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Church has big beauty, few members

Updated: June 9, 2013 6:05AM



The first notes of Bach’s “Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor” pumping out of the pipe organ at the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago hit with an ego-obliterating power, a pressure you can almost feel on your face, causing it to tilt upward, toward the four herald angel statues at the front of the sanctuary, the verdant Tree of Life and the stars painted against a deep green sky.

Or is it deep blue?

Hard to tell, after 113 years of coal smoke, followed by car exhaust, drifting through the South Loop church’s open windows — raised to admit the grime that masks soft blues and muted reds under a dark film in this, the largest Arts & Crafts interior in the United States, a gorgeous space designed in 1900 by Howard Van Doren Shaw. It looks pristine when you first walk in; before you start to notice the duct tape and the water damage.

In March, Second Presbyterian was named a National Historic Landmark — the only church in Chicago so designated (Unity Temple, also a landmark, is in Oak Park), an honor that, alas, comes with no cash.

Historic churches are where the rich spiritual legacy of our past meets the hard economic reality of today. The roots of Second Presbyterian are as old as Chicago — founded in 1833 as the First Presbyterian Church, naturally enough, which split in 1842.

Originally in the Loop, the congregation sold its building a few weeks before the Great Chicago Fire, to relocate at 1936 S. Michigan, closer to its wealthy parishioners, the Swifts and the Armours and the Fields (the mansions of the Prairie Avenue historic district are two blocks east). The current building, the city’s first Gothic Revival church, was designed by James Renwick ­— architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian castle — and completed in 1874, its exterior made of limestone that sweats black tar, intended to replicate the 14th century castles that everybody loved in the era of “Ivanhoe.” The original interior was the rococo jumble of festoonery the Victorians mistook for elegance, but a fire from a faulty gaslight jet gutted the church and burned through the roof. Shaw’s use of Arts & Crafts — an English artisanal reaction to Industrial Age mass production — was considered shocking, as if Holy Name Cathedral were redone in all white, with green wall gardens.

“This is Howard Van Doren Shaw’s interior as he built it in 1901, and very little has been done to it since,” said Linda Miller, president of the Friends of the Historic Second Church. How little? Stretches of the current carpeting were installed by Marshall Field’s in 1901. So little that scholars come from foreign countries to study the stained glass windows, which should have been refurbished several times by now but weren’t.

“These are very culturally significant windows,” said Greer Ashman, a graduate student in stained glass conservation at the University of York in Northern England, who will be studying the windows this summer. “They’re a unique opportunity because there haven’t been many restoration interventions previously. So I’m able to look at them, basically, as they were made.”

Good for scholarship, bad for windows, an “unrivaled collection” the American Institute of Architects calls it, worth millions apiece, bowing in their frames. “They definitely need help,” Ashman said. “Each window has different issues. They’re not beyond repair.”

But repair costs money, and the Armours and the Swifts and the Fields are long gone. The congregation now has fewer than 100 members in a church that seats 1,300. Church leaders do not want to name a figure for what all the needed repairs would cost.

“We don’t want to scare people away,” said Miller. In the many millions. Just to properly restore one stained glass window might cost $300,000, and they have 21, including nine by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The solution would seem to be to tap the burgeoning South Loop and all the residents in those new high-rise apartments. Here they run into a different ravage wrought by time.

“There’s just a lot of people who don’t go to church anymore,” said Michael Shawgo, the church organist. “I talked to a new member who said when he gets up to go to church on Sunday, all of his neighbors are just coming home.”

The hope is that will soon change.

“We have started to grow the past year and a half, we have a dynamic interim pastor who’s done a lot of community outreach,” said Shawgo. “We have to engage the community, to reach out,” said Rev. David Neff. “We need to become relevant.” Lunches and concerts help draw people into the church.

Volunteers also give tours, from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays (though not May 19), which cost $5 on Saturdays and are free on Wednesdays — though I like to think anyone who cares enough to take the tour would kick in a five spot, on general principles.



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