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Wicker Park Gets a Radical Rental Option in This Converted Church

The 1879 structure at Damen and Evergreen Avenues was built for a Methodist congregation, but is now concerned with the affluent renter; its 11 apartments are some of the flashiest you’ll find anywhere.

The handsome church is getting its final touch-ups as tenants move in.   Photo: Ian Spula

Want to rent in a landmarked Church? The only one converted to rentals that I, or the developer, know of in Chicago is a new dazzling fixture in Wicker Park. The 1879 structure, originally a Methodist church, now has 11 high-rent apartments featuring restored cathedral-sized stained glass windows and ceilings climbing to 33 feet in second-floor units.

The units are all rented but I still weaseled my way in on Wednesday (with the help of management). One of the larger duplex spaces also had tasteful midcentury furnishings, which certainly helped the photography. Jean Dufresne, principal of Space Architects and Planners, was along for the ride and gave solid insights into working with old church bones. The property was acquired by Jim Jann and JAB Real Estate in 2013 as a rundown landmark that the congregation had abandoned a few years earlier under the strain of maintenance costs. “The back section of the ground floor was flooded because of a burst pipe,” says Dufresne. “Pigeons were everywhere. Kids threw rocks at the stained glass, so a lot of that had to be replaced.”

Happily, not a lot of ornamentation was lost because there wasn’t much to begin with. The church was designed with protestant simplicity, and so the job of builder and architect was mainly to stay true to materials and preserve ceiling heights and interior alignments with towering windows. “Working with three landmarked facades was a little more challenging than working with one,” says Dufresne.

Construction started in January, and even with move-ins Jann’s people continue to put the finishing touches on the hallways, exterior, and landscaping. A cherry picker was hoisting workers to the roof to apply new stained glass and copper panels in accordance with Landmarks. The patina that shows up almost instantly isn’t the green we’re all used to but a dingy brown. As Dufresne explains, pollutants in the air and rain cause this abnormal discoloration, although green will eventually set in.

With rentals as the intent, most of the units have parity in bedroom sizes. Exposed tie rods that look a lot like water pipes crisscross the spaces, adding support to the buttresses. And the floors in upper level units cut across the midsection of some of the windows so that those ornate, rounded windows are climbing up from the floor like fireplaces. The floors themselves are done in a lower grade knotty hardwood because it seemed better suited to the old structure. The six units at the ground level lose out on soaring ceilings and the boldest architectural details but still have respectable 10-12 foot ceilings, nice living areas, and a touch of stained glass.

Ralph Michelini and his wife snatched up one of the two-bed top floor units with the cathedral windows and ceilings. They left a five-bedroom, five-bath house in the city for simpler living in an exciting neighborhood. “It was past time to downsize. We actually had seven TVs and seven cable boxes,” says Michelini. “My wife and I just sort of stumbled into this. There aren’t other places like it. The space is small for us, but it’s easy on the eyes and it’s fun to live in the neighborhood. We’re probably in this for a couple of years.”

In some cases boutique rentals with distinctiveness are taking the place of condo projects. “We felt this would be perfect for an area that’s always drawn an edgier crowd,” says Jann. And the tenant profile has played into that. There are older couples, young singles, and artists—all of decent means. The former parsonage set behind the church is the project’s 12th unit, and even with five bedrooms, four baths, and a $5,400/month price tag, four young guys claimed it for a bachelor pad.

Price Points: The church units range in size from 700 to over 1,500 square feet, although the absurd ceiling heights distort the sense of space. Rents start at $1,700 for first floor one-beds and reach $4,000 for the largest three-beds. Three blocks from the Damen Blue Line and one block from Wicker Park, the park, such steep rents are par for the course.

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