Converting an architecturally-noted Chicago synagogue into apartments

The conversion of religious buildings into residential units is interesting to me (see earlier posts here and here). Here is another example from Chicago: an Uptown synagogue that was on preservation lists will be turned into apartments.

Originally built by architect Henry Dubin of the firm Dubin and Eisenberg in 1922, the former religious structure at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue features a dramatic stained glass-lined sanctuary plus attached offices, classrooms, a commercial kitchen, and various multi-purpose rooms.

After closing its doors to the public in 2008, the building faced an uncertain future. Despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance left much of the structure in poor condition. In 2015, the synagogue earned a spot on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecturally significant buildings.

Chicago-based developer and adaptive reuse specialist Cedar Street Companies acquired the property last year for $1.25 million…

Branded as simply ‘The Synagogue,’ Cedar Street’s residential conversion is slated to include eight studio apartments, 32 one-bedroom apartments, and a 21-car parking lot.

Saying that you live at “The Synagogue” has a certain ring to it.

It would be interesting to think about if reactions of different kinds of religious buildings differ depending on the religious tradition. Certain religious groups have different conceptions of religious buildings. In other words, some see the religious space as more sacred or fundamental to their practices than others. For example, the academic literature on the white flight of religious groups in the post-World War II era suggests that different groups found it easier or harder to leave their structures. At the same time, I’m guessing that a good number of these reconversions of religious buildings happen a while after the building was used by its primary congregation.

The stories of Chicago synagogues that became black churches

An article in the Chicago Tribune takes a look at black churches in Chicago that once were synagogues. Here is how this happened:

[Historian Irving] Cutler observed that ethnic groups often follow each other through Chicago’s neighborhoods. The patterns are regular: Mexicans trailed Czechs and Slovaks from Pilsen to Little Village and Cicero, for example, Cutler said. Blacks have followed Jews — westward from Maxwell Street to Lawndale and Austin; southward from the Near South Side to Bronzeville and South Shore.

Like other immigrants, Jews came to this country hoping their children would have opportunities denied them in the Old Country. For a while, they couldn’t realize part of the American dream: a nice home on a tree-lined street in a bucolic community. Some suburbs were restricted, others unfriendly to Jews.

“Then came World War II and the GI Bill which enabled veterans to become homeowners,” Cutler said. “There weren’t many single-family homes with nice yards in Lawndale. It was a neighborhood of two-flats and apartment buildings. So they went to the suburbs.”

Synagogues were sold to black congregations, whose members still couldn’t follow their previous owners to many suburbs in a region still often defined by racial and ethnic lines.

Interesting sociological history here. I was recently telling a class about the rapid shifts in Chicago neighborhoods in the mid twentieth century, how a neighborhood might go from being 90% white to 90% black in a ten year stretch. I don’t think they were able to comprehend this very well; we generally aren’t used to seeing such rapid social change and we tend to think that places will keep following the same course unless some large social force intervenes such as the closing of a major job provider. (Perhaps this helps explain NIMBY behavior – if they can, people will fight against any social force altering their neighborhood.) But in Chicago and many other American cities, this kind of rapid racial and demographic change once occurred regularly and altered many neighborhoods and communities.

It would be interesting to hear more about the sale of these synagogues. As Jews moved to the suburbs, did they sell their houses of worship at a fair market value or did they sell them for cheaper? Were there any hard or bitter feelings about having one’s house of worship turned over to another faith?