In Hammond, just over the state line in Indiana, there’s a church that not only saves souls — it saves buildings.
A pillared 19th-century bank, a monumental, art deco-style U.S. courthouse from the 1930s and a midcentury modernist parking garage draped in concrete diamonds are among the buildings that are part of the seven-square-block campus of the First Baptist Church of Hammond.
In all, the church owns about 20 buildings along State and Sibley streets, a few of which the church built, but most of which it has bought up over the years.
Along those blocks, you’ll find the multicolored terra cotta that wraps an old L. Fish Furniture store built in 1927, the spiked parapet of the old Lincoln Hotel built in 1923 and a block lined on both sides with 1960s church buildings patterned with dozens of crosses made of raised brick.
It’s like an outdoor architecture museum, 23 miles southeast of the Loop.
“We’ve been here for 135 years; we’re part of the history of Hammond,” said Eddie Lapina, the church’s administrative pastor who is responsible for the buildings. “If we can help preserve some of its historical character, we like doing it.”
First Baptist dates to 1887 in Hammond and has been on Sibley Avenue since 1889. In 2012, the church made headlines when its pastor, 54-year-old Jack Schaap, pleaded guilty to charges related to his sexual exploitation of a 16-year-old girl whose parents had asked him to counsel her. In May of this year, he was released from prison after serving nine years of a 12-year sentence. Schaap’s was the most high profile of several sex-related lawsuits leveled against men connected to the church since the 1990s.
As the church moves forward with current leadership, it is tending to a set of old buildings that otherwise might have been lost to neglect. Lapina estimates the church “has spent close to $50 million on rehabbing [buildings] on State and Sibley” over the years.
Most of the buildings are used for church programs.
Building B, now the home of programs for hearing-impaired congregants, is in a Renaissance Revival-style lodge building from 1924, with bands of carved ornament and slender arched windows across the façade. It was originally the social hall of the local Odd Fellows, a social group, and later a plumbing supply company. The church bought the former US Courthouse and Post Office back in 2009. That building was built in 1939 with a smooth limestone finish, and is now the administrative center for the church, with restored brass fixtures, terrazzo floors and the judges’ benches from the two courtrooms repurposed as information kiosks. The old Hotel Lincoln now houses men recovering from addiction.
First Baptist has also demolished a few structures. Just last month, it took down the old Friduss furniture store, a two-story structure that Lapin said was beyond repair. In 2005, the church opened its main, 7,500-seat auditorium on the site where it tore down the old Minas Department Store, a 1913 structure.
On the next block is one of two midcentury, red brick buildings whose outside walls make up the street filled with crosses. The larger one of the two, which now houses the Spanish-language section of First Baptist, is a 1960s building built around a 1920s building. Chuy Gonzales, the church member who manages maintenance of the campus, pointed out the cornerstone, which is from 1964. He also showed an interior doorway flanked with carved stone pillars and, overhead, the words “That We May Know Him.” This is from First Baptist’s 1920s church, which is now concealed inside the 1964 building.
The 1960s were a time of booming growth for First Baptist, under pastor Jack Hyles (Schaap’s father-in-law). Hyles came up from Texas in 1959 to lead the Indiana church. By 1975, it was a nationally known megachurch with, according to a Time magazine article, 22,000 members and the “world’s largest Sunday School.”
First Baptist was a strict fundamentalist church, but with a carnival-like atmosphere. There were free goldfish, ice cream for kids, bands and a huge bus caravan that brought people down from Chicago every Sunday. Gonzales, the maintainer of the campus, was one of them. He started coming in from North Lawndale in the early 1970s and now, five decades later, is still at the church. He now lives nearby.
First Baptist has “always been important in my life,” Gonzales said. It’s also been important in preserving the town’s architectural history.
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.
K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.