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Hyde Park church languishes after decade of disuse

The state of Saint Stephen’s Church, which has sat broken and boarded-up on East 57th Street and South Blackstone Avenue for more than 10 years, is a product of a contractor caught in a bind between funding, zoning laws, and a deal with a neighbors’ group. While a neighborhood group negotiated a deal to encourage development, a University professor stymies progress.

Photo: Camille van Horne/The Chicago Maroon
Saint Stephen's Church, located on 57th and South Blackstone Avenue, is being foreclosed on for a second time and put up for sale.

The classifieds section of the Hyde Park Herald has been full of foreclosure notices lately, announcing upcoming auctions of repossessed property at a downtown court—a sign of the times after the bear market tore through the housing sector last year.

What makes one of those notices, posted in the Herald three weeks ago, so strange is that the foreclosure it announces came after the property languished for over a decade in favorable markets despite interest in developing the property.

The state of Saint Stephen’s Church, which has sat broken and boarded-up on East 57th Street and South Blackstone Avenue for more than 10 years, is not the product of the recession, but a contractor caught in a bind between funding, zoning laws, and a deal with a neighbors’ group.

As the church accumulated overgrowth and broken windows—it looks “like a fat toad,” one neighborhood journalist said—it became apparent that development would be a struggle, spurring the wider community to consider alternatives that, as yet, have not been realized.

Break-ins and breakdowns

The May 6 foreclosure announcement is the latest in a litany of obstacles Konstantinos “Gus” Antoniou, the faithful owner and developer of the property, has faced since he was sued by the city in 1999 to speed up development, two years after he purchased the plot, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

One particular cause of concern for developers and neighbors was a rash of trespassing in a building that might be filled with potential hazards. A resident of South Blackstone Avenue since 1992, Linda Thoren Neal (A.B. ’64, J.D. ’67) said there was a period of six years during which “there were people in there all the time.”

Urban explorer and photographer Charles Janda lists a gallery of photos taken from inside St. Stephen’s in 2003 in the “Forgotten” section of his Web site. The images show an empty space stripped of ornamentation and strewn with detritus and crumbling plaster.

Antoniou closed off the fire escape students used to sneak in, but new graffiti appeared on the roof of the building as late as April 2008, suggesting there is still a way inside.

Though developing the space would solve the problem, it will not be an easy task. Normal demolition fees are exacerbated by the neighboring buildings’ proximity—rather than being torn down or blown up, St. Stephen’s will need dismantling. Furthermore, a new structure will need to be built with little or no basement or foundation, as ground water under the plot could potentially cause the structure to sink and damage neighboring buildings.

“The devil we know”

A call to the Fifth Ward’s superintendent dispelled the notion that the foreclosure would be any time soon; she said the auction set for May 21 had been delayed until August. Neal said this kind of delay has been going on since the first foreclosure was announced in 2007, and while Antoniou owes $1.6 million to an Illinois bank, nothing is likely to come of it.

“Gus is on a short lease, but they’re not going to foreclose,” she said. This is thanks to the intervention of an almost 10-year-old informal e-mailing group Neal started called the 5600 Block Blackstone Homeowner Group (5600).

5600, formed to unite the voices of 50 or so families that live on the block in an effort to affect how the church would be developed, was drawn into the fate of St. Stephen’s when a 2000 zoning law prevented Antoniou from building the condo he’d wanted to put on the site.

Neal said the group approached Antoniou with a deal: They would work with Alderman Leslie Hairston to grant Antoniou an exception if he promised to keep his condo no taller than St. Stephen’s current height of 76 feet. The group also requested the building be a “very low density and very high quality” building that would maintain its neighbors’ property values, in part by having two parking spaces per unit, Neal said.

“Our group doesn’t care if it lives or dies as a building,” Neal said. “We simply do not care. We would like it not to be empty, and not to be a hazard. In fact, we would like it to be an asset to the neighborhood.”

That agreement was put into writing in 2001 when, after lengthy discussion and design revision, 5600 approved Antoniou’s condo plan. At City Hall, the owners of the buildings adjacent to St. Stephen’s signed the zoning change; they were the Quadrangle Condominium Association to the south and former Dean of Students at the College and current Professor in the Humanities J. Z. Smith and his wife Elaine to the north.

A clause was added to the agreement stipulating that if for any reason Antoniou’s then-current design was not built, the same signers would have to approve a new design over four stories tall. When the original design turned out to be unworkable because its basement garage would cause the building to sink, that clause went into effect.

Though a foreclosure could open up the possibility of building a standard, four-story apartment building where St. Stephen’s now sits, Neal convinced the bank early on in the foreclosure process that the property “has value, or has the most value, if the land is owned by Gus Antoniou,” she said.

Frank Kladis, a lawyer representing the bank, Western Springs National Bank and Trust, declined to comment.

“We joke a lot that [Gus] is the devil we know. In fact, we still don’t know that much about him, but he’s been consistent over these years,” Neal said.

Condo agreement backfires

Built in 1917 as the 10th Church of Christ, Scientist, St. Stephen’s takes its current name from the smaller black congregation that took over the space after the Christian Science church closed in the late 1960s. The building was modeled after Boston’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, an alabaster building that is a cross between the White House and the Vatican.

Despite the overgrowth, the Church’s limestone façade maintains a gleam, and from the very beginning, Antoniou sought to incorporate it into his building. Neal recalled Antoniou telling her, “‘I promised somebody that I would preserve that.’” She added, “I never could figure out who he promised to.”

The developer’s current design surfaced in 2005. Because 5600 still demanded that parking be provided, the garage would be built above ground, with 26 parking spaces for 12 units priced at $450 per square foot, putting each unit in the area of $1–2 million, according to Neal. After discussion, most of 5600 agreed to the plan—Neal said the building would be “an asset to our block”—except for the Smiths.

In order to fit 26 parking spaces into the plot without digging too far down, the new design calls for an above-ground, covered parking lot that would take up an unused alleyway on the property. The garage would stretch up to the bottom of the Smith’s first-floor window.

“They had been great cheerleaders for community dialogue,” Neal said. “When it looked like a building would go up, they got cold feet.”

In the four years since the design was proposed, the Smiths haven’t budged, and the development of St. Stephen’s has reached an impasse: The bank prefers a seven-story tall building to one four stories tall, 5600 prefers Antoniou’s current design, and the Smiths prefer anything else, according to Neal.

Neal said there is little she, or the neighborhood group, can do to convince the Smiths, who did not return repeated calls for comment. “They have a perfectly legitimate basis for their position, and it’s frustrating to us,” she said.

Antoniou’s wife split up with him in 2007, taking many assets that would have otherwise gone into the development process, and then the recession—and neighborhood foreclosures—hit. Nevertheless, in a recent phone call with Neal, Antoniou told her he was going to assure a line of credit by the end of May, though Neal said this should be taken with a grain of salt. Besides, she added, new financing will be a moot point until the Smiths sign on.

“I’m the one who conceived of this strategy, so I feel more than anybody that I’ve been hoisted on my own petard,” Neal said.

Beyond Blackstone

Hyde Parkers have also become disillusioned with the plans for development—or lack thereof—and point to the need for resolution soon, perhaps from actors outside of 5600.

Peter Rossi, a GSB professor and former Hyde Park Progress writer, wrote about St. Stephen’s in 2007 for the Hyde Park-focused blog. Rossi, who described the church as sitting “like a fat toad,” was critical of the level of control 5600 wields.

“We should ask why any small group of residents, neighbors or not, should have complete control over the St. Stephen’s affair,” he wrote. “What about the dozens of other residents of this block? What about other residents of Hyde Park who might benefit by improvements in our housing stock?”

Ella Serr, a member of the Hyde Park Society of the Church of Christ, Scientist, which meets in a nearby building, pointed out that there are four former Christian Science churches in the neighborhood. Neither she nor Garrick Bradley, another member of the group, felt a connection to the building. “We’re more attached to Hyde Park,” Bradley said.

Serr said their small group primarily prays and added that she might bring up St. Stephen’s to the group. “Part of being part of the neighborhood is praying for the neighborhood,” Bradley said.

Serr and Bradley may be praying for a long time. Even if Antoniou secures a line of credit and gains the Smiths’ approval, new bank regulations require that he secure buyers for 80 percent of the building. Given the economy, there is no guarantee that will come to pass.

“It has never looked less likely that something is going to happen,” Neal said. “So who knows? Maybe it will sneak up on us.”

2 comments on “Hyde Park church languishes after decade of disuse

  1. reply

    This is a great example how personal desire outweigh the good of many in the Hyde Park neighborhood. many many complaints have been lodged about the empty building at the Alderman’s office and with District police, yet the problem is not policing or political action. The problem has been and is the whims of a few.

  2. reply

    I lived around the corner at Harper & 57th in the late 90s, right after the church closed. The building is beautiful; I used to admire its perfect, classical dome from the 57th Street Metra platform. It’s just as lovely up close (even marred by graffiti, as it is today). Realize that, should this structure be torn down, nothing constructed in its place will be as architecturally worthwhile. Period. Surely the building can be re-used as something else? Historic Tax Credits, anyone? There are ample precedents nationwide for converting a disused house of worship into something else. Examples of adaptive re-use that I’ve seen personally include health clinics, restaurants, and even private residences.

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