Sunday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the congregation of the Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church (3622 West Douglas Boulevard) in North Lawndale to celebrate its addition to Chicago’s official landmarks list.
The building was designed by Joseph W. Cohen & Co. and opened in 1925 as the First Romanian Congregation Synagogue, and served the area’s Jewish community, both Jews who moved from the old Maxwell Market area of the city and new immigrants from Eastern Europe. The neighborhood was at one time known as “Chicago’s Jerusalem.”
The two-story, 65-foot-tall building had a capacity of 1,500 in the main sanctuary and balcony, with a school and prayer rooms below.
If you read WBEZ’s recent web feature Displaced: When the Eisenhower Expressway Moved in, Who Was Forced Out?, you know that the coming of the highway in the 1950’s radically altered the area. Jewish families moved to the suburbs, and poorer Black families moved in to take their place. One example cited by WBEZ was West Garfield Park, which went from 0.05% black to 97.98% black.
With neighborhood demographics changing, the building became a Baptist church in 1954 under the Reverend James Marcellus Stone, and was one of the few Chicago churches that welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King, who helped solidify it as a touchstone of the Chicago Freedom Movement.
In addition to its cultural significance, the building remains in very good condition for its age. A report put together by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks earlier this year specifically noted:
The commission gives a very descriptive account of the current state of the facade:
The doors appear to be original and have a simple wood panel design with opalescent glass lights. Above this base the front facade is arranged as an arcade of three, two-story tall arches that frame the window openings. Each arch consists of Moorish-style horse-shoe shaped arches, formed from limestone voussoirs, carried by Classical columns with capitals decorated with Stars of David. Within each of these arches the windows are set within triple-arched, Romanesque-style surrounds with slender columns.
Limestone spandrels mark the floor lines of the sanctuary and balcony. Limestone medallions, carved with Jewish religious symbols including menorah and the Torah, are set into the front facade above the arcade. The front facade is topped with a gabled parapet which rests on a limestone corbel band which allows the parapet to project slightly from the wall plane lending the building a monumental presence.
The brick at the parapet level is laid with a tapestry pattern, another motif drawn from Moorish architecture. At the center of the parapet carved stone tablets with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew script proclaim the building’s Jewish legacy. A bronze Star of David at the top of the parapet was removed when the original congregation moved.
The west (Millard) facade closely follows the design of the front elevation. The first story is faced in limestone pierced by rectangular window openings that have been infilled. Above that the arcade consists of a mix of Moorish and Romanesque arches, though the Classical columns found on the front elevation have been eliminated. The corbel band and projecting parapet with tapestry brick continue from the front elevation.
The commission’s report included a laundry list of reasons the building should be landmarked. Here are the highlights:
- The former First Romanian Congregation Synagogue, now the Stone Temple Baptist Church Building, exemplifies the importance of houses of worship in the cultural, religious, and social history of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.
- When the synagogue became a Baptist church in 1954, Reverend James Marcellus Stone led his congregation to support the civil rights movement and the Stone Temple Baptist Church provided a forum for preaching and programs led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the national struggle for racial equality.
- The Stone Temple Baptist Church opens a window onto the Chicago Freedom Movement, when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his crusade for civil rights from the South to Chicago from 1965 to 1967.
- King’s leadership of the Chicago Freedom Movement between 1965 and 1967 marked a significant expansion of his objectives to address the fundamental social, economic, education and housing inequalities that African Americans faced.
- The Stone Temple Baptist Church Building, formerly the First Romanian Congregation Synagogue is decorated with religious symbols of the Jewish faith that identify the building as a historic synagogue, a distinct architectural type within Chicago’s religious architecture.
- The design of the former First Romanian Congregation Synagogue exhibits Romanesque, Classical and Moorish styles of architecture, a combination of historic styles rarely found in Chicago.
- The former First Romanian Congregation Synagogue features excellent design, detailing and craftsmanship in traditional brick and limestone masonry materials.