There’s a glorious secret concealed behind a relatively modest, opaque façade on Clark Street just south of Madison Street in the Loop.
In the tall shadow of the 56-story Chase Bank tower, a little four-story building hardly draws attention with an exterior that appears like a dark, dusty grid. But inside the building, the Loop Synagogue, the secret is revealed: The rear of that dark and dusty wall is a spectacular display of stained glass that stretches 30 feet high and 45 feet wide.
It’s the east wall of a beautifully modern sanctuary, is limestone made to look like blocks cut at angles to evoke the ancient stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The sanctuary is also home to a row of tall, impossibly slender columns — a trademark of mid-20th century architecture — that support the ceiling.
The windows, monumental in scale and completed in 1961, depict many symbols and icons of Judaism.
“This is a treasure in Chicago,” said Lee Zoldan, the synagogue’s president. Yet it’s a rarely seen treasure.
Membership at the synagogue, which was built in 1957, was already declining before the pandemic — down to about 425 members from nearly 1,500 in the early 1990s. Then the pandemic hit, and the synagogue’s three services a day, five days a week, suddenly had very little audience. Members generally aren’t Loop residents but Loop workers, Zoldan said. Services also attract visitors from other cities and countries, but that too has been severely curtailed since March 2020.
Architecture tours come through the space, but on the biggest day for tours, Saturday, they can’t because it’s the Sabbath. And since nothing on the outside of the building hints at the spectacle within, pedestrians are rarely intrigued enough to check out the interior.
The congregation has no debt on the building, Zoldan said, and is not in danger of shutting down overnight, but “we look out at the next few years, and we need to do something now, before it’s too late.”
Zoldan, who lives downtown and has been the synagogue’s president since 2017, said the congregation has made budget cuts to keep going. Most significant: it hasn’t had a rabbi since 2016. They also haven’t spent the money to clean the outside of the stained glass, with the result that it looks even more opaque than it ordinarily would.
The congregation’s greatest asset right now is its colossal stained-glass window, Zoldan believes. The windows are the work of Abraham Rattner, a midcentury artist based in New York and Paris. Rattner taught briefly at the University of Illinois, and likely came into contact with Jerrold Loebl, whose firm was designing the synagogue. Loebl himself was an officer of the synagogue, said Michael Landau, an architect of synagogues who has researched the Chicago Loop synagogue.
The Orthodox congregation was founded in 1929 and built a synagogue on this site in the mid-1930s that was later destroyed by fire.
Landau found an original rendering of the building. On the façade there was to be a giant sculpted menorah, which would have been an interesting counterpoint to the giant figure of Jesus on the crucifix sculpted on the façade of St. Peter’s Catholic church, built in 1953 right around the corner, on Madison Street.
Landau hasn’t determined how the plan got changed to include this enormous stained glass window instead, but both he and Zoldan said they’re happy it changed. A menorah, Landau said, is “a ubiquitous symbol on synagogues,” while a vast stained glass window gives this space a “uniquely beautiful” look, particularly in the hours when the sun illuminates the glass.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of services held prior to the pandemic.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.