Structural Damage

by   |
March 24th, 2012
· ·
“The only urban policy in North
Lawndale over the last 30 or 40
years has been demolition.” — Vincent Michael

Demolition machine strikes Lawndale landmark

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.

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.”

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Comments

Valaerie F. Leonard
Mar 24, 2012

Thanks for the coverage, Annette. You did a great job of exploring the various perspectives. At the end of the day, I agree wholeheartedly with Gore Vidal’s sentiments. Another saying I like is “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Clara Fitzpatrick
Mar 24, 2012

And politics reign in Lawndale. We are trying desperately to keep 3622 in tiptop shape. It is difficult. The building is so big and the beautiful high ceilings, original lighting, and domed roof are expensive to maintain. Hope someone can convince the city of the wonderful history that still remains in North Lawndale.

Clara Fitzpatrick
Mar 24, 2012

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.
This was not the largest synagogue.

Derrick Fitzpatrick
Mar 26, 2012

Although the 3411 building has run into what you call the demolition machine. I think it rather unfair to blame city policy. Until recently, there was very little effort to keep or bring the building to a standard that would allow it to not make the demolition list. The effort to save the building was to little, to late.

As the Pastor of Stone Temple Church, with connections to both churches whom occupied 3411, we regret that the demolition ball has come. However, we cannot and should not blame it on city policy.

If there is no one who has the love and compassion to perserve and keep the building, the building will become run down and ultimately die. If these building are to be preserved those that “believe history is lost” should partner with those places to help secure funding that will help maintain the buildings, thereby keeping them away from the demoliton machine.

The First Roumanian Congregation moved to 3622 W. Douglas Blvd. in 1925 from the Maxwell Street area. The Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church moved here in 1954.

We are still here and plan on being here for years to come. But, staying comes with a price that I’ve yet to see many outside of our building are willing to pay.

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