Lest you think Buffalo is some sad anomaly of urban decay and God forsaken (literally) lack of appreciation for its heritage, I bid you look to Chicago. Why Chicago? Well it seems this mighty and prosperous city on Lake Michigan is set to experience its own form of Church-ectomy not unlike the proposal to remove Buffalo’s magnificent St. Gerard’s and transport it to a suburban Atlanta parking lot. Chicago will actually be losing two churches. Like Buffalo the churches are being stripped from majority African American neighborhoods. Also like Buffalo there is little will to fight the strip-mining of urban heritage.
The arguments are the same – the buildings will be saved (or in the Chicago case only portions will be saved), the neighborhood is no longer Catholic, they are too expensive to maintain for other uses, etc. Here is the first story I wrote about Buffalo’s St Gerard’s prior to the Atlanta proposal.
The Chicago churches are magnificent and this story makes me every bit as sad as the Buffalo conundrum. Local built environment enthusiast, architectural critic, and keen observer of our American culture, Lee Bey recently wrote in his Blog: “Lee Bey’s Chicago-beyond the boat tour” about the two Chicago churches here. They are scheduled to be dismantled with portions reassembled into a new super church in a distant Chicago suburb. Lee writes that the front face of the South Side’s St. John of God Church will be disassembled and recombined with the interior artifacts of the St. Peter Canisius Church. I am sure the result will be wonderful. Bey reports that the unused portions of the St. John of God church will be demolished and the site landscaped.
Mr. Bey writes further writes. “The move marks a potential sea change in the Chicago archdiocese’s position on shuttered churches. For decades, the archdiocese simply wrecked unused churches-an act that took some of the city’s most breathtaking neighborhood architecture. In the last decade, Catholic officials began to keep and batten down empty churches. The buildings were spared the wrecker’s ball, but have been slowly ravaged by time and weather. Gambla said church officials see the St. Raphael effort as “something that may even occur more in the future. Because we are saving the patrimony of the diocese by reusing it.”
To me this is an ominous trend and a warning shot to people interested in saving our American heritage rather than saving its just its artifacts. Buffalo is not alone in fighting this battle. Its not such a new battle either early destruction of the city at the hands of suburban communities came in the form of highways. Buffalo lost parks and parkways to this onslaught. So did Chicago. Now the built heritage of our historic cities is being packed up and carted out on those highways.
A word about Lee Bey, Anyone(Chicagoan or not) interested in Architecture will love reading his blog hosted by local PBS radio station WBEZ. He sees buildings in context both physical and cultural and has a great way of showing you what you should have already been seeing. He is well known in Chicago and is extremely knowledgeable about architecture. He served as the Chicago Sun Times Architectural Critic before doing a stint as one of Mayor Daley’s chief advisors from which he moved on to work for the iconic Chicago Architectural firm SOM. His current activities are too numerous to list.
Images of St. John of God by Lee Bey.