Council to determine the fate of the church
The decision could come down to this: should a relatively ordinary-looking building designed by an architect extraordinaire from Evanston be given landmark status – a status that would make it much more difficult for an owner to demolish or even alter the structure ?
The structure is the second Church of Christ, Scientist on Hurd Avenue northwest of Evanston. Earlier this month, over the objection of church officials, the city’s Preservation Commission unanimously recommended the landmark’s approval to the city council, which has the final say.
Getting this far is the result of a campaign led by one person. Former Chicago television reporter Andrew Nebel lives across the street from the church and gave the Preservation Commission a documented and illustrated 35-page historical nomination, outlining both the history of the building and that of its famous designer, architect Lawrence Perkins.
Perkins drew up the plans for the church in 1946, one of approximately 500 buildings designed by his firm, Perkins, Wheeler and Will (later Perkins and Will). Business partner Philip Will also lived in Evanston.
“I’ve always loved having the church as a neighbor,” Nebel told the commission.
Nebel said when he heard the building might be demolished to make way for a kindergarten, he decided to act.
The preschool proposal has since been withdrawn.
Still, Nebel said the Second Church of Christ, Scientist should be preserved as a tribute to Lawrence Perkins, not because Nebel wants a quiet building across the street.
Nebel told Evanston Now he would have sought landmark status even if he didn’t live near the church, “for sure because of what I learned when I researched For me, he says, it’s the connection to Perkins and our community.
“It sort of floored me,” added Nebel, whom Perkins is no more honored in his hometown.
In fact, Perkins, who died in 1997 at the age of 90, was honored by Evanston, though perhaps not as much as some would like. Half a dozen of his local buildings, including his house and an addition to the Evanston Township Secondary School, are already town landmarks. He also helped shape the community as chairman of the Planning Commission.
Perkins has also been honored regionally and nationally, including with the “Prestigious 25-Year Award for a Project of Enduring Significance by the American Institute of Architects,” according to his 1997 obituary in the Chicago Tribune.
This project was perhaps Perkins’ most famous and influential, the Crow Island School in nearby Winnetka. The school, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is credited with revolutionizing school design to make it more student-friendly and less industrial.
In fact, the majority of Perkins’ creations were schools. His New York Times obituary was titled “Architect Who Loved to Build Schools.” Perkins and Will also designed several prominent office towers in downtown Chicago.
Churches were not a significant part of the company’s portfolio.
Gary Shumaker, an architect and former chairman of the Preservation Commission, represented the Church and told the panel that Nebel’s historic nomination was wrong and should be rejected.
Shumaker told Evanston Now that Nebel’s argument was “factually incorrect on several levels”. Shumaker said there are very specific criteria that must be met, not just that the building was designed by a famous person.
The church is over 70 years old, Shumaker said, and “this is the first time it’s been on anyone’s radar for historic properties.”
“I think this particular nomination may have less to do with the significance and integrity of the building and more with the future use of the property,” Shumaker added. Besides the nursery school, a separate proposal for the Salvation Army to purchase the church (and use the building rather than demolish it) was also withdrawn after some community opposition.
City planner Cade Sterling told the Preservation Commission that the Second Church of Christ, Scientist had significance as an “alternative/modern version of the Colonial Revival style” that “used simplicity to its advantage”.
Sterling also called the church a “rare ecclesiastical design” by Perkins and said it was one of the few structures in Evanston designed by Perkins and Will, despite them both living in the town.
After the Commission’s public hearing on the church, an interesting exchange between commissioner Stuart Cohen and planner Sterling took place.
Cohen asked what he called an “inappropriate question” about the current problem of historic preservation versus the owner’s wishes. The Evanston Preservation Ordinance does not require owner approval for landmark designation.
When Sterling informed Cohen that there were still listeners on the zoom session, Cohen said, “Is the audience here? Well, the audience can hear that too.
Cohen’s question: “Won’t the city council just approve the designation because of landlord rights?”
Sterling replied that he could not speak for the Council and that he did not know what the four new aldermen thought of preservation.
“We certainly have our work cut out for us,” added Sterling. “It’s nice that an order doesn’t require the owner’s consent, but it’s also difficult.”
Said Cohen, “good answer.”
The Preservation Commission is due to vote once more on the landmark recommendation before forwarding it to city council later this summer.
If the Board says yes, the Second Church of Christ, Scientist would then need the approval of the Preservation Commission in order to make changes to the structure.
Evanston has approximately 800 historic buildings. Some are in historic neighborhoods with multiple structures, others, like the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, are stand-alone buildings.