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Lutheran School of Theology

The Lutheran School of Theology building is just north of 55th Street in Hyde Park.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? Lutheran and McCormick schools of theology

The University of Chicago bought land from two of its neighbors last month when it purchased buildings shared by two theology schools just north of 55th Street.

For $18 million, the university acquired two buildings on a 3.5-acre parcel.

One building, the Lutheran School of Theology building, is a U-shaped modernist treat from 1967 whose bronze-ribbed upper stories cantilever over a glassy first floor. Hefty concrete pillars shaped like giant bells support the weight of the upper level.

The other, the McCormick Theological Seminary, was built in 2003 to turn the U-shaped Lutheran School building into a four-sided square. The newer structure is made of brick, glass and pronounced metal frames, with slender pillars supporting cantilevered bits.

McCormick is not quite as simple as the first building, but a pretty good complement to the original. They’re attached by a skybridge and surround a broad, grassy courtyard that creates the effect of secluded cloisters within their urban surroundings.

The three schools announced the deal last year. For McCormick, at least, the deal is a huge money-loser. Its building, the smaller of the two, was built in 2003 for $22 million. They first put it up for sale in 2009, when the building was just 6 years old.

As of now, the two theology schools are still in the space as tenants — this summer the Lutheran school will move to the fourth floor of the Catholic Theological Union, about eight blocks away on Cornell.

David Crawford, president of the McCormick school, confirmed via email that his institution hasn't yet determined where it will move.

“We are considering several opportunities in and around Hyde Park and have yet to finalize our decision on a new location,” Crawford wrote. “McCormick will continue to have a vital presence in the City of Chicago and the communities we serve.”

A UChicago spokesperson said the university hasn’t decided exactly how it will use the 172,000 square feet the buildings contain.

“Although a specific long-term use has not been finalized, the university anticipates the adaptive reuse of the buildings that will support its educational and research mission,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The university doesn’t appear to be thinking about demolishing the Lutheran building — though officials haven’t guaranteed they won’t.

When it opened in 1967, the Lutheran building was a new idea for a religious school. The school was moving from a suburban campus — where it occupied 16 buildings on 16 acres in Maywood — where it had been since 1910. Before that, it was on the site that is now Wrigley Field.

In 1967, the school’s president, Dr. Stewart Herman, told the Chicago Tribune they were moving from “training ministers in secluded, meditative surroundings [to] training in a urban environment of the type in which most ministers ultimately will work.”

The new campus would replace not only one in Maywood, but also campuses in Rock Island, Ill., and Fremont, Neb.

The next year, a writer in Architectural Record described the building as “refreshingly free of any trace of obvious religious symbolism, and indeed has as much 20th century technological elan as the most advanced secular building.”

The Chicago architecture firm Perkins & Will designed the new building on 55th Street, setting it on a slight rise of ground and then setting the glass-wrapped first floor back from view so the cantilever makes the second and third floors appear to float above the ground, supported only by those bell-shaped pillars.

Not everyone was thrilled to see the new location get built. The site was one of many in Hyde Park and Kenwood the University of Chicago cleared as part of its vast urban renewal effort of the mid-20th century, when it tried to wall itself off from the racial transition happening on the South Side. Neighbors on surrounding blocks expressed concerns at public meetings that the school would use eminent domain powers to clear more blocks around the site. But a UChicago official said the school has “no plans to be big land owners and we have no right of eminent domain.”

The three-sided building got a fourth side in 2003, when the McCormick school joined the Lutheran School on the block. McCormick is the older of the two schools, founded in 1829 in Hanover, Ind., near Louisville, as the Presbyterian Indiana Theological Seminary. In 1859, Cyrus McCormick, rich from his McCormick Harvesting Machine Company (the predecessor of International Harvester, now Navistar), gave Indiana Theological Seminary 20 acres and $100,000, and the school moved to Chicago. The cash amount was equivalent to giving more than $3.6 million today.

McCormick was based next to DePaul University in Lincoln Park from 1859 until it moved into the Lutherans’ Hyde Park building in 1975. In 2003, McCormick built the fourth side of the square.

Designed by M+W Zander, a German architecture firm with a Chicago office, and MekusTanager Planning & Design, also based here, the building tries to continue the ideas of the original without mimicking it. But one detail is a metaphor for the fact that by the time the building was 6 years old, it was already too heavy a financial burden for the school.

While the first building has handsome, solid concrete feet that suggest huge church bells, the second building supports its cantilever with skinny round columns. Those columns make the building look like it’s standing on stilts, trying to avoid rising waters — or rising debts.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him on Instagram @true_chicago.

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