WTTW host shares tidbits about Chicago churches

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, August 7, 2016

WTTW host shares tidbits about Chicago churches

In this 1929 Catholic New World file photo, workers prepare to move Our Lady of Lourdes Church across Ashland Avenue and then rotated it 90 degrees to face north on Leland Avenue.
After moving the church across Ashland Avenue and turning it to face north, workers split Our Lady of Lourdes in half to add extra space to accommodate 300 more people. (Photo provided by Chicago Public Library, Sulzer Regional/RLVCC 1.117)
The exterior of Old Saint Patrick's Church, 700 W. Adams St., is seen in this 2008 file photo. The church predates the Chicago Fire and was designed by notable Chicago architects Augustus Bauer and Asher Carter. (Brian J. Morowczynski/Catholic New World)
The interior of Old St. Pat's is shown in this file photo. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
The holy water font at Old St. Pat's pictured in this file photo. During a renovation of the church Irish-themed accents were added including Celtic knots. (Catholic New World/Karen Callaway)
The Irish-themed designs can be seen in this file photo. (Catholic New World/Karen Callaway)
A statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha as seen in Old St. Pat's church. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
A view of the interior of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park, 5472 S Kimbark Ave. Architect Barry Byrne was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time, Byrne's design of St. Thomas — almost as wide as it is long, with the sanctuary jutting out into the nave and no pillars to interrupt the sight lines of anybody in the congregation — was "a radical departure from church architecture in the 1920s." (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
The baptistry inside St. Thomas the Apostle. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
The 14th station of the cross, Jesus is laid in the tomb. These stations were designed by artist Alfeo Faggi. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
The 13th station, Jesus is taken down from the cross. These stations were designed by artist Alfeo Faggi. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
WTTW Channel 11 host Geoffrey Baer

TV personality Geoffrey Baer is best known for his many architectural and history programs that air on WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago, including his famed “10 That Changed America” series.

Over the years, Baer and his team have covered histories that involved Catholic churches in and around Chicago. With the caveat that he is Jewish and not an expert on Catholic architecture, Baer agreed to share some of the interesting stories he’s come across throughout his years of producing the shows.

Catholic New World: One of the most popular stories we hear is about how the Kennedy Expressway was rerouted around St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish instead of following the initial plan of demolishing the parish to make room for the expressway.

Geoffrey Baer: This is that era of expressway building, and neighborhoods were getting bulldozed all over the place to build expressways. This turned out to be a rather ill-advised era in urban planning because they just became highways to drain the cities of population and fostered sprawl out into the suburbs. But the big battles erupted over what got demolished.

There was a similar episode to St. Stanislaus Kostka church on the South Side where the highway was proposed to go basically right through Mayor Richard J. Daley’s neighborhood. Not coincidentally it just happened to get rerouted. The expressway there ended up being quite a wall, walling off the African-American community from the white neighborhoods to the west.

On the North Side, the Kennedy Expressway, which at the time was called the Northwest Expressway — or in some cases they were calling it the Bryn Mawr Expressway because it was going to kind of run right along Bryn Mawr as it headed out north — the route was going to require St. Stanislaus Kostka to be demolished. The Polish community appealed to the elected officials.

People have tended to call that bend in the expressway the “Rostenkowski curve” because they think that the powerful congressman, Dan Rostenkowski, who was such a hero in the Polish community, pulled the strings for it. What we wrote in the show was, “in reality, it was a civil-engineer-turned-politician, Bernard Prusinski, who cooked up the plan to shift the expressway to the east.” Prusinski defeated six-term incumbent, Joe Rostenkowski, Dan Rostenkowski’s father, for 32nd ward alderman on a “Save St. Stan’s” platform. The curve follows civil engineer Prusinski’s recommendations to the state.

CNW: In an episode of “Hidden Chicago,” you featured how in 1929 Our Lady of Lourdes Church at the corner of Ashland and Leland avenues, was literally moved across the street to make way for some more urban development.

Baer: The context of this was, I believe, consistent with the Burnham Plan in Chicago. There was this systematic widening of certain arterial streets, and so there was a widening plan for Ashland Avenue. If you follow Ashland along, up around Irving Park on the North Side, you can, to this day, see buildings that were literally chopped in half. Half of the building was removed and just kind of bricked up to widen Ashland.

This plan was going to cause them to probably tear down Our Lady of Lourdes, which used to sit on the east side of Ashland. Instead of demolishing it, they actually picked up the church, rolled it across the street and rotated it 90 degrees to face Leland. While they were at it, they decided they needed more space so they cut it in half and sort of spread the two halves apart and inserted another section into the middle of the church. They moved it in March 1929 and it took 20 hours.

There are great pictures of this. The pictures are just mind-boggling. This whole story is in the section of “Hidden Chicago” called Chicago Streets, and it’s in there. It’s all on the website,

CNW: In our newspaper archives I found coverage of this in the March 22, 1929 issue. It said, “50,000 feet of heavy timber was slid underneath and 200 workmen manning 4,000 jacks slowly raised the church. On the timbers were placed 400 tons of rails. On the tracks were placed 3,000 rollers and the building was lowered upon the rollers ready to be moved.”

Baer:When they cut it in half they added a 30-foot addition to the middle, increasing seating capacity by 300.

CNW: Are church buildings important to communities?

Baer: Churches are some of the most significant architecture in the city. I’m a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and one of the tours that I trained for long ago, probably 25 years ago, was an El tour where we would go all over the city of Chicago with a group of people. It’s just remarkable how many places, what you point out from the El, are the spires of churches. They’re significant architectural and cultural landmarks everywhere all over the city, many of them, of course, Catholic.

We talk about some interesting characters, notably, there’s a famous church architect named Henry Schlacks.

Henry Schlacks died in 1938 and he was noted for designing many Chicago churches in historic styles — neogothic style, Renaissance, Romanesque. He had gone over to Europe and became very steeped in ecclesiastical architecture. He trained at MIT and then worked in the offices of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in Chicago before starting a practice. He went on to found the architecture department at the University of Notre Dame.

Schlacks designed St. Adalbert’s and he designed St. Ignatius in Rogers Park. He designed St. Mary of the Lake on Sheridan Road in Uptown, which is one of the ones I remember from that El tour because it has this campanile, sort of this stacked tower that’s just a huge landmark in Uptown. He designed St. Paul’s on South Hoyne, which has huge twin spires.

Schlacks was a really important guy. Some of Chicago’s most important architecture and architects are involved in churches as it turns out. He also designed St. John of God in Back of the Yards and St. Peter Canisius in Austin.

CNW: You regularly debunk urban myths that are built up around Chicago history. Is there any that are related to our churches?

Baer: The way people talk about the Chicago Fire has a lot of urban mythology about it. Most people think the entire city burned down, which, of course, it didn’t. It was a huge catastrophe, but it decimated the center of the city and the North Side, but almost all of the West and South Sides were untouched.

People say there’s no Chicago building that predates the Chicago Fire. Well of course, Old St. Pat’s predates the Chicago Fire. Old St. Pat’s opened in 1856 and the Chicago Fire was 1871. I love that it predates the Chicago Fire and Holy Family predates the Chicago Fire too.

It’s very significant architecturally. The architects were Augustus Bauer and Asher Carter, who were early Chicago architects. I mean we’re talking pre-Chicago Fire, and the spires were apparently added later in 1885 according to a little research. They were done by the same architect who designed Holy Name, which is an architect from Brooklyn named Patrick Charles Keely. The stained glass windows by Thomas O’Shaughnessy are very noteworthy.

Another Chicago Fire story is St. Michael’s in Old Town. St. Michael’s was built two years before the fire, and the walls of St. Michael’s are the walls from the pre-fire church. The church was completely gutted in the fire, and the bells melted and fell through the roof, but the walls were saved. The church was rebuilt using the same exterior walls, so that’s interesting because the fire swept right through it, all the way up to Fullerton. I think that’s kind of an interesting thing.

CNW: What about the architect who designed St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park?

Baer: That was Francis Barry Byrne. He was a really great, interesting character. Francis Barry Byrne worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. St. Thomas the Apostle is considered the first modern Catholic Church in the United States.

Catholic Churches were, historically and traditionally, in a cruciform shape with a nave and an apse and the transept and all that stuff. Byrne just created a big open barn, a totally open space, no columns. He didn’t have the stained glass windows above the side aisles. It was just a big open space.

He pulled the altar down toward the congregation. This was way before the Second Vatican Council when the Catholic Church moved the altar closer to the parishioners.

He just completely reconfigured this whole thing. Byrne worked with Alfonso Iannelli, who’s a really important, famous artist from Park Ridge who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on Midway Gardens.

Iannelli did the Prudential rock on the side of the 1950s Prudential Building, designed coffee pots for Sunbeam in the 1940s and 1950s. He’s a really important modern sculptor and he did a lot of those finial and external sculptures and bronze panels in St. Thomas the Apostle.

Byrne also employed Edgar Miller, who’s this very unsung Chicago artist who’s just now really being recognized as a tremendously important artist, for work on the interior of the church. However, after this church was completed, the Catholic Church never hired Barry Byrne again. (According to a 2013 Catholic New World story, after the church was finished, Cardinal George Mundelein, who was not considered a fan of modern architecture, reportedly said it was 20 years ahead of its time, and banned Byrne from further work in the archdiocese.)


  • st. thomas the apostle
  • chicago history
  • architecture
  • our lady of lourdes
  • henry schlacks
  • st. michael old town
  • old st. pats

Related Articles