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Members of a City Council committee denied a request Aug. 9 that the Second Church of Christ, Scientist building and lot at 2715 Hurd Ave., be designated a local landmark. Committee members voted 6-1 against moving the issue out of Committee into the Council floor for consideration.
Winding up the discussion, Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, who chaired the meeting and has been sympathetic to preservation issues in the past, observed that unlike other cases, “Where the argument to landmark a building seemed very strong, this one seemed to me to be not as strong, and the arguments in opposition to it were striking.”
Council Member Thomas Suffredin, in whose Sixth Ward the property is located, noted the tough situation before Committee members. If the members are willing to designate the building as a landmark, he said, “What are we willing to do to ensure that it doesn’t become an abandoned property?
“I think the concerns expressed by the members of congregation about the cost of repairs, about whether [holding on to the building] is consistent with their mission as a church, [are] very real,” he said.
On the other hand, he noted the effort made by a local homeowner, Andy Nebel, in doing research early on in support of landmark status.
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, said the Preservation Commission members had done a good job making their case for designation.
However, he said, “They haven’t convinced me that the arguments in favor of preservation outweigh the burden that would be placed on the congregation who are unable to bear the costs that landmark designation would put on them. So I will be voting no in this one.”
Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, spoke in a similar vein.
“I think we sometimes overuse historic landmark designation – I’m not passing this on to the folks who brought this particular proposal – in a limiting way,” he said, to say “not in my backyard.”
In this case, he said, the designation could impact not only the church, but also the community at large, saddling them with a vacant property.
Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle also voted no, ensuring that the issue would not make it out of Committee, something that is unusual for a landmark-designation issue.
The City’s Preservation Commission had previously recommended that the building be considered for landmark status. A number of preservation groups including the statewide Landmarks Illinois group had weighed in with support, highlighting the role Lawrence Perkins, a prominent architect and lifelong Evanston resident, played in the project. No representative of the Commission, which discussed the Hurd Avenue building over two meetings, spoke at the Aug. 9 Planning & Development Committee meeting in support of landmark designation.
During public comment, meanwhile, several members of the church urged the Committee to deny the landmark status, citing the struggles the congregation has had to maintain the building.
The church has twice brought forth proposals to sell the property in the past, the last to make way for a daycare facility.
‘Against the express wishes’
Robert Shiverts, one of the speakers, maintained that landmarking the property was “advocated by only one member of the community against the express wishes of the rest of the community,” which he said was interested in demolishing the building to create single-family housing.
He raised concern about weaponizing the landmarking process “not for the intrinsic value of sustaining worthy structures – which is the purpose of landmarking – but rather to stop development of a future structure disagreeable to the petitioner.”
With other churches also experiencing shrinking membership and facing the possibility of selling “due to economic urgencies,” he argued, “the use of landmarking as a way to block development may very well lead to the opposite goal it was intended to achieve – in other words to deteriorating properties.”
Elizabeth Drake, another member of the congregation and a professional interior designer, told Committee members that the “landmarking of our building against our wishes has the unintended consequence of imposing on our rights as an Evanston church congregation.
“We built the building; we own it,” she told Committee members. “We’ve maintained it for 75 years and now Preservation intends to tell us the standards of our maintenance on the building to the point where we may not be able to maintain it as previously done.
“One example is the multiple, very large windows framed in wood, that we cannot open currently due to rotting,” she said. “The wooden glass [frames] will fall apart [were the building landmarked, because] Preservation would not permit us to modify them in any way – to become affordable replacement windows – which we sorely need to do now that our air-conditioning from the ’60s has died.
“Going on nearly four or five years now we have been attempting to right-size the building to a smaller, low-maintenance setting for a small congregation,” she said. “By selling our 400-seat building [after] a vote to landmark, it severely shrinks the pool of buyers, knowing that any maintenance or remodeling will cost more than usual due to having to meet preservation standards.”
But Mary McWillams, a longtime preservationist and former Chair of the Preservation Commission, said the Commission has made allowances for churches experiencing hardships to make alterations in the past, helping them find a way that is cost-effective.
“And the Commission has done that regularly, [tried to] negotiate with property owners to fix the properties in a way that’s affordable. Preservation is not supposed to be a punishment, nor is it to be something for the elite,” she stressed.
As for the church itself, she said, “this is quite an interesting building. It’s the only church of that style in the City. And I think it’s a sad day that we can’t save it.”
Just a ‘beautiful’ building
Meanwhile, Andy Nebel, who first brought the issue to the Commission to consider, said the suggestion advanced by some church members that he had some kind of vendetta against the church could not be further from the truth.
He said his move to seek landmark status grew initially out of a desire to learn more about the building’s history.
“I’ve lived next to the church for the past 11 years, and I really found it to be a beautiful, even majestic building,” he told Committee members. “It has clean lines; it has an 85-foot steeple. It stands as the centerpiece of our neighborhood. So a short time ago, when the church faced possible destruction from a proposed development, I just decided to see if there was any history to the building that might make demolition uncalled for.
“Now it’s really important to note that I didn’t go into this with any preconception of what I would find, or with any malice towards the church owners, as they have suggested. I just really wanted to see if there was any history to the church. And when with every turn of the page at the Evanston Library and History Center, I found more and more that told me, even as a lay person, that there were many things that were very special about this building.
“As for ‘weaponizing,’ I don’t even know what to say about that,” he said. He presented Committee members with a petition signed by 50 people in support of landmark status.
Most of the signers are from the immediate neighborhood, supporting the effort to save the building.
“I am not an expert,” Nebel said at the Aug. 9 meeting. “I’m just a citizen who found out some facts about a building. I brought it to people’s attention. The experts in our community who are charged with guiding this board and protecting the historical architecture in Evanston spoke twice. And they said, save this important building.”