St. Laurence, at the western edge of South Shore, has stood as a landmark in the community since 1911. When it was built, more than a decade before the real estate boom that saw South Shore become a truly urban neighborhood, it served the small railroad suburb known as Parkside.
The church is an imposing edifice, towering over its surroundings. Warm orange brick is laid in interesting patterns, with copper trim, slate roofing, and stone figures enlivening the design. The architect, Joseph Molitor, is known for designing a number of Catholic churches around Chicago. He had a hand in the simpler St. Francis of Assisi on Roosevelt Road, as well as the much more ornate Holy Cross, a Lithuanian parish on 46th Street in Back of the Yards.
The rectory, also by Joseph Molitor, was a match in materials and style to the church. It burned several years ago, and I am astonished that its remains were left standing until now.
The parish hall, designed by George Smith in the 1920s, is a more modern-looking building, low slung, with more elaborate and expensive Mediterranean Revival details, and marble around the front door.
The school building, about which I know little, takes its design cues from the Art Deco and Prairie School styles, with very strong verticality and spare ornamentation.
The entire complex was closed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2002 – by which time it had very few members in this no longer particularly Catholic neighborhood, and was in need of at least $3 million in work.
It was purchased in 2005 by Eden Supportive Living, a company that develops and manages supportive living communities for those with physical disabilities. It appears that they planned to tear down the buildings from the outset – which makes no sense, given the available inventory of vacant land quite nearby. (Their website still lists a South Shore community anticipated to open in 2014.)
Because of its distinguished architecture and history, St. Laurence was rated Orange by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. This mandated a 90-day demolition delay, an opportunity to identify possible reuses or ways to preserve the buildings. Perhaps sensing that there might be significant opposition to their plans, or perhaps just because of the recession, Eden Supportive Living waited out the clock – and then some. Under Eden’s neglectful watch, virtually no maintenance was performed, and efforts to secure the premises were desultory at best. The rectory fire, in 2010, was started by an open flame – likely by vagrants burning trash for warmth or doing drugs. Eden has been difficult to reach and has resisted reasonable offers of purchase from parties interested in preserving some or all of the buildings.
Having allowed St. Laurence to crumble for 9 years, they have now begun to demolish it. They surely hope to escape any blame for doing this – though it was their plan all along – by arguing that it is now unsafe and must be demolished. This may be true on its face, but of course the unsafe conditions were caused entirely by Eden’s neglect. The Demolition Delay Ordinance can’t save a building if an owner is determined to let it fall down.
The rectory has already been demolished, and its rubble was being loaded into a dump truck yesterday.
As I write this, demolition is likely almost complete on the parish hall. Fortunately, some material, including beautiful wood paneling, is being salvaged for reuse. The church will be the next to fall, very soon, in what is sure to be quite a spectacle.
The school building is not currently the subject of a demolition permit. However, it is not secured, and is being actively looted. It too will almost certainly be demolished.
South Shore is a neighborhood facing many challenges. It has many assets – among them gorgeous historic architecture. Eden Supportive Living is committing an act of cultural vandalism here, and it is too late to stop them (though preservationists and community members have been trying for years). In failing to hold Eden accountable to any standards whatsoever, the neighborhood’s political leadership has once again shown its uselessness.
Just a few short blocks to the east, a similar fight may soon unfold. The orange-rated Jeffery Theater and attached buildings – long the home of ShoreBank, the institutional anchor of South Shore – is now vacant. Urban Partnership Bank, which claims to carry on ShoreBank’s mission, is but a pale shadow of what ShoreBank once was. The only potential buyer recruited for the property wants to demolish the buildings and construct a strip mall – which would be located next to a commuter rail station, and kitty corner across the intersection from an existing strip mall, which is itself missing an anchor grocery store thanks to Dominick’s departure. The building has been boarded up – which is not conducive to selling. Adding insult to injury, Urban Partnership recruited a Bridgeport-based artist to paint the boards, making no effort to involve neighborhood residents. The bank has not allowed outside parties to view the building in order to assess its condition and market it to more sympathetic buyers. Urban Partnership is seeking to cash out quickly, and doesn’t care if that means saddling the neighborhood with another eyesore of a failed strip mall.
But it’s not too late to fight this. Please consider coming on a walking tour of 71st Street, showcasing its architecture and history, this coming Saturday, April 26. And please sign the online petition calling for the creation of a Chicago Landmark District along 71st. A Landmark District provides much stronger protection against demolition, as well as incentives to owners to preserve and rehabilitate the buildings that give 71st Street and South Shore a distinctive sense of place.
Don’t stand by and let Urban Partnership Bank sink to the level of Eden Supportive Living. With your help, we can avoid a repeat of what’s happening at St. Laurence.