February 2, 2011
Reuse or Replace: What Becomes of Religious Structures When Congregations Move On?
— Robert Powers
In late December, the City of Chicago issued an emergency demolition permit for the Anshe Kenesseth Israel building, a grandiose former synagogue in the city's downtrodden west side. Built in 1913, Anshe Kenesseth rose in a well-to-do neighborhood with a strong Jewish presence. By the early 1960s, however, the neighborhood's demographics had shifted. The Jews had moved out, and their building was sold to the Friendship Baptist Church, one of a handful of Chicago churches to open their doors to Martin Luther King, Jr. The Friendship congregation eventually built their own church, and passed the AKI building to the Shepherd's Temple Baptist Church in 1983. Unable to afford the massive and aged building, that congregation left in 1997.
Now severely deteriorated after fourteen years of vacancy, AKI faces demolition. It will leave behind only a vacant lot—an all-too-common fate for urban churches in America. The restlessly mobile nature of American society has created a slew of cast-off religious buildings over the decades, raising the question of what should be done with vacant religious structures.
Many congregations opt to find buyers who will convert their former churches to new uses. In Chicago, numerous church buildings have had new floors inserted to convert them into apartment buildings. In St. Louis, the Catholic Church has disposed of its unneeded buildings in a variety of ways, selling them off as retirement homes, rehearsal spaces, theaters, and banquet halls. Many were sold to new congregations.
But when a church goes on the market, it becomes real estate, and location, as the cliché tells us, is everything. Though church buildings are commonly occupied by new congregations, they are rarely in the same economic strata as their predecessors. These churches of lesser means often inherit a building in need of extensive and costly repairs.
A structure like Anshe Kenesseth Israel, standing in Chicago's largely impoverished North Lawndale neighborhood, does not have much of a fighting chance on its own. Derelict neighborhoods in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis are dotted with magnificent churches standing vacant and abandoned, some to the point of collapse.
With abandonment being such a common problem for older churches, one might expect that outgoing congregations would be eager to see their buildings put to new use, but memory and money often dictate otherwise. In 2005, a lovely neighborhood church in St. Louis was demolished so that housing could be built on the site—and so that former parishioners would not have the memory of their church sullied by seeing it put to some other use. And last year in this column, Martin E. Marty gave an account of the preservation battle over Union Avenue Methodist Church in Memphis, whose dwindling numbers could no longer support their sizeable turn-of-the-century building; it was sold to CVS, who razed the building and replaced it with a common corner drug store.
Amid discussion of preserving or demolishing Union Avenue Methodist, there was no mention of what seemed to me the most obvious solution: putting the CVS in the church building. The wide-open floor space of a church sanctuary could easily accommodate the retail store. The neighborhood would have retained a local landmark and gained the services of the convenience store. The drugstore would get a monumental presence and the goodwill of the locals, as CVS did in Chicago when it opened a location in a grand and historic banking hall.
With so many churches endangered by sheer lack of resources, it can be disheartening to see others lost to economic demands or a distaste for repurposing a former religious space. Monumental religious buildings are integral parts of their community, shaping neighborhoods for the better, and remain a vital presence even after their congregations have departed—and so I continue to hope that Anshe Kenesseth Israel may yet be granted a reprieve.
Photographs of Anshe Kenesseth Israel, the Chicago synagogue threatened with demolition, can be found here.
More information on St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in St. Louis, demolished for housing in 2006, can be found here.
Martin E. Marty, "Memphis Church Preservation," Sightings, January 24, 2011.
Robert Powers documents and writes about historic architecture on his website Built St. Louis and on his blog A Chicago Sojourn. He received his Masters of Architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.