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Misericordia’s Expansion Plan In West Ridge Sets Off Preservation Fight

To help alleviate its long wait list, Misericordia wants to build 16 homes for people with developmental disabilities on the site of a historic former tennis club.

The former Chicago Town and Tennis Club, 1925 W. Thome Ave., was built in 1925 by noted architect firm George W. Maher and Son.
Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
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WEST RIDGE — To help meet a glaring housing need for those with developmental disabilities, Misericordia is planning a major expansion of its West Ridge residential campus.

To do so, the charitable group is seeking to tear down a nearly 100-year-old former tennis club built by notable architecture firm George W. Maher & Son.

The former tennis club at 1925 W. Thome Ave. sits just south of Misericordia Home, the 31-acre campus where the charity houses 600 children and adults with developmental disabilities. Misericordia bought the tennis club building in 2018 for $7.5 million, and it plans to incorporate the site into the larger campus to provide more housing services.

The tennis club building is outdated and unable to serve as a residence for Misericordia clients, according to the group. Instead, the Catholic nonprofit wants to demolish the building and build 16 single-family-style homes on the lot, which could house about 150 residents.

Those plans are not sitting well with some preservation groups and neighbors, who are seeking ways to save the building while allowing for Misericordia’s expansion.

“We support [Misericordia’s] great work,” said Mary Lu Seidel, director of community engagement for advocacy group Preservation Chicago. “We are of the opinion that this number of homes can be done on the site … without taking down the property itself.”

RELATED: Misericordia’s Unstoppable ‘Force,’ Sister Rosemary Connelly, Marks 50 Years Of Fighting For People With Disabilities

Misericordia has already applied for a permit to demolish the former tennis club, officials said at a community meeting Wednesday. But because the city has rated the building “orange” — meaning it is “potentially” architecturally or historically significant — city officials have placed a 90-day delay on the issuing of the permit.

Now, Misericordia is seeking a zoning change to allow for the community-style housing on the tennis club site. That zoning request was the subject of a community meeting Wednesday, where neighbors weighed in on the fate of the tennis club building.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he understands arguments made both by the preservationists and Misericordia. He held the Wednesday meeting to seek community feedback on the zoning plan and the potential demolition.

“Hearing all the different sides, it does become challenging to think through,” Vasquez said.

A rendering of Misericordia’s plans for the tennis club site. [Courtesy 40th Ward Office]

Growing need for housing

Run by the Sisters of Mercy, Misericordia Home has had a campus in West Ridge since 1976, Sister Rosemary Connelly said. The campus has grown exponentially since then, but there is still a great need for such housing, she said.

Misericordia Home’s wait list includes 300 families. The group is seeking to expand its offerings to accommodate as many of those families as possible.

“We are out of room on campus,” said Hugh Connelly, a member of Misericordia’s advisory board. “We don’t have an easy solution. We have to look off campus, and this is the best opportunity to serve our needs.”

To meet its clients’ needs, Misericordia bought the tennis club building and surrounding land. It has proposed building 16 new group homes on the site, which would house about 8 residents each.

Misericordia is also asking to turn nearby stretches of West Thome Avenue and North Winchester Avenue into private streets, in order to better consolidate the new property into its campus and provide better security for its residents. A centrally located green space is also included in the plans.

The group chooses single-family-style group homes because it gives their residents the best quality of life, Sister Rosemary said.

“Smaller, cluster-type housing has worked extremely well for our residents and our staff,” she said. “We take a lot of pride in creating a home-like environment.”

Creating such an environment, however, will require the demolition of the former tennis club, Misericordia officials said.

The south-facing facade of the former tennis club building at 1925 W. Thome Ave. [Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago]

Maher-designed building?

Built in 1925 as the Chicago Town and Tennis Club, the building at 1925 W. Thome has lived many lives since then.

The building is considered the work of George W. Maher, a contemporary of heralded Chicago architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. It is more likely, however, that Maher’s son designed the building, since it was built in the last years of his life, when he was not working due to illness, according to a study of the building commissioned by Misericordia.

The tennis club building was constructed in a Tudor revival style, and was modeled off the Wimbledon tennis club in England.

The building served as home to the tennis club until the 1940s. It later housed an Elks Club and sat vacant for much of the 1980s, until the Unity Church bought the building.

It is now owned by Misericordia, who has determined that the building can not be retrofitted to house the charity’s clients. The multiple stories of the building are not of uniform level, its grand staircase would be a danger to residents, and it is not built to code for such group-style living, said Joe Gattuso, attorney for Misericordia.

It is also Misericordia’s belief that the building is not historically significant enough to warrant preservation.

The building is not listed among Maher’s finest work and is not mentioned in studies of the famed architect. The entirety of Maher’s design was never built and the existing structure has been altered over time, according to Gattuso. Also, since it would be on Misericordia’s campus, the public would not have access to the preserved building.

“For any number of reasons, this building … doesn’t warrant preservation,” Gattuso said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Preservationists strongly disagree.

Bonnie McDonald, CEO of preservation group Landmarks Illinois, said she believes the tennis club meets the criteria to be designated a Chicago landmark. She asked Misericordia to work with groups such as hers to find a “win-win” that works for the charity and the preservationists.

“The site has a high degree of integrity,” said McDonald, who lives in West Ridge. “We want to find an alternative [use].”

Potential alternative uses include using the building for administrative or other services at Misericordia, or even moving the building to neighboring Emmerson Park to act as a fieldhouse. Moving that building would cost more than $9 million, according to Misericordia.

Wednesday’s community meeting was attended by a number of Misericordia families, supporters and workers, who said the charity’s mission should trump preservation efforts.

“If you can’t come up for a use of the building, what’s the point?” one supporter said. “The purpose of this project is to provide for people who need it.”

It is not known when Misericordia might hear back on its demolition permit application. Because of the zoning request and needed building permits, Misericordia is envisioning the new homes would be move-in ready in three years.

And while the fight over the preservation of the tennis club will continue, one community member reminded neighbors to think of those families on Misericordia’s waiting list for housing.

“My family knows the pain of being on that list,” said a man whose sister lives at the facility. “We celebrated her getting in here. We need to be talking about the residents, and not architecture and parking.”

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