Following an extended effort to save the building, Misericordia Homes recently demolished the former Chicago Town and Tennis Club/Unity Church building at 1925 W. Thome Ave., in the West Ridge area of the city. Originally designed by notable architect George Maher and son Philip in 1924, the structure boasted "high gables, a slate roof and grand ballrooms," according to Preservation Chicago.
The building functioned as a tennis club for much of its early history. During the 1980s, it briefly housed an Elks Club and, thereafter, sat empty until Unity Church purchased the space.
Describing the structure and its destruction, Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller said, "These buildings by these really seminal architects that are so well known and so publishedto lose one of those is the equivalent of destroying a great master work of art." He added, "I think we should be thinking of these buildings as works of art."
Although it's a historically notable building based on architecture alone, the building has the distinction of being the site where 40 same-sex couples married June 1, 2014, after Illinois recognized same-sex couples' right to marry. Unity Church led the services where those couples exchanged ( and, in some cases renewed ) vows.
When not marrying couples in a historic mass ceremony, Unity Church formerly held services at the building with a congregation totaling approximately 1,500 members.
That changed when Misericordia purchased the site3.1 acres in totalin 2018. As a part of the purchase, it announced plans to construct 16 new group housing buildings that would provide both shelter and programming. That construction would necessitate the demolition of the Chicago Town & Tennis Club and its surrounding gardens.
Members of the West Ridge community as well as preservationists ( like Preservation Chicago ) worked ardently to save the structure from demolition, initially proposing repurposing the building.
"Some of the great buildings that would be among Chicago's most notable structures have been destroyed, and with each of these you're whittling away not only that architectural legacy, but you're whittling away community," Miller explained. "And you're also whittling away at what could be some wonderful buildings that could house some fabulous community services that could serve so many people."
He added, "And then of course there's the green side and the environmental side of this whole argument. The greenest building is the one we have standing. Why should we fill our landfills with these marvelous works of art when we can repurpose them?"
Miller noted that Preservation Chicago highlighted the buildings "orange-rated" historical status as one of the stronger arguments his organization used in an attempt to convince Misericordia to preserve the building.
According to Miller, being "'orange-rated" means the building was "determined to be significant by not only [Preservation Chicago], but by the city of Chicago in a survey called the Chicago Historic Resources Survey ( CHRS ). It was published in 1996 as part of a decade long plus survey and canvas of the city."
CHRS categorizes approximately 9,600 structures in the city as "orange," based on "some architectural feature or historical association that made them potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community."
While it initially considered the idea, ultimately Misericordia rejected the proposal to renovate or repurpose the structure.
Misericordia gave Unity Church substantial time to move, during which preservationists continued their attempts to save the structure.
One of those proposals involved purchasing the building and moving it 250 feet to a nearby park that was originally a part of the Chicago Town and Tennis Club grounds before the land was subdivided. The new proposal would have re-purposed the building to be a park field house.
At a meeting Ald. Andre Vasquez hosted June 17, Preservation Chicago proposed moving the building to Emerson Park. The meeting marked the end of the final 90-day review window ( a landmark status review required before demolition of any orange-rated building ). This review window was the last of several following extensions due to the holidays and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chicago Park District showed some interest in the proposal but did not have the money to move or staff the building. Although Preservation Chicago offered to raise funds and provide the money required for both, ultimately Misericordia rejected the final preservation proposal.
Commenting on the decision to move forward with the demolition Kevin Connelly, assistant executive director of Misericordia, said, "We bought [the building grounds] with one purpose in mind, and that was to serve as many adults and children with developmental disabilities as possible." He added, "We have waited two-and-a-half years. We feel we have been as neighborly as possible."
The following morning Misericordia began demolishing the building.
Offering final comments on landmarks around Chicago, Miller said, "A landmark building is not just ... a museum pieceit's a living landmark." He added, "We all share these treasuresthese amazing treasures. And I think if we start looking at landmarks from that perspective and less from the museum idea, but as living landmarksworks of artbuildings that can be adaptively reused, creatively reused time and time again. That's what it's really about at the end of the day."