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Scaffolding remains on St. Adalbert’s Church in Pilsen on April 6, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

PILSEN — After years of advocacy from former parishioners and neighbors, a closed Catholic church in Pilsen is on the verge of becoming a Chicago landmark.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday unanimously voted to recommend St. Adalbert's Church, 1650 W. 17th St., be designated an official landmark during a contentious meeting at City Hall. The measure still needs final sign off from the City Council's zoning committee and the full council.

The landmarks commission also advanced designations for the newly-restored Ramova Theatre in Bridgeport and the Jackson Storage and Van Company Warehouse in Little Village.

St. Adalbert's was founded in 1874 by Polish immigrants. The current church building was completed in 1914 and was in operation for more than a century before it was closed by the Archdiocese of Chicago after a final mass in 2019, when the parish consolidated with nearby St. Paul's Catholic Church.

The archdiocese announced in February 2016 that St. Adalbert would close “due to extensive repairs needed and associated high costs,” including for the church’s 185-foot towers, which have been surrounded by scaffolding for years.

But some former parishioners and neighbors have since vehemently pushed to preserve the church and keep it out of the hands of developers, arguing it is a vital cultural and religious site for Pilsen residents past and present. The current landmark proposal includes not just the church building but three other connected buildings on the property.

Landmarking St. Adalbert's has also been a mission of Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s (25th), whose ward includes the church, since his early days in office. In 2019, the alderperson moved to rezone the church to get better control over what could be built on the site.

Former parishioners are taken into police custody after blocking the truck carrying the La Pietà statue, which was removed from St. Adalbert’s and moved to St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Pilsen on Nov. 29, 2022, after months of activism to keep the statue in its original home. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

The measure was revived in 2022, when it was approved by the council's zoning committee, despite a representative from the archdiocese saying it would likely sue.

The ordinance was later squashed by allies of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a meeting of the full City Council, in which Lightfoot and Sigcho-Lopez had a heated back-and-forth.

Supporters continued efforts to preserve St. Adalbert's, even going so far as to camp outside the church in 2022 to prevent the archdiocese from removing a historic statue from inside. The statue was eventually taken out later that year, when five protestors were arrested for trying to block its removal.

The church has since remained closed. In August, the landmarks commission took the first step in designating it a landmark, which would protect the church from being “completely gutted and sold to developers,” Sigcho-Lopez previously said.

Shortly after the landmarking process began, archdiocese officials confirmed the church was under contract with a developer to possibly turn it into an event space.

Parishioners protest the removal of the La Pietà statue from the former St. Adalbert’s Church in Pilsen on Oct. 18, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

There have been several past attempts to find a new owner for St. Adalbert’s.

The archdiocese tried to sell the church in November 2016, when it went under contract with the Chicago Academy of Music. In September 2018, they tried again to sell the property with commercial real estate firm SVN Chicago.

City Pads, a developer who sparked ire among residents after “whitewashing” a mural at the Casa Aztlan community center, was under contract to buy the church complex for $4 million in September 2019 — months after the church was deconsecrated. But the deal later fell through.

The archdiocese has consistently fought against landmarking St. Adalbert's. At a public hearing May 10, George Kisiel, an architect and land use consultant hired by the archdiocese, disputed the church and its connected buildings have the qualifications to merit landmark status.

“While the subject property arguably has value as an example of city heritage, as do countless other properties in the city, it is not rational or defensible to say that this particular subject property and buildings collectively represent exemplary architecture, or is the work of a significant architect, or has a distinctive physical presence or appearance,” he said.

Kisiel and lawyers representing the archdiocese made one last ditch effort on Thursday to persuade the landmark commission to not recommend further action on the proposal. Some parishioners from St. Paul's also spoke out against the landmarking of St. Adalbert's at Thursday's meeting.

Attorney Danielle Meltzer Cassel urged the city to help the site get redeveloped — and said that the ongoing maintenance of St. Adalbert's is harming the vitality of nearby St. Paul's, which took on its management when it closed.

“St. Paul, the consolidated parish, is in danger right now because they are having their funds drained fighting this landmarking fight, maintaining this building, being unable to sell this asset, but being responsible for its maintenance in the meantime,” she said. “The city does not have enough resources to buy this property or develop it on its own, so we need private resources, and we need to do this in a collaborative and comprehensive way.”

Church representatives also requested that if the commission were to ultimately recommend landmarking, they limit the designation to the facade of St. Adalbert's, not the site's other buildings.

“There isn't merit in the rest of the site...From a preservation point of view, you lose nothing, but what you gain, at least, is the possibility that we can still do a reasonable development proposal after landmarking,” archdiocese general counsel Jim Geoly said.

Members of the landmarks commission disagreed with those assessments on Thursday, sending the St. Adalbert's landmarking proposal to the City Council.

The renovated Ramova Theatre includes Other Half Brewing, Ramova Grill and a concert venue. Credit: Joe Ward/Ecoglobalsociety

The landmark process for the Ramova Theatre at 3508 S. Halsted St. in Bridgeport has been far less contentious, with developer Tyler Nevius firmly in support.

The Ramova opened in 1929 as a sister theater to the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview. The interior was designed in the “atmospheric” style of the 1920s, with an auditorium meant to resemble Spanish courtyards and stars on deep blue ceilings that would glimmer before each movie.

The theater closed in 1985 and was eventually acquired through eminent domain by the city of Chicago in 2001, according to city planners.

It was taken over by Nevius' Our Revival Chicago LLC in 2020, which undertook an expansive rehabilitation of the space, which includes a 1,500 capacity music venue that opened late last year. The venue is also home to Other Half Ramova brewery and the Ramova Grill restaurant.

Commission members also voted unanimously in favor of landmarking the theater.

“This is an amazing project,” landmarks commission chair Ernest Wong said.

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