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Save Maxwell Street’s old ‘German School’

1352 S. Uni| Sun-Times Library

1352 S. Union | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: February 6, 2014 6:23AM

Chicago has a sad history of demolishing its architectural treasures. We grieve over them and castigate perceived guilty parties. But all too often our preservation efforts are too little too late. Here’s an opportunity for us to avoid what would be another unforgivable loss.

In 1869, pre-eminent architect Augustus Bauer, who gave us many notable local structures, including the landmarked Old St. Pat’s Church, designed the German School at 1352 S. Union Avenue. It was customary then for various immigrant groups to establish their own schools. The exterior façade design of this pre-Great Chicago Fire building was charming, elegant and exemplary of the era. The large, highly desirable parcel on which this long-shuttered building sits is located in — take your pick — the old Maxwell Street Market neighborhood, the University of Illinois-Chicago south campus area, the University Village development, the University Village Marketplace neighborhood.

This structure has a rich legacy that qualifies it as more than worthy of preservation. Over the last 144 years it has served as a private school, a public school, a Jewish synagogue and an African-American Baptist church. Its past reflects the surrounding human interface decade by decade. It is currently in private ownership, empty and rapidly deteriorating after years on the market.

A plan has been set forth by the Newman Foundation to buy this piece of land, destroy the historic building on it and replace it with a dormitory for a reported 280 UIC students. Nearby residents have told the current 11th Ward alderman, Danny Solis, and the new alderman, James Balcer, repeatedly and unequivocally over recent years that they do not want this student housing permitted in their very quiet neighborhood, which has severely limited parking. Furthermore, there are several available pieces of land, already vacant and much closer to the campus, on which the Foundation could situate this student housing easily, without alienating its neighbors.

More important, a dormitory is not the highest and best use of this land. Instead, this area desperately needs an innovative community center filled with entities that generate sales tax income for our struggling city. Remember: the Newman Foundation is a nonprofit organization. Therefore, it would not even pay real estate taxes.

A multi-use community center with varied activities could simultaneously accommodate several enterprises successfully, such as rental space for events using an on-site caterer, a small theater company, an outdoor café, parking and other revenue-generating operations; while also providing youth programs, a military veterans drop-in center, and a showcase for local historical artifacts. This is not daydream conjecture. Our initial research shows it is doable. Adaptive reuse would create a center that serves everyone, not just a select batch of students whose housing choices are neither absent nor inconvenient.

Ald. Balcer indicated he would make an announcement “by the end of” 2013 as to whether he supports the zoning change required for a dormitory to rise on this parcel. In his wisdom, he must deny this request and lead the drive for a significantly better project: Restore the German School to its original exterior façade glory, rehab the interior, improve the lovely grounds around the building, open it to the public, and invite the Newman Foundation to locate its housing elsewhere.

We urge the preservation community, the residential contingents surrounding the 1352 S. Union property, and all interested parties who believe heritage genuinely matters to join us in taking a stand against a dormitory at this address. Let’s not facilitate another miserable instance of lost history because of powerful interests strong-arming the body politic segment most affected by the indefensible decisions of others.

Lori Grove is president of the Maxwell Street Foundation. Mary Gerace is a member of the foundation’s advisory council.

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