Part Twenty-three: Losing Faith – Hyde Park’s Houses of Worship

Centered in this undated Chicago Daily News image of a misty North Kenwood morning is the striking bell tower of the South Congregational Church. In 1885 architect George H. Edbrooke designed the grand edifice that graced the corner of Drexel Boulevard and Fortieth Street. The structure withstood the turmoil of urban renewal and is the most recently demolished of the religious structures we will discuss here; it was razed in 1998.


The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences and structures that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric.

By Susan O’Connor Davis

As one of the stranger winters of late has loosened its erratic hold on our south side community, thoughts turn to the annual lengthening of days and rituals that include the celebrations of Easter and Passover. It seems an appropriate time to turn our gaze to a form of structure that has dotted the Hyde Park landscape since the community’s earliest days – the house of worship. While many remain to grace our streets today, we will take a look at a few for which time took its toll and are no longer standing.

In its earliest days, Hyde Park was merely a cluster of scattered houses dropped down among the oak trees. There were only eight families listed as living in the area – there was no store, no post office, no market, and a single passenger car on the Illinois Central was the only connection to the city, save for Purcell’s ox-car that brought barrels of flour and groceries.

The United Church of Hyde Park (Hyde Park Presbyterian Church) was erected in 1869, serving the needs of the congregation for two decades. The church currently on the site, at 53rd Street and Blackstone Avenue and constructed in 1889, replaced the one pictured here.

Although it was sparsely populated, religion and religious education played an important role in early Hyde Park. The first few structures built to serve the fledgling community included a small white frame chapel, erected in 1858 on land Cornell donated at the corner of 53rd and Lake streets.  A formal organization began in May 1860 and it was by a close vote that the group decided to affiliate as the first Presbyterian Church, with 16 charter members. The simple clapboard structure served the small Presbyterian population for a decade, when a much larger structure was needed.

The congregation acquired land a few blocks west of the original site, and a traditional French inspired stone structure was erected at the northeast corner of 53rd Street and Blackstone Avenue in 1869.  The church flourished in the years following the Great Chicago Fire and before long the size of this new church was also inadequate. Unlike its French counterparts that date back centuries, this church was demolished and was replaced by the current structure – Hyde Park United church, erected in 1889 and designed by architect Gregory A. Vigeant.

In the fall of that same year, a dozen people gathered at a local home to establish the Methodist Episcopal Church.  They first met in a vacant store at 5344 S. Lake Park Avenue and then built a small chapel in the “finest part” of Hyde Park, at the southeast corner of 54th and Blackstone.  With increased membership the congregation was able to replace that structure with an imposing gray granite church. Built on the same site, in a combination of the Romanesque and Norman styles, it was dedicated on Easter Sunday 1909. Worshippers spent their Sundays here merging with the United Church in the fall of 1970.  The M.E. church was demolished in 1977 and a group of townhouses was built on the site.

Hyde Park’s Methodist Episcopal Church was erected at the southeast corner of Blackstone Avenue and 54th Street in 1909. The church, which features elements of the Norman and Romanesque styles, was demolished in 1970.

Both of these congregations had their origins when neighborhood residents were identified by a number of related social characteristics. The men commuted daily to the city center to work, and women centered their lives on the family home. As lawyers, physicians, bankers, clergymen, real estate agents, and railroad employees and their families arrived, Hyde Park and Kenwood were predominantly identified by upper-class, well-educated, Eastern-born, Republican voting, church-going whites.

Paul Cornell’s real estate enterprise flourished as the United States experienced a dramatic transformation. In 1870, three-quarters of the population lived in rural areas; by 1920, over half the nation lived in cities. These newcomers had to consider how their religious traditions and institutions would follow their move to a more urban environment. At the moment of the city’s ascendance, there were those who felt the myriad distractions of urban living could destroy religious life.

What happened instead is people altered or adapted existing rituals to their new environment in creative and innovative ways. Dr. Jacob Bockée and his wife Catherine Wilkinson were representative of that process. They arrived from Poughkeepsie and built a frame house on a desolate stretch of sand just north of 51st Street at the lake. As with other early congregations, neighbors began to join them for worship services and Sunday school in their home. In 1859 they successfully applied to the Diocese to establish a parish, to be named St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church after the Bockée family’s church in New York.

St. Paul’s Church, at 4945 S. Dorchester Ave. was built in stages from 1896–1901. Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram collaborated with local architect Solon Spencer Beman on the project. Two fires destroyed the church and parish house in the spring of 1956.

Attendance outgrew the capacity of the Bockée home, and services moved from location to location. In 1868 the congregation erected its own building in Kenwood, at the corner of Lake Park Avenue and 49th Street, complete with a bell purchased by the Sunday school.

The parish continued to grow as Chicago annexed Hyde Park Township in 1889. Three years later the congregation bought the current site a block west of the original location, and in 1896 began building a substantial Gothic church and parish house. The structures were designed by Ralph Adams Cram, a proponent of the Gothic Revival style, in collaboration with local architect Solon Spencer Beman.

Unfortunately the second most notable event in the physical life of the parish occurred a half century after the building of the church, when a fire of suspicious origin destroyed St. Paul’s in March 1956. Another blaze heavily damaged the parish house just two weeks later. Several months later, two young boys were picked up following a series of fires on Ellis Avenue. As the 12 year olds sat playing cards at the police station, Charles Young calmly admitted to officers that he broke into the church and started the fire by pouring paint thinner over the altar. Although its buildings were destroyed, the parish chose to remain on the same site rather than leave the neighborhood, and the present building was dedicated in November 1958. This new structure houses St. Paul and the Redeemer, a church that grew out of two 19th -century parishes — one in Kenwood and one in Hyde Park—that merged in 1968.

At the corner of 56th Street and Blackstone Avenue is a quiet corner garden where once stood an Episcopal church. In 1889 Kenwood’s St. Paul’s had established the Church of the Redeemer as a mission at this location. The church quickly became self-supporting and built a long, narrow church on the compact site. In 1915 they erected the handsome Tudor Revival rectory to the north. J.E.O. Pridmore, an architect best known for church and theater buildings in historic revival styles, designed both structures.

By the middle of the last century Hyde Park was no longer defined by those upper-class, Eastern-born, Republican-voting, church-going whites described earlier. The great black migration, white flight and urban renewal changed the demographics of the neighborhood. By the 1960s the Church of the Redeemer was known for its commitment to the civil rights movement, and St. Paul’s was also a racially integrated parish. However the thriving congregation at Redeemer struggled to maintain an aging physical plant, while the congregation at St. Paul’s had just rebuilt. The leadership of both parishes collaborated on a plan to strengthen their mission and in March 1968 the two congregations voted to merge, becoming the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer.

After the merger, the sanctuary on 56th Street closed and the church found itself unable to keep up with property maintenance. Problems were reported when local teenagers broke into the building and vandalized the property. Empty liquor bottles and beer cans were found throughout and obscenities were scrawled on the walls. The rector wrote that he doubted “how long the building will stand, for at this juncture fire is a great danger.” The three parcels that made up the property were offered for sale, and the church was demolished. The parsonage is now a private residence.

Fire and urban renewal collided, resulting in the demolition of yet another of Hyde Park’s religious structures. Augustana Lutheran Church, built in 1903, was condemned during the urban renewal program. Their land was to provide land for a park and the congregation received $128,000 in order to build a new house of worship. The judge had not yet signed the award when a fire, again of suspicious origin, broke out. The extra alarm blaze gutted the entire structure at 54th and Kimbark in the summer of 1963. Fortunately insurance was in place, and Edward Dart designed the modernist church on 55th Street that completed in 1968.

The congregation of St. Thomas the Apostle has worshipped in three sanctuaries over the years. The first was erected in 1869 at the northwest corner of Kimbark Avenue and 55th Street, and was demolished for a larger church in 1887. The site is now a garden; architect Barry Byrne designed the church just to the north of the green space.

The center of Hyde Park was once filled with working class cottages; many occupied by Irish Catholic immigrants worshipping at nearby St. Thomas the Apostle. As early as 1860, the Catholics in the area were served as a mission from Saint James Church at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue (also demolished), but in 1869 a church was erected at Kimbark Avenue and 55th Street. It stood until 1887, when the cornerstone for its successor was laid. A parade of parishioners and dignitaries marched down Woodlawn Avenue and along 55th Street the day of the dedication in 1890. The venerable landmark stood alongside the newest church, designed by Barry Byrne in 1924, until maintenance of the aging structure became too much of a financial strain. It was demolished in the fall of 1940.

The larger city’s rapid urbanization was fueled by European immigration and the migration of rural, native-born residents who flocked to cities to work. Chicago’s population ballooned from just under 300,000 in 1870 to over 2.7 million by 1920. This demographic explosion brought with it a remarkable religious diversity. Catholics, Protestants, Methodists and Jews lived together in close proximity that few had experienced before.

German Jewish immigrants had established a presence in Chicago long before the founding of Hyde Park. However, it was the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924 that transformed the Jewish population of the city. By the early 1930s, Chicago had the third largest Jewish population of any city and the pressure for housing was heavily felt on the city’s south and west sides.

As blacks arrived from the rural south, Chicagoans witnessed the expansion of the Black Belt expand and subsequent movement of the Jewish population. In 1906 Congregation Rodfei Zedek purchased an unused Baptist church on 48th  Street, between Wabash and Michigan avenues for its second synagogue.  It was located among the then fashionable residences of the area known as Grand Boulevard, a tree-lined thoroughfare known today as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Rodfei Zedek outgrew the synagogue in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood. In 1924 architect Abraham Epstein was commissioned to design a new temple in Hyde Park. His first plan, above on the left, was deemed too elaborate and expensive for the congregation. The second design for a classically designed structure was approved by the building committee and erected at 54th Place and Greenwood Avenue.

By the early ‘20s Jews were moving from Grand Boulevard and comprised an increasingly significant part of the social fabric of Kenwood and East Hyde Park. The Rodfei Zedek congregation again planned a move, this time purchasing a two-story residence at 5426 S. Greenwood Avenue in Hyde Park, and made plans for a new synagogue on the adjacent land.  The first design by Abraham Epstein was deemed too elaborate and expensive, but a second more classically inspired structure was completed in 1925.

By the end of Second World War, there were nine synagogues in the area. When the Greenwood Avenue synagogue could no longer meet the demands of a steadily growing membership, they acquired the property at 5200 S. Hyde Park Boulevard. On site in 1948 was a 16-room brick mansion owned by William Wilhartz, a lawyer and general counsel of Mandel Brothers. This residence was demolished for the construction of a community hall in 1950; the sanctuary dedicated in May 1955 and 10 years later an educational center was added.

All were demolished for the structures currently on the site. As to the less elaborate temple at Greenwood Avenue and 54th Place, it was demolished during urban renewal.

Fire had a very specific effect on religious structures, while urban renewal had a broader impact. Although people left for varying reasons, overall nearly 30,000 moved from the community lowering Hyde Park-Kenwood’s population to 46,035 from 71,689 pre-renewal. The result from an ecumenical standpoint was that the population no longer supported the need for so many churches and temples. Some buildings were abandoned: St. Stephen’s Church (Tenth Church of Christ Scientist, Coolidge & Hodgdon) is vacant and crumbling on Blackstone Avenue. Others were modified to suit a different purpose: Operation Push now occupies the classically styled Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Temple on Drexel Boulevard, designed in 1923 by Henry Newhouse. Solon Beman’s classical Fifth Church of Christ Scientist at 4840 Dorchester Avenue became the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, and was repurposed for the development of 13 townhomes in May 2015.

In the shift from rural to city, religious life was hardly destroyed – rather the city became a space of religious innovation. As evident by the many differing congregations and their institutions, Hyde Park’s religious communities creatively engaged the various challenges that were presented by increasing urbanization. Each found ample space within the community to fashion their religious lives and their houses of worship – and their stories reflect the long and rich history of our neighborhood.