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City moves to tear down historic West Side synagogue

Exterior Shepherd's Temple 3411 W. Douglas Blvd. Friday Dec. 23 2011 Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Exterior of the Shepherd's Temple, 3411 W. Douglas Blvd., Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, in Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 26, 2012 8:18AM

For nearly 50 years, Anshe Kanesses Israel synagogue was at the center of Jewish life on Chicago’s West Side.

Later, the Rev. Martin Luther King stood on its steps and exhorted 3,500 followers to march on City Hall.

Today. the building at 3411 W. Douglas Blvd.stands vacant and deteriorated, “in imminent danger of collapse,” according to the city’s building department, which is seeking bids to tear it down.

The synagogue was built in 1913 by Russian-Jewish immigrants who had moved from the teeming Maxwell Street ghetto to the wide, green spaces of Douglas and Independence boulevards in the Lawndale neighborhood.

Designed in the Byzantine-revival style by Aroner and Somers, who also built movie theaters, the synagogue became the most prominent of more than 70 Jewish houses of worship in the area serving a community of more than 80,000 Jews.

“On high holidays, it would be packed with people,” says Irving Cutler, the author of The Jews of Chicago: from Shtetl to Suburb and other books on the Jewish experience.

“The women sat upstairs in this orthodox synagogue, and, on warm days, you’d have a lot of people who couldn’t get in listening to the cantor sing through the open windows,” says Cutler, a professor emeritus of urban geography at Chicago State University.

Lawyers, doctors and businessmen called the congregation home, and the building was kept open late into the night. “You could go in there at midnight, and you’d find elderly men with long, white beards studying the Talmud,” Cutler says.

But after World War II, Jews, wanting homes of their own, began moving out of the apartments in the neighborhood, and blacks started moving in.

Unlike many other neighborhoods, the transition was peaceful, and synagogues in the area, including Anshe Kanesses, were sold to African-American congregations.

On July 24, 1965, King came to the former synagogue, which was then the Friendship Baptist Church. It was his eighth and last stop of the day on a speaking tour to drum up support for a march on City Hall to protest school segregation. According to news accounts, 3,500 people filled the church’s parking lot to hear the civil rights leader speak.

But King’s assassination in 1968 precipitated riots that sent the neighborhood into a downward spiral. Friendship Baptist moved away. Other, less successful congregations took over.

Renamed Shepherd’s Temple, the building is now owned by Abundant Life World Outreach, a Christian ministry that’s been trying to restore the structure.

But financing efforts fell through, and Pastor Steve Bartlett “didn’t have the financial resources to do what the city needed him to do,” says Jonathan Fine, executive director of the advocacy group Preservation Chicago. “There was no money available for him to address all the code violations that had been cited.”

Even before the city’s demolition order, the structure had been listed on Preservation Chicago’s list of the city’s seven “most endangered” historic buildings.

Still, Fine holds out hope that Shepherd’s Temple might be saved. Since the demolition order, he has heard from someone interested in putting money into the project.

Fine says the city needs to come up with solutions that would help not just Shepherd’s Temple but also other historic buildings in the same situation.

One idea is “hard mothballing” that would brick up windows and save structures for restoration to be completed once there’s enough money to do so.

“It’s really sad when these pieces of Chicago history are removed,” says Fine. “These buildings tell stories, but vacant lots tell no tales. And the last thing that Lawndale needs is another vacant lot.”

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