Architects tour St. Boniface, find it in promising condition

This article originally appeared in the EVA newsletter in 1999.

By Scott A. Rappe, AIA
Principal, Kuklinski+Rappe Architects

In a welcome gesture towards finding a mutually agreeable approach to saving St. Boniface, the Archdiocese of Chicago extended an invitation to Alderman Jesse Granato and five community representatives to tour the church on May 5, 1999. Several representatives of the Archdiocese, including Father Baldwin, Thomas Brennan and Gregory Veith joined the Alderman, representatives from the Eckardt Park community, respected preservation architects John Vinci and Ward Miller, and myself on the walk‑through.

We were prepared for the worst, having been warned of structural damage and being required to sign releases prior to entering the church. I am pleased to say that our worst fears were not realized. While weather, pigeons and the lack of an ongoing maintenance program have left their mark, the building has survived a decade of abandonment with little apparent irreversible damage.

Our first stop was the nave, an impressive multi‑story space in the form of a latin cross, with a shallow central dome. The dome is supported on large arches which span the width of the space and is adorned with a ornate, but peeling mural. Predictably, the plaster on the exterior walls (which was probably applied directly to the masonry) is showing signs of deterioration. In addition, a slender plaster colonnette (a decorative column applied to the structural piers to reduce their visual massiveness) has deteriorated and fallen to the floor. Suprisingly, with its original stained glass windows removed, the worship space is now light, airy and filled with promise.

Next we walked throught the main floor of the rectory, which has several formal spaces and parlors. They were very impressive, with natural oak woodwork, pocket doors, built‑in seating and bookcases and a beautiful roman‑brick fireplace. Some items, such as the mantle piece have been removed for salvage. The most striking space in the rectory is the stairway, which features several massive oak newel posts and ornate railings and is capped by a skylight in the form of the Star of David.

In search for the structural damage we were warned about, we descended to the basement area beneath the nave. Here, the heavy riveted lattice columns (similar to those seen on old bridges throughout the City) are visible standing on stone step footings, supporting the church above. The concrete floor structure of the nave is visible from beneath as well.

Our final destination was the school, where we finally saw the results of mixing water, weather and time with buildings: two collapsed classroom floors. Although unfortunate, the collapse demonstrates the enduring structural integrity of the complex, despite neglect. The wood floor joists acted precisely as they were designed to act in case of a fire or other catastrophe. When built, the ends of each joist were cut at an angle (‘fire cut’) to allow them to pull cleanly from the supporting masonry without toppling the walls above. This is exactly what has happened.

Ironically, the missing stained glass windows and degradation of the interior plaster decoration and murals may be a blessing in disguise. If these items were in better shape, they would severely limit the potential uses to which the building could be put and would certainly require a significant amount of money to restore. As John Vinci noted during the walk-through, of the $5 million spent on the restoration of Holy Family church, only one million was spent on remediating structural damage and making the building habitable again; the rest went to restoration of interior finishes.

The value of St. Boniface transcends the condition of its plaster and paint. It is a religioius, cultural and architectural landmark that conveys meaning to our community across ethnic, nationalistic, linguistic and even religious lines. Weather and neglect can erode plaster and mortar, but can never diminish the memory and meaning of such a magnificent edifice to our community. I have no doubt, that in its next life (if blessed with a stay of execution), St. Boniface is suited to continue to serve its community as a library, museum, community center, school or other institution as faithfully as its has served as a building for worship.
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