Friday, January 25, 2013

Save The First Roumanian Congregation

Agudas Achim
Ahavas Achim
Anshe Antipole
Anshe Emeth Nusach Sfard
Anshe Galitzia
Anshe Kalvaria
Anshe Knesses Israel
Anshe Lebowitz
Anshe Lubavitch
Anshe Luknik
Anshe Motele
Anshe Odessa
Anshe Pavolitz
Anshe Pinsk
Anshe Shavel and Yanova
Anshe Ticktin
Anshe Vilno
Anshe Zitomer
Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Kehilath Hasfardim
Beth Hamedrosh U’Bnai Jacob
Beth Jacob Anshe Kroz
Bikur Cholim
B’nai Abraham
B’nai Itzchok
B’nai Reuven
Mishna U’Gemora
Mikro Kodosh
Ohel Jacob Anshe Kovno
Poali Zedeck
Shaarei Shomaim
Shomrei Hadas

There is one name missing from this list: First Roumanian Congregation. It’s missing because of all the above, it is the last surviving synagogue building in the Maxwell Street area. The pre-fire building (1 of only 112 remaining) is facing demolition, and Preservation Chicago put it on “The Chicago Seven,” its list of the most endangered structures in the city.

 Constructed at 497 (now 1352 S.) Union Street in 1869, the building’s various ownerships reflect the changing demographics of the city. Its architect was Augustus Bauer, whose firm also designed St. Patrick’s Church and the Tree Studios. A German-speaking high school, part of the neighboring German United Evangelical Zion church, was the first tenant. Beginning in 1875, a branch of the Foster School, a public school, leased the building.

Former First Roumanian Congregation/Gethsamane Missionary Baptist Church
With the influx of Eastern European Jews on the eve of the 20th century, the First Roumanian Congregation purchased the building in 1897. Several founders were from the city of Isai, which through pogroms and later the Holocaust saw its Jewish population virtually eliminated. With a growing congregation and the movement of families to Lawndale – which eventually had the third largest Jewish population in the world behind Warsaw and New York City – the first Roumanian built a large, ornate synagogue at 3622 W. Douglas Boulevard in 1925.

Former First Roumanian Congregation, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd.
Chicago’s African-American population, confined to certain parts of the city, moved into the Maxwell Street area during the 1920s. The next tenant gave the name for which it is now popularly known: Gethsamane. On May 27, 1935, the Gethsamane Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1922, made S. Union Street its new home. The congregation erected a new fa├žade on the front of the building in 1944, obliterating Bauer’s design. The construction of the adjacent Dan Ryan Expressway (you can see the building when driving in either direction), urban renewal and expansion by the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) led to a dwindling membership, and the church closed in 2005. Purchased by an investor, the South Union Arts Center was the final tenant, closing in 2008.

The Gethsamane Church has sported a large “For Sale” sign for at least three years. The broker describes it as land for sale, 26,000 square feet that can be divided into 11,000 square feet. The listing price is $3.5 million. This has not stopped plans by UIC to construct the John Paul II Newman Center Student Residence, at first a 17-story, 500-bed dormitory since scaled down to 5½-floor (what’s half a floor?), 250-bed facility.
Given the poor job done in preserving any semblance of character in the old Maxwell Street area, one would think the powers that be would want to save the Gethsamane. I find the arguments against preservation rather lame – merchants will benefit from additional money spent by the students, it’s not architecturally significant or financially viable, its vacancy is dangerous, etc. – when compared to the loss of the last vestige for which Maxwell Street is best known. Like it or not, this was (and for some still is) “Jewtown.”  There were more than 30 Jewish congregations and only one is left. And my great-grandparents worshipped there after arriving in Chicago at the turn of the century, and my family is buried in the First Roumanian Congregation Cemetery in Waldheim. I know it’s personal, but I think preservation is more important than how many bags of Skittles the students will buy or how many pizzas they’ll order.

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