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The Flaying of St. John

A few months ago I wrote about St. John of God Church in Chicago (see here).  The closed and vacant church has been sold to another congregation in the Chicago suburbs and is currently being strip mined for reassembly several miles from the site it was designed for.  The interior of this church and all of its substructure will be sent to the dump.  The interior of another closed Chicago church will be assembled behind the facade of this church.  This Chicago scenario is disturbingly similar to the proposal for St. Gerard’s in Buffalo, which Catholic Church leaders are planning to send to suburban Atlanta. 

Many have praised this move to the south as a perfect solution to an intractable problem.  People in Buffalo seemingly have no use for this important part of their cultural heritage and people in Atlanta desperately want to pretend they have a long standing cultural heritage.  This has been described by the pro move people as a win win situation.  Buffalo divests itself of a future eyesore and the building is put back to use. The only two scenarios presented so far make the Atlanta move seem logical, either in Buffalo the building rots for decades or in Atlanta it is put back to use and “saved”. Except, the building is not really saved.    

St. Johns is a good view into Buffalo’s sad future if the St. Gerard’s scheme is carried out. One of best architectural writers and observers anywhere, Lynn Becker,  has penned the story included here in full by his  permission.  Lynn has written extensively on Architecture in Chicago.  His work can be found in several publications as well as his own blog called Architecture Chicago Plus in which the following story on St. John appeared.  His blog is worth reading even for those not in Chicago.  Becker’s story on St. John is deeply moving and poetic.  The accompanying photos are beautiful and disturbing at the same time.  Read this story and take in the future reality of “saving”  St. Gerard’s by sending it to a suburban parking lot near Atlanta.

The Flaying of St. John by Lynn Becker

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The distant view, through Sherman Park, is a glimpse of something weird, almost Gaudian.

As you get to the edge of the park, at 52nd street, you come upon the immensity of it.

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The story of St. John of God church is one repeated throughout the changing neighborhoods of every city. A great house of worship built to serve an influx of immigrants – in this  case, Polish.  Designed by Henry J. Schlacks, whose Renaissance facade was described by the AIA Guide to Chicago as a masterpiece, St. John of God was completed in 1920.  By 1922, 2,400 families called it their parish.  Then, as the story always goes, those families begin to disperse as white flight claims the neighborhood.  Membership plummets, and, in 1992, the church is closed, a grand edifice sealed for an uncertain future.  In time, after few can even remember when the building was active, it’s demolished. 

A piece of architecture that defined the lives of tens of thousands of people vanishes into thin air.

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Except St. John of God doesn’t.  To be sure, the building will soon be forgotten history.  It’s carved limestone, however, lives on.  Carefully, it was peeled away, to be re-assembled on a new church for St. Raphael the Archangel in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border.

For now, a single automobile tire rests incongruously in the foyer.  Rubble is everywhere, even framing the great altar.

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Mosaics disintegrate like pixels fading to white.

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The destruction of St. John of God, and so many others like it, is testament to a society where everything is disposable. With their massive scale, solidity, and classical grandeur, structures like St. John look like they were built to endure forever.  Now, stripped down to raw brick, it looks like a monument from some not-quite-placeable ancient civilization.

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All of Schlack’s Renaissance finish and  detailing scraped away, St. John now appears timeless, its architectural style malleable and mysterious.  The ruined entrance looks like it could be some ancient shrine in the Holy Land.

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The stripped pillars of the bell towers resemble Mayan columns.

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This is the afterimage, lingering in the eye for a millisecond before disappearing forever.  But in that brief time, it brands itself into your consciousness.  Is this what’s beneath our dreams?  Is this a ruin, or is this the essence?  Too real, too primal, not to have us gild it in polished finish?

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