A church that was supposedly designed by famed Evanston architect Lawrence Perkins may not have been his project after all. At least that’s what the leadership of the church in question, the Second Church of Christ, Scientist in Northwest Evanston, is now saying.
If Perkins was not the primary architect, the effort to have the church on Hurd Avenue declared an Evanston landmark could possibly fall apart. Perkins’ international acclaim is the main argument in favor of landmark status, something the Church vigorously opposes.
Landmarking the 1946-vintage structure would make the building “unsellable,” says Church board chair Ann Ratajczyk. Landmark status makes it far more difficult to demolish or even modify a structure.
Ratajczyk told the city’s Preservation Commission earlier this month that “it is an economic hardship for our members to retain the building and the burden is increasing.”
Maintenance alone is $32,000 per year, Ratajczyk said, and the heating and air conditioning needs a $150,000 replacement.
Designed for 400 people, the Second Church of Christ, Scientist at 2715 Hurd Ave. is now down to about 40 members. Church leaders have been looking to sell the property and move to a smaller location for several years.
Despite Church opposition to landmarking, the Preservation Commission gave first-round approval to the status in May, and was prepared to do the same in a required second vote this month when the Church dropped its “maybe-it-isn’t-a-Larry-Perkins-building-after-all” bombshell.
Landmark designation is “based primarily on the assumption that the building was designed by Larry Perkins,” Ratajczyk said.
But the proof, she added, is sketchy. Other architects, she claimed, perhaps even Larry Perkins’ father Dwight, also an architect, may have had a bigger role.
Planning for the building began years before construction, Ratajczyk explained.
Church board minutes from 1937, she said, showed “it was the firm of Perkins, Wheeler and Will with Dwight Perkins as consulting architect that was hired.”
Lawrence Perkins’ name, she said, was not used. He was only referred to briefly, Ratajczyk noted, as one of the “younger members” of the firm who “bring several years’ experience.”
There’s no doubt that Lawrence Perkins, who died in 1997 at age 90, became one of the world’s premier architects, best known for revolutionizing the design of schools to make them more student-friendly and less industrial.
His house in Evanston is among half-a-dozen Perkins-designed structures with local landmark status, although the Christian Science Church is not yet one of them.
City Planner Cade Sterling, in support of landmark status for the church, prepared a report which says “the structure is a rare example of ecclesiastical design by Larry Perkins and may be the only church he designed in his acclaimed career.”
The report states that while the firm Perkins, Wheeler and Will had the architectural contract, “newspaper clippings from the time suggest that … Larry Perkins designed the church himself.”
But “even if it could be proven that Larry Perkins was the architect,” the church’s Ratajczyk said, “it doesn’t mean every building he designed deserves to be landmarked.”
The church was nominated for landmark status by a neighbor who lives across the street, Andrew Nebel, whose research said Larry Perkins was indeed the designer. Nebel said the building should be preserved as a tribute to the famous architect, because the church is a “connection to Perkins and our community.”
But the church board chair said “the landmark process has been used by a single individual to block the congregation from disposing of a building that no longer meets our needs.”
Ratajczyk said the church had three possible buyers, all of which were prevented by community opposition. One of those buyers would have torn the church down and put up a preschool, but the other potential purchasers would have preserved the structure as either a church or a social services facility.
The “who-designed-it” issue held up the Preservation Commission from its second-round landmarking vote, at least temporarily.
Panel chair Mark Simon told Ratajczyk that no such information was ever given prior to the first-round vote, and added “you can’t tell us that our facts are wrong based on documentation that you declined to present us.”
No one had ever questioned Larry Perkins’ role before, Simon stated. “We’re open minded,” he stated, but said that the preservation panel needs to see the documents, not just hear about them.
There are some 800 landmarked buildings in Evanston, some stand-alone structures, others in historic districts.
Usually, landmark status is not controversial, more often than not requested by the property owner, with no objections. In his report to the preservation panel, planner Sterling said the commission has “approved over 95% of the cases brought before it.”
Evanston Now filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city, about the most recent landmark nominations prior to the Christian Science Church.
Those six nominations date back to 2007. Four of them were requested by the property owner. There were no objections, and both the Preservation Commission and City Council (which has final say) said yes.
Two other cases, though, were similar to the church situation, where landmarking was requested by someone else despite property owner opposition.
In both, the preservation panel did recommend landmark status, and in one, for the old Foster School, City Council agreed.
However, Council denied landmark status for a house owned by the Sigma Chi Foundation. Similar to the current church saga, a neighbor had nominated the building in the hope of preventing demolition.
The church drama returns to the Preservation Commission on July 13, where the second-round vote is now scheduled.
Preservation panel members asked the Christian Science Church board to turn over the documents which the board said raise questions about who really designed the Hurd Avenue building.
However, the church board declined, perhaps assuming that the Preservation Commission is going to recommend landmark status no matter what, and preferring to hold the actual ammunition until the issue goes to City Council.
Preservation panel members have stressed that their role is not to determine economic hardship which may be imposed by landmark status, only if that status is historically legitimate. City Council, however, can consider all factors.
So, if the Preservation Commission does call for landmarking the church, and if City Council agrees, then what happens?
“We’re looking at our options,” said Ratajczyk.
It’s a challenging call for the City. On the one hand, there are the private property rights of the Church: “We need to protect ourselves,” said board chair Ratajczyk. “We can’t be stuck with a building we can’t afford to maintain.”
On the other side, history. City Planner Sterling calls the Second Church of Christ, Scientist “an exemplification of early mid-century design movements executed by an internationally recognized master of his craft, architect and Evanston resident Lawrence Perkins.”
Of course, the history has to be accurate. What if Lawrence Perkins did not design the church, or, what if he had only a bit-part in a “planning by committee” approach? What if his father Dwight, also an architect, played a role, even before his death in 1941?
That may raise a whole new controversy. Said Stuart Cohen, a Preservation Commission member, Dwight Perkins “was even more historically significant than his son Larry.”