The decision could come down to this: Should a relatively ordinary-looking building designed by an extraordinary Evanston architect be given landmark status — a status that would make it much more difficult for an owner to tear down or even modify the structure?
The structure is the Second Church of Christ, Scientist on Hurd Avenue in Northwest Evanston. Earlier this month, over the objection of church officials, the city’s Preservation Commission unanimously recommended landmark approval to City Council, which has final say.
Getting this far is the result of a one-person campaign. Former Chicago TV news reporter Andrew Nebel lives across the street from the church, and gave the Preservation Commission a researched and illustrated 35-page landmark nomination, outlining both the history of the building and of its famed designer, architect Lawrence Perkins.
Perkins drew up plans for the church in 1946, one of some 500 buildings designed by his firm, Perkins, Wheeler and Will (later Perkins and Will). Business partner Philip Will also lived in Evanston.
“I’ve always loved having the church as a neighbor,” Nebel told the commission.
Nebel said when he heard that the building might be demolished to make way for a preschool, he decided to act.
The preschool proposal has since been withdrawn.
Still, Nebel said the Second Church of Christ, Scientist should be preserved as a tribute to Lawrence Perkins, not because Nebel wants a quiet building across the street.
Nebel told Evanston Now he would have pursued landmark status even if he did not live near the church, “for sure because of what I learned when I researched it. To me,” he said, “it’s the connection to Perkins and our community.”
“It sort of just floored me,” Nebel added, that Perkins is not more honored in his hometown.
Actually, Perkins, who died in 1997 at age 90, has been honored by Evanston, although perhaps not as much as some would prefer. Half-a-dozen of his local buildings, including his house and an addition to Evanston Township High School, are already city landmarks. He also helped shape the community as chair of the Plan Commission.
Perkins was also honored regionally and nationally, including with the “prestigious 25-Year Award which is given to a project of enduring significance by the American Institute of Architects,” according to his 1997 obituary in the Chicago Tribune.
That project was perhaps Perkins’ most famous and influential, the Crow Island School, in nearby Winnetka. The school, on the National Register of Historic Places, is credited with revolutionizing school design to make it more student-friendly and less industrial.
In fact, the majority of Perkins’ designs were schools. His New York Times obituary was headlined “Architect Who Loved Building Schools.” Perkins and Will also designed several prominent downtown Chicago office towers.
Churches were not a major part of the firm’s portfolio.
Gary Shumaker, an architect and former Preservation Commission chair, represented the Church, and told the panel that Nebel’s landmark nomination was flawed and should be rejected.
Shumaker told Evanston Now that Nebel’s argument was “factually inaccurate at a number of levels.” Shumaker said there are very specific criteria which must be met, not just that the building was designed by someone famous.
The church is more than 70 years old, Shumaker said, and “this is the first time it has ever been on anybody’s radar for historic properties.”
“I think this particular nomination may have less to do with the significance and integrity of the building and more about the future use of the property,” Shumaker added. Besides the preschool, a separate proposal for the Salvation Army to buy the church (and use the building rather than demolishing it) was also withdrawn after some community opposition.
City Planner Cade Sterling told the Preservation Commission that the Second Church of Christ, Scientist did have significance as a “spare/modern version of the Colonial Revival style” which “used simplicity to great advantage.”
Sterling also called the church “a rare ecclesiastical design” by Perkins and said it is one of only a few structures in Evanston designed by Perkins and Will, despite both living in the city.
After the Commission’s public hearing about the church, an interesting exchange between commission member Stuart Cohen and planner Sterling was heard.
Cohen asked what he termed an “inappropriate question” about the ongoing issue of historic preservation versus the wishes of the owner. Evanston’s preservation ordinance does not require owner approval for landmark designation.
When Sterling informed Cohen that there were still listeners on the zoom session, Cohen said “Is the public here? Well the public can hear this as well.”
Cohen’s question: “Is the City Council simply going to not approve the designation because of property owners rights?”
Sterling replied he could not speak for Council, and is not aware of how the four new Aldermen feel about preservation.
“We certainly have our work cut out for us,” Sterling added. “It’s good that an ordinance does not require owner consent, but it’s also challenging.”
Said Cohen, “good answer.”
The Preservation Commission has to vote one more time on the landmark recommendation before passing it along to City Council later this summer.
If Council says yes, the Second Church of Christ, Scientist would then need approval from the preservation commission in order to make any changes in the structure.
Evanston has about 800 landmarked buildings. Some are in historic districts with multiple structures, others, like the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, are stand-alone buildings.