Snow fell softly on the forgotten temple. The effects of ten years of vacancy could be seen in the boarded up windows, gaping holes in the roof and crumbling façade. Built almost a century ago, Anshe Kenesseth Israel Synagogue on 3411 W Douglas Boulevard, later known as Shepherd’s Temple, now faces the wrecking ball. On December 21, the City Department of Buildings issued an emergency demolition order, declaring that the “building was in imminent danger of collapse.”
Architect, preservationist and member of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, Carey Wintergreen leads a grassroots effort to save the old synagogue from destruction. Not only is the building important as a monument to North Lawndale’s rich, conflicted past, but its restoration could spark the revitalization of an economically depressed neighborhood.[slideshow id=64 w=650 h=650]
Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey argues that historic structures can become catalysts for urban renewal. “The quality buildings of Garfield Park are not just remains of a time before white flight and the 1960s riots,” maintains Bey in his article “Can Architecture Save West Garfield Park?” “They are the foundations upon which – with preservation and reinvestment – this community can be rebuilt.”
In the early 20th century, North Lawndale was known as Chicago’s Jerusalem, home to the largest Jewish population in the Midwest. The terracotta arch of the Anshe Kenesseth Israel Synagogue loomed over the elegant greystone houses along Douglas Boulevard. It was the largest of the 60 synagogues built on Chicago’s West Side.
In the autumn afternoons of the High Holy Days, Douglas Boulevard was filled with people dressed in white. As the sun set on Rosh Hashanah, worshippers recited prayers and cast off their sins into the waters of Douglas Park Lagoon.
The 1950s brought a shift in demographics – blacks migrated to North Lawndale from Chicago’s South Side and from the Deep South as the white middle class deserted the city for the suburbs. By 1964, the neighborhood was 91% black. The old Jewish synagogue became home to Friendship Baptist Church, a center of civic and religious engagement.
In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. moved his family into a dilapidated North Lawndale apartment. He hoped to draw public attention to racist housing policies that segregated blacks and kept them in a slum environment. During the civil rights protests of 1966, King preached of equality from the steps of 3411 W Douglas Boulevard.
“When you destroy buildings, you destroy history, because you destroy the ability to tell the story of what happened in this neighborhood,” argues director of Preservation Chicago Jonathan Fine in a 2011 Chicago Tribune article. This year 3411 W Douglas Boulevard joined the ranks of Prentice Hospital, Chicago Theological Seminary and Pullman Historic District on Preservation Chicago’s list of Seven Most Endangered Buildings.
The City of Chicago is quick to raze decaying structures. Organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the 2006 exhibition “Learning from North Lawndale” portrays the 1980s citywide fast-track demolition policy that “allowed city officials to tear down buildings that they deemed structurally damaged or possible havens for criminal activity.”
Architect and structural engineer James Peterson challenges the city’s claim that Shepherd’s Temple is a threat to public safety: “Although this building currently has critical maintenance issues to address and is presently unoccupied … the repair does not require major reconstruction.”