Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Inside St. Stephens

posted by chicago pop

Back in November 2007, Peter Rossi posted an essay on the empty and deteriorating St. Stephen's Church at 57th and Blackstone.

In response, over the digital transom came an interesting link to a set of photos from someone, then unidentified, who had evidently been inside St. Stephens in November 2003 and had taken about a dozen pictures of it in all its magnificent decrepitude. I'm taking the liberty of posting a few of them here.

For those of you interested in the full set, follow this link, where you will see St. Stephens and much, much, more -- all presented to you courtesy of one Mr. Charles Janda, trained photographer specializing in decaying urban structures, and the challenges of photographing them. It's great, eerie stuff.

I thank Mr. Janda for passing his pics along, together with what I take to be implicit consent to their use on this blog. (Just let me know if you want them pulled).

I hope readers will appreciate these pics for their merit as photographs, but also for what they reveal about just how far gone this building is. Bear in mind these pictures were taken almost 5 years ago.

As Peter Rossi pointed out in a comment to his original post, the building is unheated and is masonry-clad, which is a bad combination in a cold-weather climate. Several broken windows continue to allow the elements full access to the interior.

Absent the sudden appearance of a lunatic philanthropist with a fetish for preserving knock-off greco-roman wedding cakes like this one, in a short time there won't be anything left to preserve here except some interesting graffiti up on the dome.


Peter Rossi said...

this is even worse than I thought.

This structure is a hazard and should be torn down as soon as possible.

Even if you like this over-wrought architecture you still need to find that multi-million dollar patron! I dont' see anyone stepping forward.

Alec Brandon said...

A friend of mine got in there a year ago and took a ton of pictures.

Needless to say, a year ago it looked similar to that except it is now covered in graffiti inside.

If I get the pictures from him, I'll send them your way.

Famac said...

Thanks for the great link! I love stuff like this! Its like Planet of the Apes!!

chicago pop said...

Yeah, Planet of the Apes, or any of the "Saw" movies. I think Jigsaw would dig the basement.

Rosemary said...

Not so funny if you live in the 5600 block of Blackstone and have to walk by this rapidly deteriorating building daily. The graffiti is quite widespread; broken windows; garbage everywhere; in the winter the sidewalks are not shoveled; in the summer the weeds grow 4-5 feet high. I have the 5th ward office on my speed dial. The alderman has been fairly unresponsive to requests for meeting with the neighbors. Guess the hotel issue on Stony Island is more important than the abandoned structure on Blackstone. If she lived on our block, I bet her response time would be different.

chicago pop said...

Hmm. Once again, Honorable Alderman Leslie Hairston comes up with reference to a deteriorating buildings, failed projects, and just damn dangerous stuff left standing in Hyde Park and surrounding areas. I don't live in her ward, but if I did, I'd want here gone ASAP.


Let's list the things that she HASN'T fixed, and that are worse now than when she started:

1) the decaying public art on 55th Street -- with a tree growing right in the middle of it. See Beth Fama's post on that subject from this past August (Hyde Park Anti-Progress). It was spared during the reconstruction this summer, which makes as much sense as remodeling your kitchen but leaving up those nasty 70s cabinets. Nice introduction to the 5th ward.

2) St. Stephens -- just look at the pics.

3) The Point. It's an enormous liability. Wait until someone breaks their neck and drowns on the "picturesque" limestone revetment. Couldn't an alderman move this forward, if they wanted to? Barack is never going to get to it.

4)Retail development on Stony Island. This is a no-brainer. What's the hold-up? Where's the Target on 71st?

Politicians tend to like monuments to their accomplishments in office. Maybe the sculpture at 55th and Harper is an appropriate symbol for the tenure of the current 5th ward alderman. It's falling apart and nothing is being done.

LPB said...


Based on Peter's earlier investigation, I thought it was exactly your neighbors either in the Quadrangle Condo Association or Jonathan and Elaine Smith who have dragged the potential redevelopment of St. Stephens to a halt for a few years.

Maybe you should put them on your speed dial too.

If you do manage to have a neighborly call with either group, I'd love to know why they prefer the current graffiti-ridden, rat-infested, weedy monstrosity over something clean, better-maintained, and importantly, OCCUPIED. Oh gee, silly me. If development went ahead and more people actually occupied the space, then your neighbors would be deprived of the street parking that the rest of us taxpayers so generously fund. I'm sure they'd pull this classic, tired NIMBY argument out of the hat.

Elizabeth Fama said...

LPB, I think the problem with the church right now is that the developer has given up on the project. If I remember correctly, Peter's research revealed that the developer had sold the property to an associate, and the property taxes are currently overdue. The question is, if the neighbors had allowed the developer to build while his interest was hot (and his business solvent), would he have been reputable enough to pull through? We'll never know.

LPB said...


You're right. I should have said that it was some of Rosemary's neighbors who dragged their heels on the developer's plan for a couple of years and ultimately scared him off.

Now that the building has landed in foreclosure, I'm not sure that anything will happen to it. Further, given how the whole thing went down the last time, I suspect any prospective developers would certainly think twice before deciding whether the potential reward is worth the considerable risk.

Ben said...

If the taxes are past due, anyone want to purchase the property at tax sale and tear the thing down?

Peter Rossi said...

actually, it is not the taxes that are past due. A bank that holds the mortgage on this attempted to foreclose that mortgage in summer 07.

EdJ said...

It seems like with St. Stephens and the Point, and many other issues, there are clear publc safety issues in play. On the crime side, the theory of broen windows comes into play. If there are broken widws, crime follows and property values drop. What do we do about this? Do we go to the Building Department to ask for a safety inspection? Is it shape or potential condemnation?

Same thing with the Point. Where is the key pressure point where we can apply leverage on public safety? The bumper stickers are a good start to show public support for fixing it. We need to start talking about public safety, ADA compliance, shoreline erosion, and regulatory compliance.

Famac said...

Alderman Hairston has to shoulder some of the blame because the City HAS to have the power to condemn properties.

Elizabeth Fama said...

EDJ, My fear with that strategy for the Point is that the City will be more than happy to shut it down if someone says it's hazardous. Then we lose access and we have no repairs on the horizon.

One of the nicest features of the Compromise Plan was the Army Corps' agreement to stage the repairs so that one half of the Point was open for recreation at almost all times, while the other half was being repaired.

Don't forget to list the sculpture on 55th Street near Harper as a public hazard! It's not only distracting to drivers, but it would turn your car into a metal accordion if you drove into it.

Jared said...

The graffiti is actually very interesting. One marking is of Kilroy and another is the hull classification for the Enterprise from Star Trek, "NCC-1701". Gangs obviously don't hang out there, UC and Lab School kids do.

And I think I might know that photographer.

Direc said...

has this building really been foreclosed? if so, i would love to try to buy it, it would then not be illegal for me to be in there. and to rosemary, please stop calling the police on people when they go in there, the majority of people who go there are just humble urban explorers, who are not planning on hurting you or your family. the church is what makes hyde park so great for explorers, writers(graffiti) and the homeless. the abandoned hospital should also remain abandoned, as it is also a great exploration and art spot.

NiKoppel said...

A bit of a personal history. I grew up in Hyde Park on Dorchester Street. The back of my apartment building faced the back of this church. It could be my imagination but I remember when my family moved into our building in 1995, we could hear singing coming from the church, meaning it was still in use then.

Not long after the signing stopped and the building went on the market and ever so often, word came of a prospective buyer who wanted to convert the building into a house but wasn't willing to shell out the cash or bare the burden. The door remained padlocked and the overgrown alley behind the church was well known for neighborhood kids getting high.

When I was 14 years old in 1999, one of my best friends at the time and some older kids who we knew from the area explored the building’s abandoned interior.

It was a Sunday night in January and the day before school started for the Spring semester. I remember squeezing through a basement window. At some point, the cellar had flooded and water stood 4 feet deep but since it was the dead of winter everything was locked in a block of ice. We walked through the building, while balancing on slanted pieces of furniture - chairs and table and bureaus which were frozen in ice. I think there were even photos and letters. I’ll never shake that, it was really beautiful.

Making our way up to the roof, cold and our clothes damp from laying in snow, we caught a view of the city’s skyline. At some point, the group separated and with the cold finally starting to get to my friend and I, we wandered back inside the circular roof which with the night sky was pitch black.

Without a flashlight, we took small steps, feeling our way through the cold darkness, and then I remember falling. The sensation was as if my body was being stretched like a piece of elastic, I could feel my stomach dropping like it does on the steep drops of a roller coaster but my mind couldn't register it fast enough and stayed put until I landed hard -thud-

I must have been out for about 5-10 minutes but when I awoke in a dead shaft, I could hear my friend, in shock crying out my name, thinking that I was for sure a goner but he didn't want to move because he was still in the dark.

Eventually the kid with flashlight returned and pointed it down. I had fallen 3 or 4 stories below onto concrete. Remarkably, I only suffered a twisted ankle. A rusty metal ladder lined the side of the shaft which measured only a few feet in diameter and if it was a truly a miracle that I hadn’t hit my head. Pretending that I wasn't in any pain around the older kids, I walked the fall off. The next day at school, the tale was the latest gossip and I was instilled with a certain bulletproof ego. I know every teenager thinks they are invincible...but I actually had some hard evidence and it fueled the rest of my reckless teenage years.

- Niko

the.ravenous.llama said...

It was only until recently that I discovered the origins of this building. I walk by it occasionally. It's a bittersweet thing - one part of me wishes it could somehow be preserved for its beauty, but the better part of me knows that the beautifully abandoned building is best gone.
I only wish that someone would do something to that building soon. The tension of seeing it there nearly daily is unbearable.

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V said...

The church is much worse now, from what I've heard.

I find the history beautiful, not necessarily the building itself. If it was new, it wouldn't be as interesting. There's memories here, and we should work as hard as we can to preserve it through use, even if it's a copy of a church in Boston.