Landmark status for historic West Side church should be first step of many to preserve houses of worship
Greater Union Baptist Church is poised for landmarks designation and a reminder of the need to preserve the city’s old and architecturally noteworthy worship spaces.
A city panel will vote Thursday on whether to grant preliminary landmark status to a historic West Side church — a move that’s good news to anyone concerned about the fate of Chicago’s architecturally-significant houses of worship.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will decide if Greater Union Baptist Church, 1956 W. Warren Blvd., is worthy of the honor. The 137-year-old brick-and-terra cotta beauty by the noted architect William Le Baron Jenney should be a shoo-in.
The designation — which has the support of the church’s congregation — would protect the Richardson Romanesque edifice from demolition or unsympathetic alterations. It would also shine light on the church’s remarkable contributions to the city’s history.
And it’s a reminder of the need to preserve the city’s old and architecturally noteworthy worship spaces — most of which have no landmark protections — as they continue to close or fall by the wayside entirely.
A visual feast
Greater Union was built in 1886 as Church of the Redeemer, Second Universalist.
Church of the Redeemer was prominent among Progressive Era houses of worship and hosted lectures on the welfare of children, women’s right to vote and temperance, according to the city’s smartly-written and well-illustrated landmark designation report.
The current congregation bought the church in 1928, and kept it socially active for the next century while preserving the building’s remarkable architecture.
The church’s column-free auditorium is a visual feast with curved pews, bronze chandeliers, a pipe organ, and exposed wooden trusses. Greater Union also boasts fine stained glass windows by Jean-François Millet.
The church is one of four designed by architect Jenney, who was an early pioneer of skyscraper design. His buildings include Chicago’s late, great Home Insurance Building from 1884 — long considered the world’s first steel-framed skyscraper — and the landmark Second Leiter Building, now the Robert Morris Center, at 401 S. State St., built in 1891.
Fewer than 20 Chicago houses of worship have been granted landmark status. Greater Union would be a fitting addition.
Religious buildings in peril
The proposed landmark designation — which protects the church until the City Council votes within the next year to make the honor permanent — only covers Greater Union’s exterior.
While we wish the church’s glorious interior could have been included, the designation and Greater Union’s committed congregation, is far better than no protection at all.
An example of an unprotected religious structure is 10 miles due south of Greater Union on the corner of 80th and Wood Streets, where the vacant former Little Flower Church wilts.
The limestone-facade church was built in 1940 and served generations of Catholic worshippers before closing in 1993. Greater Mt. Hebron Baptist bought the building from the archdiocese, according to the city’s Department of Buildings, but later vacated the premises.
The dilapidated church is a pall on a block of nicely-maintained brick bungalows, two-flats and three-flats.
Ald. David Moore (17th) said he’s been trying to contact the congregation about the building, but to no avail.
“It’s a very good-looking building … and it hurts my heart when these churches are abandoned and the historic architecture of them is lost,” Moore said. “We don’t want a building with this great architecture to go to waste.”
Hear, hear. Especially when a repurposed religious structure can be quite the asset. The former Church of the Epiphany, 201 S. Ashland Ave., was built in 1885 and now enjoys a new life as Epiphany Center for the Arts, a performance venue with studio space.
The old Little Flower has no demolition permit pending against it, according to the building department. And the building is listed for sale at $100,000. Perhaps with new owners, the church can bloom again.
Chicago just stood by in the 1970s and 1990s as nearly all of the city’s beautiful old movie palaces were closed, then bulldozed.
Without protections and a plan, churches and temples — facing the same perils of age and dwindling attendance as did the old movie palaces — might well be next.
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