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Tumbling Down

The building that once housed Anshe Kanesses, one of the grandest synagogues in ‘Chicago’s Jerusalem,’ faces the wrecking ball after 99 years

Rachel Shteir
February 29, 2012
Sheperd's Temple/Anshe Kanesses in North Lawndale, January 2012. (Susanne Helmert)
Sheperd's Temple/Anshe Kanesses in North Lawndale, January 2012. (Susanne Helmert)

In his essay “Chicago, The City That Was: The City That Is,” Saul Bellow wrote: “The speed of the cycles of prosperity and desolation is an extraordinary challenge to historians and prophets.”

I wonder what Bellow would say if he could see the building that once housed Chicago’s Anshe Kanesses synagogue, at 3411 West Douglas Boulevard in North Lawndale. Today, Anshe Kanesses—which was also known as the Russcheses Synagogue, because of the large number of Russian Jews attending—is decrepit and open to the elements in places. Vandals have torn out every piece of copper wire in the walls and broken the sinks to get the aluminum, according to the current property manager, John Vassal.

The City of Chicago has been trying to get the Byzantine-Revival style building into code compliance for at least two years. Then, at a hearing on Dec. 21, 2011, the city attorney asked the judge to move to demolish the building. It has won a brief reprieve, but according to Carey Wintergreen, an architect, preservationist, and board member of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, the building could be gone shortly, since the demolition order reached the demolition inspections department on Monday; bids already have gone out. “It will be difficult and expensive demolition,” he said.

Constructed in 1913, the Anshe Kanasses synagogue was once one of 60 in North Lawndale; the Hebrew Theological College was diagonally across the boulevard. Stretching for blocks on Chicago’s Near South West side, the neighborhood, known as “Chicago’s Jerusalem,” was the country’s largest Jewish community outside of New York until the postwar era. The young Golda Meir worked in a library in North Lawndale; and prizefighter Barney Ross, comedian Shelly Berman, and bandleader Benny Goodman all lived there, said Herb Eisen, who leads historic tours of the city.

It has been years since North Lawndale was “Chicago’s Jerusalem.” In his 1991 book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, Jonathan Kozol singled out North Lawndale as one of the worst places to learn. So, it is not surprising that preservationists have failed to find funders who would help repurpose the building.

“Chicago demolishes altogether too quickly,” said Eisen.

“I’ve always said that the only thing that’s going to save this building is a big wad of cash,” said Jonathan Fine, president and co-founder of Preservation Chicago, an organization devoted to rescuing the city’s decaying buildings.

Calls and emails to the City of Chicago inquiring about the demolition were not returned.

Built by the architectural firm of Aroner & Somers at a cost of $100,000, the synagogue could seat approximately 3,500 people in its heyday. The building featured a magnificent auditorium with an enormous balcony, beautiful stained glass, and a terracotta façade. “There were chandeliers with Stars of David on them,” said Vassal. It was the biggest synagogue in the community, holding 35 Torah scrolls, according to Irving Cutler, an amateur historian of Chicago Jewry.

After the Jewish postwar exodus to the Chicago suburbs, the building became known as Shepherd’s Temple, where Martin Luther King—who lived in Lawndale briefly—spoke in 1966. In 2007, the building was bought by Abundant Life World Outreach Ministry, which is associated with Christian mega-preacher Joel Osteen.

In 2011, Preservation Chicago put the former synagogue on its “Chicago’s Seven Most Threatened” list—a list of the historic edifices in Chicago most likely to be demolished. In January 2012, Valerie Leonard, a community organizer who lives in the neighborhood, started a petition to stay the demolition. It accumulated a little over 500 signatures.

Last Wednesday, at 2:00 p.m. in Room 1107 at the Daley Center, Judge Loretta Higgins Wolfson presided over a hearing to sign the final demolition order. The only person who showed up on time to speak for the former synagogue was Wintergreen.

“Are you connected to the church, or an attorney for it?” the judge asked.

“The attorney is on the way,” Wintergreen protested.

That being insufficient, the judge delivered bad news: “The demolition will be proceeding shortly.”

It was time for the next case. We stepped into the hall. It was 2:15.

Grant Ulrich, the lawyer for the city, followed. Wintergreen asked him what would save the building.

“Cash,” Ulrich said.

“I guess good intentions doesn’t do it anymore,” said Wintergreen.

The funding to demolish the building had been secured from the state the previous Friday.

Fine and Leonard appeared in the hallway, as did Seth Barnhart, a landscape foreman who lives in the neighborhood. Vassal, the property manager, was also there. “It would be tear-jerking to see the building come down,” he said.

Opening his portfolio, Vassal produced a letter from the architectural and engineering firm of Hasbrouck Peterson Zimoch Sirirattumrong, which said that the building was mostly structurally sound. Although there were building violations, “their repair does not require major reconstruction,” the letter read.

The letter had not been filed at the last hearing, said Vassal, explaining that the pastor of the Abundant Life World Outreach Ministry was sick and the wrong lawyer showed up.

Wintergreen worried that there were large marble tablets—“like the Ten Commandments,” he said—in Hebrew and English with possible historic significance still in the building. He needed to extract them and find somewhere to store them. Last weekend, Wintergreen and some other friends found a truck and salvaged three of the smaller tablets.

Vassal said on Friday that the church’s lawyer directed a stay of the demolition and that another hearing was set for March 7. It may be the last chance to save the building.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.