could not support this one.

The lovely structure of St. Boniface has been a landmark in the community for over a century, bordering the neighborhood's eponymous park, with its own distinguished pedigree. Eckhart Park, a small community park at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Noble Street, is the work of the great landscape architect Jens Jensen. The Prairie Style fieldhouse, one of the best in the city, and a natatorium were designed by W.C. Zimmerman. All three have seen better days and hopefully the proposed saving of the church will inspire a new day for the park and the field house as well.

The church building if all goes well, will become not only a monument to the people who struggled to build it, but also to those who saved it.

Some good news indeed.

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