You could create an entire city out of the beautiful buildings Chicago has destroyed over the past 150 years: the old Federal Building, the original Stock Exchange, even the world’s first skyscraper. Not to mention dozens of once-great buildings that are still standing, yet empty and closed to the public. Some of the latter—like the Uptown Theatre and St. Stephen’s Church in Hyde Park—may be destined for the wrecking ball. But thanks to community leaders and preservation societies, these five historic structures will be restored, rehabbed, or redeveloped in the next year or two.
Pullman Clock Tower and Administration Building
11057 South Cottage Grove Avenue (Pullman)
In the 1880s, railroad magnate George Pullman built a Victorian “company town” on the Far South Side of Chicago, a planned, park-like complex where his employees could live and work — and where Pullman could charge them rent. The centerpiece was this ornate clock tower, which anchored the massive Administration Building and greeted visitors when they stepped off the train. Eventually, the railroad industry declined, the Pullman Company shuttered, and the factory buildings were abandoned.
Then in 2015, President Obama designated the site a National Monument, leading to renewed interest and federal funds for renovation. The current plan is for Chicago-based architects to turn the clock tower into a visitor center as part of a push for the entire campus to become a fully fledged National Park. “We envision the Visitor Center and Clock Tower as being the heart of the community as it becomes the entry and focal point for more than 300,000 anticipated annual visitors,” said the National Park Service earlier this year.
St. Boniface Church
1358 W. Chestnut Street (West Town)
The original St. Boniface pre-dates the Great Chicago Fire, established in 1865 by German immigrants in Noble Square. The red-brick Romanesque version that looms over Eckhart Park today was constructed between 1902 and 1904, with three bell towers and a soaring nave covered in religious art. The Archdiocese of Chicago closed the church in 1990, but neighbors have been fighting to save it from demolition ever since.
The city was days away from destroying it last fall when a developer who lives three blocks away, Michael Skoulsky, bought the site with the help of Preservation Chicago. The interior will be rehabbed into 17 residential units along with 24 units next door, while the empty lot to the north will become a satellite campus for the nonprofit Chicago Academy of Music, based in Hyde Park. Originally, the music school wanted to keep the sanctuary intact as a performance space, but it was too dilapidated to restore.
Agudas Achim Synagogue
5029 N. Kenmore Avenue (Uptown)
Agudas Achim is one of Chicago’s most interesting architectural case studies—a wild combination of Romanesque Revival, Spanish, and Art Deco styles. When it was constructed in 1922, Uptown’s Jewish population was so large, even a 2,200-seat sanctuary wasn’t large enough to hold the entire congregation. On major holidays, services would be relocated to the nearby Aragon Ballroom.
But in the decades since, most of Uptown’s Jewish families have moved south to East Lake View or further west to Lincolnwood and Skokie. Agudas Achim has been closed to the public since 2008, long enough to suffer serious vandalism and water damage. Demolition seemed likely until last spring, when a developer bought the property with an eye toward studio and one-bedroom apartments. Like St. Bonafice above, the sanctuary will be lost forever. Your last chance to see the stained glass windows behind its 30-foot ark might be this young urban explorer’s Youtube video.
225 South Canal Street (Loop)
That’s not a misprint. Even though the Great Hall beneath Union Station’s giant skylight has remained open for the past 92 years, an additional 700,000 square feet above, around, and beneath it was gradually shuttered as the railroad industry declined. Restaurants, lounges, and other grand public spaces have been dark for decades.
That’s a shame, considering the Beaux Arts masterpiece was designed by Daniel Burnham himself. Luckily, Union Station is in the middle of a $1-billion, six-year redevelopment process. The new modern towers that will rise above the roof are getting all the press, but abandoned parts of the original structure will be repurposed as well, to make room for new restaurants, retail, and public spaces. The lavish former Women’s Lounge, for instance, reopened as a private event space last fall. Sadly, we’ll never see the Grand Concourse again, which was even larger and more opulent than the Great Hall. It was demolished in 1969 to make way for the Fifth Third Center at 222 South Riverside Plaza.
Washington Park Roundhouse
Across 57th Street from DuSable Museum (Washington Park)
The architect Daniel Burnham is famous for designing the White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, as well as a few landmark buildings in the Loop — the Monadnock, the Rookery, and Union Station, for starters. But you’ve probably never heard of the 61,000-square foot horse stables he built in 1871, now known as the Washington Park Roundhouse. While not exactly abandoned, it’s been underutilized since the 1930s, when it was used to store costumes and sets for local theaters.
However, the structure sits right across the street from the DuSable Museum of African-American History, which has grand renovation plans thanks to new leadership (including board member Chance the Rapper). Expanding into the Roundhouse would almost double the museum’s current size, making room for a library, classrooms, and offices. That’s still a year or two away, but the Roundhouse will open to the public for the first time in decades next month during EXPO Chicago as an exhibition space for Palais de Tokyo.
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