On Monday, Aug. 9, the Planning and Development Committee will consider the Preservation Commission’s recommendation to designate the Second Church of Christ, Scientist at 2715 Hurd Ave. an Evanston Landmark.
Unfortunately, the owners of the church object to designation. Owner consent, while desirable, is not necessary for landmark designation. Identifying and designating local landmarks and historic districts is simply one tool in municipalities’ land use toolbox that includes zoning and building codes. With the exception of owner-initiated nominations, Evanston’s landmarks were designated without explicit owner consent. That is not to say that property owners were not notified. Over the years the Preservation Commission has studiously notified by certified mail all property owners of the intent to designate their property as an Evanston Landmark.
The biggest fear of property owners unfamiliar with landmark law is that landmark designation will limit their rights to full use of the property including selling the property at a reasonable price.
Two Supreme Court cases are relevant here. The 1926 case of Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co. “upheld the constitutionality of local zoning ordinances and established the ability of municipalities to regulate land use through the exercise of their police powers.”1
Fifty-two years later the Supreme Court addressed the issue of historic preservation as a land use tool. In Penn Central Transportation v. City of New York, the Supreme Court “found that historic preservation is a valid public purpose, and that the City of New York’s landmark restrictions on Grand Central Station did not constitute a ‘taking,’ because the controls did not prevent a reasonable economic use of the property.”2
Here in Evanston, landmark designation will not deny the owners of the Second Church of Christ, Scientist full use of its property or prevent the church from realizing a reasonable return from the sale of the building.
But why do communities like Evanston adopt preservation ordinances that place another layer of municipal control on its buildings? The buildings are a documentation of a community’s history – all of it, both the noble and the ignoble moments. But buildings wear out and require repairs and replacements – new roofs come to mind. Occupants’ needs change and families grow, making house additions necessary. And tastes change. The wrap-around porch on the Queen Anne house becomes dated, and off it goes to produce a more “modern” structure. Several of Evanston’s Queen Annes lost porches that way; they look a bit naked now.
When the buildings change the character of the streetscape changes. History is lost. Preservation ordinances enable the City to manage change in its built environment and to assist homeowners in making historically and architecturally sensitive alterations and additions to their landmark structures, and the Commission works with property owners to find affordable ways to do so.
But the issue today is a church, not a house. That’s a different animal. In Evanston, once called “The City of Churches,” religious buildings clearly have played a significant role in local history, Fourteen churches of the more than 800 designated buildings of all types are Evanston Landmarks. Eleven of those churches were designated for their high quality of architectural design and as fine representatives of the work of the architects who designed them. The Second Church of Christ, Scientist meets the same criteria as those 11 churches. Declaring Second Church an Evanston Landmark is consistent with the Preservation Commission’s previous church designations.
At the July 13 Preservation Commission meeting, the church’s legal representative stated that the church feared landmark designation would cause the church economic hardship. Supporters of designation believe that designation could be an asset in trying to sell the building. A Google search brings up accounts of churches all over the country that have been repurposed successfully, and the Evanston municipal code encourages adaptive use of special purpose buildings, such as churches.
Evanston actually has two examples of churches that have been repurposed and one example of a proposed repurpose. Several years ago, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, an Evanston Landmark since the 1970s, was sold to the Music Institute of Chicago and converted to a concert hall. Not too long ago, a small church on Elmwood Avenue, across from Nichols School, was converted to a single-family house. Plans are now in the works to convert the Sojourner Covenant Church on Church Street into seven townhouse-style units in the church itself and a five-story apartment building attached on the north side of the church. For the record, the Elmwood Avenue church and the Sojourner Covenant Church are not landmarks, but they are excellent local examples of the adaptive use of church buildings.
So why do I care about the designation of the Second Church of Christ, Scientist as an Evanston landmark? It’s just another church, and it isn’t even in my neighborhood. Well, from a preservation perspective the church is a fine example of Mid-century Modern and the only example of this style in an Evanston church. The building was designed by a firm headed by two talented architects who actually lived in Evanston, another plus.
I care about preserving this unique piece of Evanston history and enthusiastically support designation of the church as an Evanston Landmark. But let me tell you how I felt when I looked at the church. I felt a calmness, a sense of serenity – the kind of feeling that you want to have when you enter a house of worship. That feeling came from the elegant, but unadorned, design of the building and nothing else.
Mary McWilliams chaired the Evanston Preservation Commission from 1987 to 1988, and served as a commission member and associate commissioner beginning in 1976.
1 Local Laws as Neighborhood Guardians, National Park Service bulletin, p.1