As a child growing up in Hyde Park, Rivka Hozinsky watched people coming and going from the Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist, a building that commanded attention among a block of historical houses and one-flats.
But today, the sanctuary sits empty and crumbling. So Hozinsky asked RESET: “What’s the story of the long-abandoned church at East 57th Street and Blackstone Avenue?”
Built in 1917 (some sources say 1915) for the Christian Science denomination, the church has a classical revival entry. Tall stone columns support a hefty, carved crown, and two monumental walls curve out on both sides like a pair of unfurled scrolls. Beginning in the 1960s, it housed the St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ.
But since 1997, the building has sat empty, as multiple owners have struggled to redevelop the structure.
The building has been owned by Zhendong “John” Liu since 2015, who would not offer WBEZ free access inside. However, over the years other explorers have gotten in, including prominent architecture writer Lee Bey and photographer Eric Holubow.
Bey’s pictures show a colossal dome with a glass central aperture to let the sun into the grand space it hangs over. In Holubow’s photos, taken in 2009, you can see the ravages of time: Crumbling plaster lie all over the bare floor, graffiti is on the walls and big scars mark places where ornamental pieces were torn off.
The church, designed by Coolidge and Hodgdon, was meant to be an idealized, classically-inspired space — more like a stately Roman temple than a traditional Christian sanctuary. The design was largely inspired by Chicago architect Spencer Solon Beman, who famously planned the town (today the neighborhood) of Pullman and has been called the “chief theorist of Christian Science architecture.”
After Beman converted to the Christian denomination around 1907, he felt its churches should represent the style of early Christians, not the overly romanticized Gothic style of later Catholicism, according to an article written by a church librarian.
At one time, there were 17 active Christian Science churches in Chicago. Many of the buildings survive, but have been transformed into apartments or are used by other Christian denominations.
Liu, the developer who bought the Hyde Park church, hopes to fill its cavernous, domed interior with condominiums. He paid $650,000 nearly six years after the previous developer-owner, Konstantinos Antoniou, lost the building in foreclosure.
But his plan has stalled for years, in part because of a long-running conflict with neighbors, city officials and preservationists over what can or should be saved.
According to Liu, the hold-up is due to an agreement between a previous owner, neighbors and city officials. That owner agreed to put parking for the condo’s residents in the building’s basement. But Liu says soil tests show the water table is too high. The alternative, putting the parking at ground level, would require demolishing the building’s stunning facade. In several emails to city officials Liu shared with me, he pleaded for leeway on the off-street parking requirements “for the love of this building.”
The city of Chicago declined to comment on the development, other than to point to the public record.
There’s another factor that may be slowing Liu’s attempt to revitalize the church: He is also in the midst of redeveloping a different historical church, the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist in Kenwood. Built in 1914 and also designed by Beman, the building has been vacant since 2003. Like its peer on Blackstone, the church has seen a couple of development plans fail.
Liu bought the Kenwood church for $650,000 in 2014. An extensive rebuild retained the façade and some interior spaces. The 13 townhouses created first went up for sale in July 2019, with asking prices starting at $1.17 million. More than two years later, real estate and Cook County records indicate none of the units have sold. Meanwhile 43 townhouses have sold in Kenwood, according to the real estate site Redfin, at prices that top out at about $560,000 — half the cost of buying in the old Fifth Church.
Liu said five of the units are owned and will be occupied by investors in the project, and only eight are for sale. Public records don’t identify the investors, and Liu declined to do so.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.