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Saving a Historic Worship Building in Chicago

Church Of Christ restores and preserves a historic worship building in Chicago while creating an opportunity to reach out to the surrounding community.


Nan: We’re in Chicago, Illinois right now, home to some of the most recognized architecture in the world.

But what happens when new architecture challenges old architecture? Can both exist in this vibrant city? We’ll find out on this episode of Blueprint.

I’m Nan Zapanta. As an industrial designer I spent years admiring the great designs of products, vehicles, and architectures from all over the world. But I found Architecture to be the most captivating. I love learning about each building, discovering the characteristics that make it unique and understanding the purpose behind it’s design. Most of all I love hearing the stories behind each structure and seeing God’s plan in putting it all together. Join us as we discover the Blueprint of the buildings and structures inside the Iglesia Ni Cristo.

It’s my first time here in Chicago and I got to tell you I’m in awe. There’s just so much to see! Got to love those doors. I’m trying to find where Willis tower is…oh I think these guys might know. Excuse me do you guys know where Willis Tower is? That way? Okay thanks!

But of all the buildings here in Chicago, there’s one I’ve been wanting to see more than the rest.

Once counted among the thousands of historic buildings at risk in Chicago, the renovation in 2015 helped bring life to this building and to the community it once served.

I met Richard Lee, one of the individuals instrumental in finding the property for the Church Of Christ. 

Richard: Our local [congregation] on Fullerton was getting too small, so we were canvassing for churches. We just so happened to ride through here because there was a fire down the street and RJ, one of the head deacons wanted to see it.

Nan: He wanted to see the fire?

Richard: He wanted to see the fire, so we rode through here and we said “Oh hey that’s a church right there. Let’s see if they want to sell it.” 

Nan: Built in 1926, it helped usher the city’s west side through the depression and World War II. But multiple fires, dwindling number of parishioners and a changing community led to the sale of the building in 2007 to the United Mission of Christ Lutheran Church, who later found themselves in a similar position.

Richard: We just so happened to approach them and asked them “Can we take a look?” and they said, “Well yes, we were thinking about selling.” 

Nan: God was guiding you.

Richard: Exactly, and we took it back to the ministers, they said, “Okay, let’s take a look at it.” and talked to us and from there boom boom boom. We were there. 

Nan: The building was purchased in 2014, and the restoration and renovation began shortly after. 

As far as its history, I mean it looks like it’s a historic building.

Richard: Yeah, you can’t change anything from the outside. But we can do renovations on the inside.

Nan: So the only exterior addition, was it just the seal? 

Richard: The seal. But they couldn’t stop us from doing that one. This is our Church. 

Nan: Right, exactly! So that’s something the city was fine with?

Richard: That’s right. They were more than cooperative with us. They said if that’s our seal, that’s fine.

Nan: And i’m actually excited to see the interior because I’m assuming you guys were able to do more with the interior. 

Richard: Yes, we did a lot to the interior.

Nan: Do you mind showing me around?

Richard: Be my guest!

Nan: Awesome. I noticed these are nice doors. 

Richard: The entrance way. 

Nan: So this is the first part of the lobby?

Richard: Exactly.

Nan: Those are, I’m assuming, those are the original windows.

Richard: Right. Everything here, as far as the windows, doors, and the locks, and everything that’s here, are all original.

Nan: And I see the lighting, the lanterns that are up there, are those original as well?

Richard: Yes they are. The Church (building) originally had eight to ten of these and we kept the ones out here because it added to the ambience to the corridor.

Nan: So you got a little bit of old, a little bit of new?

Richard: Little bit of new. 

Nan: What about these railings?

Richard: All of these are original. All the rails are original.

Nan: And this was just refinished?

Richard: All of this was just refinished.

Nan: Awesome! Yeah I mean, even the detail work here.

Richard: Oh you want to see some detail? Wait til we get inside. 

Nan: Okay I’m excited. Can we go check that out?

Richard: Let’s go.

Nan: The doors led us into the second foyer, where the former owners had windows looking into the main sanctuary.

As part of the renovation, the windows were replaced with solid wood, while the details on the ceiling, the lighting and the doors were restored to their original state. 

So I’m actually really excited because I’m assuming after these doors we get to go into the sanctuary?

Richard: You get to go into the sanctuary where you can see a lot more of that work I was telling you about. 

Nan: Awesome, let’s check it out, let’s check it out! 

Richard: Now, we go to the main sanctuary. 

Nan: The main sanctuary, wow!

In 1985, the building had sustained extensive fire damage in the worship area. While restoration efforts by the former owners restored certain areas of the building, others remained in disrepair, including the moldings and details found on the ceiling as well as both balcony wings.

Richard: As you notice, we tried to keep the same design all the way around.

Nan: So yeah with the molding on this area right?

Richard: Be quiet as a cat, don’t you be telling anybody this. This molding is actually styrofoam.

Nan: No way!

To replace the damaged ceiling design, styrofoam was cut to perfectly match the building’s original molding design. The styrofoam formed the base of the building’s original molding design. The styrofoam formed the base of the moldings. A layer of plaster was then added to solidify the moldings. The moldings were installed onto the ceiling where they were painted gold. 

And that’s a lot easier to install right? 

Richard: It’s a lot easier. The details, you know, you can’t really get the details to be exact unless you laser cut it on a machine. 

Look at the sides all the way around. You see all those indentations there? 

Nan: Yeah, yeah.

Richard: All those are original, [but] some of those have been broken out and we had a guy to recreate the exact same [design]. I can’t tell you which one he did, that’s how good he did it. 

Nan: Another area that sustained fire damage where the balconies on both sides of the sanctuary. At the time of purchase, plywood was being used to create temporary walls to mask the fire damage.

During the renovation, these walls were removed. The area was then fully restored, complete with fresh new pews, new coat of paint, and a restoration of the previously covered windows.

The renovation brought an opportunity to add additional lighting to brighten up the sanctuary. While most of the original lamps were preserved, a grand chandelier was added in the middle of the room as well as two layers of perimeter lighting, blue on the top level and white on the balcony level. The perimeter lighting is a very nice touch that isn’t commonly found in the INC (Iglesia Ni Cristo) houses of worship. This coupled with the light color, made the sanctuary much brighter than it had been for years.

Nan: Well it looks amazing, really looks amazing! I’ve never seen an interior that looks like this. I mean it’s definitely different.

While efforts were made to restore the building’s details to their original state, other areas like the choir loft and podium area underwent renovation to fit the INC (Iglesia Ni Cristo) design elements. 

Built to maintain the existing curvature of the area, the choir loft retained a very unique shape when compared to other INC (Iglesia Ni Cristo) houses of worship. While additional levels were added on the platform to make room for pews, for the choir, as well as the organist.

And to completely transform it into a Church Of Christ house of worship, a brand new podium was built and added into the sanctuary. 

Nan: You guys were able to preserve and add but then it all looks like it all works together. 

Richard: Right. That’s definitely what we were trying to do to make it all come together as one. 

Nan: Thank you so much for your time.

Richard: My pleasure.

Nan: Thank you for showing us around. 

I wanted to learn more about the preservation of historic buildings like this one, and so I went over to Preservation Chicago, a local nonprofit that aims to protect architecturally significant structures and neighborhoods across the city.

Ward: Good morning, good to see you, welcome! Welcome to Preservation Chicago, come on in!

Nan: Good morning, good to see you Thank you so much for having us!

Ward: And we believe that we can build healthy communities through historic preservation and landmarking.

Nan: Ward Miller is the executive director of Preservation Chicago. Some of the work they’ve done have involved a number of historic church buildings in Chicago

Ward: Well religious buildings are a challenge. We want to help these churches take a sort of an albatross off from around their neck. We understand that you know there aren’t the same amount of people every Sunday in the pews than there were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago or more.

Nan: Talking to Ward and listening to his efforts to preserve historic buildings in Chicago gave me a better understanding of what it meant for the Church Of Christ to restore the historic building on Mason Avenue.

Ward: When you demolish a building in a neighborhood of disinvestment and you’re taking away potential opportunities that could really be beneficial. So when I see an abandoned building I think of the possibilities. 

Nan: I think that’s an awesome thing that you’re trying to do and we really appreciate your efforts and we hope that you have more success-

Ward: Thank you, thank you.

Nan: And we see more preserved buildings around Chicago and even throughout the country. So thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you opening your doors to us. 

If you want to come by and stop by and just see what was done,

Ward: Yeah, yeah, no that’d be great! That’d be great. 

Nan: Because we just came from there this morning, it was my first time seeing it as well 

Ward: Okay.

Nan: And I was amazed because there was a real effort to preserve, even just with the walls rather than just creating whole new elements they went to as far as actually recreating what the original design elements were.

Ward: That’s fabulous!

Nan: Yeah and it’s really amazing to see.

If there’s a city that’s been able to artfully mesh new and old architecture, it definitely has to be Chicago.

This is actually an older building also. Looks like they just put a facade in front of it. A facade to make it look more modern. So if you could see right here towards the back of the building you’d see some of the older brick work and then there’s a front facade over it. This is an example of reusing the building and preserving the building but still using it and making it updated. Making it look more modern.

But merging of new and old isn’t just about the architecture of these buildings. I met up with Bong Sumang, a 2nd generation Filipino-American, whose parents migrated to the U.S. in the 1970’s.

Nan: So I was hoping that maybe you could tell me about your involvement here in Chicago, for this sanctuary. 

Bong: Well we were here to help if they needed us to move things or to carry things or you know to do little odds and ends. We were more than happy just to even do that.

Nan: With his father, an engineer, Bong and his siblings learned early on how to help care for worship buildings.

Bong: So when we were young, I mean we were always with my dad, so we learned how to do things you know carpentry, masonry, plumbing, all that kind of stuff. Even my brothers, my sister, you know, we all have our things that we do and so we could put it to use you know, in helping in the Church when there’s renovations or projects.

Nan: It’s Kind of like a collective wisdom.

Bong: Yeah and my dad he’s you know, he’s good at that you know, and not only him there’s some other engineers. There’s some other brethren, the head deacon that was here, he was an engineer too. We take our time to help, you know. That’s our brethren, it’s our Church, it’s where we worship. So of course, if we can help, why not?

Nan: It’s a concern that continues to be passed down as the Church Of Christ grows in the Midwest.

Bong: There’s so many brethren now, and that’s because also it helps to have houses of worship. It draws people. You know it’s a comfort that there’s a place to go.

Nan: It’s kind of like no matter where you are there’s like a home away from home.

Bong: Home away from home, yes it is. It’s not, like I said, it’s not just one person or a small group, it’s so many brethren who come to help to make sure that the house of worship is prepared for the day of worship or for the day of dedication, just so to make sure that God is pleased.

Nan: On the morning of March 7, 2015, after months of renovation, the historic building on Mason and Le Moyne was dedicated to God in a worship service led by Brother Eduardo V. Manalo, the Executive Minister of the Church Of Christ.

This made the building the 3rd house of worship for the local congregation of
Chicago, which has experienced continuous growth since a handful of Church Of Christ members began gathering in Chicago in 1971.

Among those who witnessed each Church of Christ house of worship in Chicago is Myrna Alvarado, who moved to the U.S. just months after the first gathering in 1971.

Nan: So when you first got here then, there was no house of worship yet?

Myrna: No, none.

Nan: In 1975 the first house of worship of the Church Of Christ in Chicago was purchased. 

Myrna’s family, like many of the pioneers, purchased a home near the house of worship. She still lives there today. 

Myrna: At that time, you know the brethren, you know there was still beginning. We’re still beginning and we have some work at the chapel so we can help out. It’s easy. 

Nan: It’s easy and you can stay late.

Myrna: Yeah you can stay late.

Nan: So this is the first house of worship of the local congregation of Chicago?

Myrna: Yeah.

Nan: I think I remember pictures of this from a long time ago.

Myrna: Right, yeah.

Nan: So is this how it looked when the congregation first moved here?

Myrna: Yes, it’s almost the same. 

Nan: For the most part.

Myrna: It’s just they took out the seal.

Nan: So how many brethren did fit in this [local] congregation?

Myrna: I think about 150.

Nan: By the 1990’s, the congregation had grown so much that a bigger place of worship was needed. 

Myrna: 6200 West Fullerton and we were really growing at that time.

Nan: Three additional congregations would be established in the late 1990’s, all within an hour of the Chicago house of worship.

Why do you think the blessings continue to pour here in Chicago?

Myrna: I think you know, I’ve been here long enough to see how the brethren here treat each other. The officers, there’s always unity. You know now we have young head deacons. But still you could still feel that although they’re young and most of the officers here in Chicago are the deacons and deaconesses, they’re at that advanced age, but we still respect the young leadership because it should be a mutual feeling. We respect them and they respect us.

Nan: It’s a connection that has also helped in the efforts to reach out to a community that once felt alienated by the building.

Ty: Our family’s been up here since 1998 and this is the first time someone up here in these churches have done anything up here like this.

Donna: Oh I think it’s going to do a great- it’s going to be a great access to this area.

Nan: One of the coolest things about visiting houses of worship like here in Chicago is meeting people who have found a special connection with the building. Like Ryan, who is often found in the lower level of the building. 

Woah what’s this? What do you have going on here Brother Ryan?

Ryan: This one is the podium for Detroit (house of worship]. Local [congregation] of Detroit. I’m just helping with it. 

Nan: What are your responsibilities in getting this together? 

Ryan: Oh you know, cutting and some you know, installing everything. I am helping out with it. 

Nan: So he’s kind of just like telling you which cuts to make? 

Ryan: Yeah with just what to do. 

Nan: So it’s safe to say there’s a lot of hours?

Ryan: It is a lot of hours.

Nan: Ryan Dela Cruz is one of the construction workers who worked on the restoration and the renovation of the building. Most notably, he helped paint the details on the ceiling of the worship building and power wash decades of dust and dirt off the building. 

But his connection to the Chicago worship building extends beyond his work in construction

You’re also a part time caretaker here in the [local] congregation?

Ryan: Yes i am.

Nan: So you directly take care of this building?

Ryan: I’m doing it you know, just because I really love the Church.

Nan: As a son of a caretaker, I feel a connection with Ryan.

When I see you it’s inspiring because I remember how hard my dad was working and I know. I know like the sacrifices that are made but the love that goes into that duty!

Ryan: It’s been five years since I became a member of this Church. Right now I’m trying to invite my family too, especially my mom in the Philippines, she’s a Bible Student now. 

Nan: Really? That’s amazing!

Ryan: Yeah!

Nan: So God is slowly answering your prayers.

Ryan: I know!

Nan: Well thanks again Brother Ryan!

Ryan: Alright, thanks.

Nan: We were about to end our day in Chicago, when I got a call from Ward Miller from Preservation Chicago. 

Nan: Hey Ward!

Ward: Hey there, how are you? Good to see you again.

Nan: Good to see you again.

Ward: Yeah it’s good to see you again.

Jojo: Jojo.

Ward: Jojo, alright and you’re the deacon here as well right?

Jojo: Yes.

Ward: And thank you for providing us a tour here.

Nan: Well we’ll just go ahead and make our way in.

Ward: Fabulous! Let’s go in, thank you so much!

Nan: We showed Ward some of the restoration work that was done throughout the building.

Ward: Oh very pretty! That’s very clean lined and very organized and sort of celebrates the clean lines of the architecture, if you will, right?

Nan: Right, right and the balcony, so we still have the balcony too, which I believe was damaged by fire prior to moving in here right?

Ward: Gotcha.

Jojo: Yeah, so what they did is, instead of repairing it, they covered it with drywall. 

Ward: They just covered it, right. Something we do, you know probably a dwindling or smaller congregation as time went on right?

Nan: Yeah I believe before they closed their doors there was only 10 members in the congregation? 

Ward: Members yeah. It was kind of sad that that happens you know. You kind of want to go out on a high note rather than a dwindling note but it seemed like they found a good patron right? 

Nan: Right, right.

Ward: With your church, this is all very fascinating and really a very pretty sanctuary. 

Nan: As we took Ward upstairs, I thought about the question that I came to Chicago with – Is it possible for new and old architecture to co-exist? Simply put, yes! But being here and meeting the people of Chicago, I’ve also learned that it’s more than just a simple weaving of old and new design. It’s making sure that the generations that will follow will understand its value and ensure its existence. 

Ward: Yeah it’s even better vantage point huh?

Nan: Right, right. Yeah the vantage point and there’s a lot more seating up here as well for the congregants. 

Ward: Well it’s very nice and like I said it’s very refreshing and uplifting right?

Nan: Right.

Ward: And it’s just beautiful space. So really wonderful job you guys, kudos, kudos!

Nan: Thank you

Ward: Absolutely great meeting you. Great meeting you too. 

Nan: Well it’s been a great trip here in Chicago. Definitely so many stories to share and so much architecture to explore, we’ll have to come back! 

But thanks for joining us today on this episode of Blueprint where in the end, everything is part of God’s plan.


Available downloads

Saving a Historic Worship Building in Chicago