It was actually a case of mistaken identity that led us to South Lawndale, a part of the city I most certainly wouldn't have ever visited otherwise, in pursuit of the Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church. When I had been scoping out the "Sacred Spaces" section on the Open House Chicago website and planning our day, I saw a thumbnail photo of the church and mistook it for a half-remembered building I'd spotted in Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, my version of the Bible when it comes to ecclesiastic architecture in Chicago. Both buildings had impressive wooden ceilings, and though I thought I remembered the church being closer to the United Center, I thought perhaps I had just recalled incorrectly, and put Greater Zion Hill on our itinerary.
Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church
2255 S. Millard Ave.
Originally built in 1891, the Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church was originally known as the Fowler Methodist Church. Charles Henry Fowler was a Methodist pastor who was active in Chicago during the 1860s and 1870s, and a former president of Northwestern University before he was elected a bishop of his church, necessitating a move to California. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Fowler worked to raise funds throughout the East in order to rebuild Chicago's churches and provide aid to its religious communities.
South Lawndale was established by refugees of the Great Fire, and attracted mainly residents of German and Czech extraction. Over time, the neighborhood changed demographics several times, as they are wont to do in Chicago, and today, South Lawndale is home to a mostly Hispanic population. This evolution was evidenced at Greater Zion Hill by the presence of bilingual signage at every turn.
The exterior of the church is rendered in the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was so popular in Chicago following the construction of architect Henry Hobson Richardson's home for International Harvester magnate, John J. Glessner, in 1886. Though some of the windows could use repair and restoration, the building is in remarkably good condition, considering all the changes its seen in the past century, as well as the economic stagnation of the neighborhood it calls home.
As we walked in, it was clear that we were not in the church that I remembered seeing in my book, despite the presence of the glorious wooden ceiling. In fact, the ceiling felt a little out of place for the rest of the sanctuary, which was quite plain, but had a homey, lived-in quality that has been lacking in some of the religious spaces I've visited as part of "A Religious Experience." True, it was a little threadbare, but nothing near the devastation at Agudas Achim, or even the level of creeping decay visible at the Second Presbyterian Church or Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park. Even if the building wasn't especially notable, it was nice to see that it was so well-loved.
It turns out that the church I had confused it with was the 1885 Church of the Epiphany, which boasts a Richardsonian Romanesque exterior as well as an ornate, dark wood ceiling. I was right, it is located at 201 South Ashland, much closer to the United Center, but it's going to have to remain on my to-do list for now. Perhaps I'll manage to get there some time in 2013...