Preservation Watch: Can Chicago's St. James Church Dodge the Wrecking Ball?

It's one of seven buildings to make Preservation Chicago's 2013 endangered list, the Archdiocese has a demolition permit, and time is ticking for the 133-year-old Bronzeville church.

Photo by: Hannah Allen “Because of the quality of the architecture and the immediacy of the threat, Preservation Chicago couldn't wait any longer and the church had to become a Chicago 7,” said Jonathan Fine.

The 1891 Roosevelt pipe organ was being dismantled – right on schedule – as protesters gathered at 29th and Wabash to denounce the demolition of the landmark church. Next on the Archdiocese of Chicago's task list: removal of the 20-bell carillon, April 15. "It's distressing," says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago and passionate ambassador of Chicago's historic buildings. 

The Neo-Gothic St. James, affectionately known as the Mother Church of the South Side, was the first integrated church in Chicago and its architect, Patrick Keely, also created the Basilica of Notre Dame and Holy Name Cathedral. Its food pantry serves 1,600 people each month. It's survived fire, neglect and decay. At the eleventh hour, an angel of sorts appeared.

Photo by: David Schalliol According to Friends of Historic St. James, the parishioners were never provided any documentation to substantiate the $12 million repair estimate.

According to the Tribune, real estate executive and South Loop resident Joseph Cacciatore of Joseph Cacciatore & Co pledged $5 million to save the church. Is it in time? Is it enough?

The Archdiocese of Chicago claims renovation will cost $12 million, a figure Fine says is wildly inflated. "This $12 million number that continues to be bandied about by the Archdiocese includes a bunch of frilly stuff that nobody needs," says Fine. The congregation wanted the code violations corrected, heat in the winter, running water. A safe place to worship.

The parishioners got a second opinion. An alternate study showed they could revamp the church for about $5 million, less than half of the Archdiocese's projections, and now, matching Cacciatore's offer. But the Archdiocese seems to be sticking to its decision. Its director of real estate, Tom Kennedy, told the Tribune that demolition plans have not changed. And another troubling chapter in the saga has emerged concerning the Archdiocese's plan to build the congregation a new church.

Photo by: Hannah Allen The Archdiocese is prepared to spend close to a million dollars on the St. James demolition.

There's hasn't been a land purchase – yet. One parcel publicized as the new site isn't even for sale. “They don't want to talk about it," says Fine. "If they haven't purchased the land yet, and there's no architectural drawings done, and it takes a minimum of six months just to get a building permit in the city of Chicago, in what century will this congregation be moving into their new church?”

Fine declined to speculate about the Archdiocese's motivations. "So far none of us can figure it out.” Just as they can't figure out what he characterizes as a "curious" bit of information about the dismantled organ. “We found out that the Archdiocese doesn't have any place to put it," says Fine. "Hopefully it won't be going to the back of a dump truck."

The building is slated for the wrecking ball April 22.

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