LOSS: Temple Beth-El, 2122 W. Crystal Street Demolished!

Demolition of Temple Beth-El Building, 2122 W. Crystal Street, Photo Credit: Ward Miller / Preservation Chicago

Despite an 11th hour advocacy effort by Preservation Chicago, the historic former Temple Beth-El building at 2122 W. Crystal has been demolished. Preservation Chicago strongly encouraged the developer to save all or part of the historic façade. When it became clear that this was not going to occur, Preservation Chicago arranged for the donation of the carved limestone façade elements to Temple Beth El now located in Northbrook, but the developer and demolition contractor did not take the steps necessary to have allowed this to happen and the historic elements were destroyed. However, the two decorative finials and some carved ornament were saved and it is possible that they will be donated or incorporated into the new development.

Childs Development purchased the historic synagogue/church building at 2122 W. Crystal Street in Wicker Park for $1.75 million. They closed on August 8, 2018. Twelve days later on August 20, 2018, a demolition permit had been issued for the 116 year-old building. Built in 1902 as the third Temple Beth-El synagogue, it became the Original New Morning Star M. B. Church in the 1970’s.

Tear-down developers are often willing and able to outspend buyers looking to live and restore historic homes. According to the listing broker, the church initially asked $1.1 million for the building. It went under contract in less than a week and for an amount $650k over the list price, or approximately a 60% premium over the asking price! The developer plans to building a high-end, six-unit condominium building with prices ranging from approximately $700k to $1 million per unit.

As reported in Block Club Chicago, the site was of particular interest to the developer as it is 14 feet wider than the standard 50 foot double lot. The location is just beyond the boundaries of the highly sought after Wicker Park Landmark District, so the Landmark District provides no protections for this building. Additionally, developers know that properties in protected historic landmark districts are highly-desirable and add value, so if they develop close to, but just outside of historic landmark districts, they can benefit from the high-desirability but without any restrictions.

Preservation Chicago had outreached to the developer to encourage the reuse of the façade or even part of the façade in their new construction. By saving and reusing the façade, it could replace the planned stairwell facade in the new construction and have minimal impact on the proposed condo units. The proposed rendering shows a contemporary, but highly generic building. The facade would have provided authenticity and uniqueness to the building which likely would have increase sales desirability. It would have demonstrated a high respect for the history of the site, Crystal Street, and the Wicker Park Community. Smart developers recognize that goodwill with the immediate neighbors is a very valuable asset, especially during construction.

As this development was “as-of-right”, there were few planning tools available to the community. There was no zoning change required, therefore Aldermanic approval was not required. The building was not protected by any landmark designation or even included in the CHRS which would have required an demolition delay. Downzoning properties to have the current existing building more closely correspond with the zoning would help to encourage reuse of existing building and homes. An extension of the nearby Chicago Landmark District would have provided the greatest protection and oversight for historic structures like Temple Beth-El.

The history of the building is evident on its highly intact façade including its decorative yellow brick work, a series of stone arches, limestone ornamentation and finials, and the Hebrew and English carved inscriptions over the entry doors. The only noteworthy prior loss to the façade was the replacement of the original art glass windows with glass block.

The adjacent Temple Beth-El school building at 2126 W. Crystal Street was successfully adaptively reused and converted to condominiums. Directly across the street the 1890’s Lutheran gothic revival church by architects Worthmann & Steinbach at 2127 W. Crystal Street which dates from is listed as orange rated in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS). Other than the glass block, its unclear why a highly intact, architecturally distinct building such as 2122 W. Crystal Street would have been overlooked by the Survey, but provides yet another example of the limitations of the CHRS which dates from 1996.

Founded in 1871, Temple Beth-El is one of Chicago’s oldest congregations and was highly innovative throughout its history, including being one of the first to offer co-ed enrollment at the religious school on Crystal Street and was one of the first Chicago synagogue in Chicago to offer Sunday school education to girls. It hosted a wide-range of cultural activities including drama club performances, musical and literary events learning sessions, dances and mixers, and athletic competitions.

Per Temple Beth-El’s history website, “In 1902, the temple purchased three adjoining lots at Crystal Street and Hoyne Avenue. There they constructed a much larger building for worship as well as a separate structure with a gymnasium and rooms for a Sunday school. Such a configuration was novel to Chicago; Beth El became the first synagogue in the city to house its religious school and its sanctuary in independent buildings.”

“Ever the innovator, Rabbi Rappaport went several steps further in offering coed enrollment at the school on Crystal Street. Beth El is thus noted as the first synagogue in Chicago to offer Sunday school education to girls. Rappaport’s strong commitment to family life touched other areas of his rabbinate as well; he established Chicago’s first synagogue youth group and Beth El’s first social club for married couples.”

“With a generous gift from the Molner family, the synagogue dedicated its secondary structure as Molner Hall, and throughout Rabbi Rappaport’s tenure, Molner Hall was considered a great social hub for the Jews of the Northwest Side. Molner Hall functioned like a miniature Chicago Hebrew Institute, offering plentiful resources to the Jewish community at-large for study, sport, and socialization similar to the original Chicago Hebrew Institute on Blue Island Avenue near 12th Street. Similarly, Molner Hall hosted drama club performances, learning sessions, musical and literary events, dances and mixers, athletic competitions, and numerous other opportunities for cultural outreach for more than 20 years”

The Temple Beth-El congregation moved from Wicker Park to Logan Square. Their Logan Square synagogue building located at 3228 W. Palmer Boulevard was built in the 1920s and served as the Logan Square Boys and Girls Club since 1955. The Palmer Boulevard building is under contract and preservation organizations are advocating for a preservation-sensitive outcome. The Temple Beth-El congregation then moved to Albany Park and ultimately moved to Northbrook in 1975.

Additional Reading
Century-Old Church In Wicker Park To Be Demolished For 6 Condos Starting At $689,000; There were too many exterior alterations to consider saving the building, a city official said. Alisa Hauser, Block Club Chicago, 8/22/18

History: A Proud Tradition of Worship, Education and Community

Turn-of-the-Century Improvements, Visions, History Project, Temple Beth-El 

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