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Modernist building’s slated demolition exposes weaknesses in Chicago’s landmark laws

The likely leveling of the Cenacle Sisters Retreat and Conference Center on Fullerton Parkway is proof the city must do a better job of documenting — and landmarking — postwar structures.

A Cenacle Sisters conference center, 513 W. Fullerton Pkwy., is endanger of being demolished.
Lynn Becker

The building’s official address on Fullerton Parkway is a parking lot, so odds are you’ve never really noticed the beautiful structure on Cleveland Avenue, set half a block back.

But take a closer look: Some of the loveliest brickwork you’ll ever see in Chicago forms the 1967 Cenacle Sisters Retreat and Conference Center, at 513 W. Fullerton Parkway, designed by local architect Charles Pope.

“It’s a keeper,” I would say. Except that it’s not. See it while you can, because it’s likely about to be smashed to rubble, with the express permission of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

The Catholic order that owns the complex has applied for a permit to demolish and redevelop the campus. The matter landed before landmarks commissioners last week because the retreat sits in the city’s Mid-North Landmark District.

But commission members voted to allow demolition.

Not that they were especially happy about it. Several commissioners expressed discomfort at losing this neighborhood gem. One uttered the forlorn, not-entirely-convincing hope that maybe some of the stunning brickwork could be saved. But the commission was boxed in — three times.

First, by a 1987 ordinance that prevents the city from landmarking places of worship without the owner’s consent. To this day, religious landlords are the only category of property owners with veto power over landmarking.

The second box is that the Cenacle Retreat is inside the Mid-North Landmark District, created in 1974 — seven years after Cenacle was built — to protect the many fine 19th century buildings within its borders. But the Cenacle Retreat, listed by the district’s rules as a “non-contributing” building, is deemed to be completely disposable.

So — why not just landmark it on its own?

Third box: There’s a thing called the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, identifying over 17,000 properties of “historic or architectural importance.”

Many of those listed are already landmarks. The others might be. Each building is color-coded. Red for most important, orange for potentially important, and so on. If a developer decides they want to knock down an orange-rated building, for example, a 90-day demolition delay kicks in to allow time to consider its merits as a potential new official landmark.

That’s how a striking Queen Anne Victorian building at 1393 W. Lake St., once home to the Italian restaurant La Luce, is in the process of being saved today.

But the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, completed in 1995, ends in 1939. Any building constructed in 1940 or later is excluded — 43% of Chicago’s entire history.

So the Cenacle Center has no evaluation, no rating — red, orange, purple or otherwise — to trigger a considered public dialog on its merits. Very sorry — goodbye!

The Cenacle Sisters have grown older, and their numbers have diminished. A Cenacle Retreat House in Warrenville closed in 2007, as have others nationwide. They face the same, often grave, financial challenges of diminishing church participation that has resulted in consolidations, closures and demolitions.

Repurposing buildings, such as the Cenacle Center, with its small, bathroom-down-the-hall rooms for retreat participants, is a challenge. Yet, with creativity, it can — and has — been done, repeatedly.

At the same Landmarks Commission meeting in which the Cenacle Retreat was sacrificed, Ald. Michelle Smith (43rd) talked about how her office and the community were already working together to revise a Landmark District ordinance in her ward to protect architectural landmarks of the modern era. That’s a good precedent for future action.

It can be said that a church is a community, not a building, but it also cannot be denied that the souls of Chicago’s early immigrants reside in the often spectacularly beautiful expressions of faith they built. Like our secular historic structures, whether 19th century or 20th, they cannot be cast aside without injury to our collective memory and spirit. A landmark is more than a legalism. It is an enduring marker, a reference point, a reminder of where we came from, and who we are.

The 20th century, and its architectural record, is now two decades in the past. It’s time, before more is lost, to weave it into the continuous fabric of Chicago history.

Revisit the religious organization exemption. Update the Historic Resources Survey.

Lynn Becker is a Chicago writer and architecture critic.

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