This is an excerpt from the new book “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side” (Northwestern University Press, $30) by Lee Bey, former architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.Located at Eighty-Fourth Street and Stony Island Avenue, Stony Island Church of Christ, built in 1959, has yet to be listed on any architectural survey, which is a shame. The modernist edifice is a very fine little building by Chicago architect Ray Stuermer, who was once chief of design for Raymond Loewy, the celebrated 20th century industrial designer whose work ranged from the iconic Lucky Strike cigarette packaging to the zoomy and va-va-va-voomy Studebaker Avanti sports coupe. The small church, built for a congregation of 200, was produced on a modest $125,000 budget. In today’s dollars, that would be just over $1 million. But with that tight budget, Stony Island Church is a standout: a sleek, impressive and reverent work with an angled granite facade that is divided by a slender, two-story glass entrance.
Chicago has a fine collection of churches in general, but the South Side is particularly, shall we say, blessed, in both design quality and sheer numbers.
“I grew up in Back of the Yards, and we had 12 churches in two square miles,” Pacyga said. “If you drew a larger circle, it was around 35 or 36 Catholic churches. And if you add on [neighboring] Bronzeville, then you’ve got the [African Methodist Episcopal] and other churches.”
That’s because, from the late 1800s through the 1940s, new South Siders arriving from all over Europe and the Jim Crow South tossed enough money into collection plates (or bought High Holy Days tickets) to ensure that every neighborhood — no matter how poor or rich — had the best-looking churches and synagogues in the city.
Bronzeville residents often took over existing churches when whites left the neighborhood. But when the congregations built their own churches, the results could be knockouts architecturally.
Walter Thomas Bailey teamed with black structural engineer Charles Sumner Duke and converted an old hat factory into the streamlined and modernist First Church of Deliverance at Forty-Third Street and Wabash Avenue in 1939. The conversion added a second story and doubled its width.
The building was reclad in cream-colored terracotta panels. Bands of terracotta run across the face of the building, accenting the structure’s horizontality. The art moderne rounded towers flanking the church’s entry were added in 1946 by the predominantly white architecture firm Kocher Buss & DeKlerk. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Clarence Cobbs, nicknamed the towers “Old Testament” and “New Testament.”
One among many churches built in Pacyga’s old neighborhood is St. Gabriel, constructed at 45th Street and Lowe Avenue, near the stock yards, in 1888. “The history of American church architecture includes few structures that are finer or less well-known than Burnham and Root’s St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church,” Thomas S. Hines said in his book “Burnham of Chicago: Architect & Planner.”
St. Gabriel’s architect, John Wellborn Root, tossed aside the usual neo-Gothic and Victorian frou-frou of the day, giving the congregation a bold-looking brick building with deep rooflines and a 160-foot corner tower. Built for Irish immigrant workers, St. Gabriel has a simplified Romanesque design that emphasizes the edifice’s form and geometry rather than its adornment, giving the 19th century church a hint of modernity that is still evident today. Root is said to have based the design on that of a medieval Romanesque church in Toulouse, France.
If a medieval church in Toulouse inspired the design of St. Gabriel, it’s hard to tell which one, but I’d lay odds it was the Basilica at St. Sernin. There is a faint resemblance between the buildings. And St. Sernin is Toulouse’s most noteworthy religious edifice because it is the largest basilica in Europe.