One hundred and fourteen years to the month after the cornerstone of Saint Boniface Church was laid, the building was saved from the wrecking ball. After lying vacant since 1990, the City of Chicago set a deadline of September 23 for the building to be sold, or it would be ordered demolished. That same day, local developer STAS Development closed on the property with plans to convert the iconic North Side church into residences and a music school.
The Saint Boniface parish has been a staple of the Near North Side in Chicago since 1860. First German and then Polish, the story of the parish and the church it called home is one that is common in Chicago. As one of the first schools in the area, the church was the center of an immigrant community. The four-towered Romanesque design by architect Henry J. Schlacks sits 900 and has a 52-foot-high ceiling.
Now, a collaboration between STAS Development and the Hyde Park–based Chicago Academy of Music will transform the original structure: The 32,000-square-foot church will be converted into 15 residential units, with a music school and 24 more units planned for new construction on the site. While this will completely change the nature of the historic structure, it is still considered a big win by preservationists.
As development continues at breakneck speed on the Near North Side, churches have become popular structures for conversion into housing throughout its neighborhoods. Saint Boniface’s neighborhood of Nobel Square, as well as nearby Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, Bucktown, and Logan Square, were once filled with German Catholics and Eastern European Catholics building churches literally every few blocks. Only a very small number of these churches remain as active worship spaces. Those lucky enough to be spared the wrecking ball attract developers with their high ceilings, stained-glass windows, and distinctive character. As they are often larger than the typical stacked-flat housing stock in the neighborhoods, they can be used for denser development.
Saint Boniface is an outlier among these converted churches, though. Unlike so many of the others, it is not deeply embedded in the tight streets of its surrounding neighborhood. Instead, it stands out on a major street with its four large bell towers, one of which is 150 feet tall. The church is an icon in its neighborhood, and more recently an icon for the whole city. After the Chicago Cubs’ recent World Series win, Saint Boniface was used as the backdrop for a Nike commercial in which a young Cubs fan plays out his own World Series win in the adjacent park.
Although neighborhoods in Chicago quickly change in demographics and density, Saint Boniface will not be the last of the old churches to be “saved” by development, though it is likely to be one of the largest. While complete plans have not yet been released, one can’t help but wonder if someone will have a condo with an ornately vaulted ceiling or a rose window.