EDGEWATER — The 132-year-old Epworth Church, once slated to be demolished, is one step away from becoming a city landmark and being converted into affordable housing.
The city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted Thursday to approve a final landmark recommendation for the stone church at 5253 N. Kenmore Ave. The landmark proposal now goes for a vote before the City Council’s Committee on Zoning and then the full City Council.
Epworth Church’s future was uncertain after the congregation held its final services in spring 2022. After a demolition scare, the landmarking process was started last year to preserve the church.
As the landmark designation moves forward, so too does a plan for the next phase in the church’s long history.
Epworth’s owner said they plan to convert the church and a community building into 40-45 affordable apartments. The apartments would include a mix of studios and one-bedrooms, said Mike Jones, executive director of Church Properties Reimagined.
The apartments would be earmarked for households making 60 percent of the area median income, or $43,800 for a one-person household, Jones said at a public hearing March 30.
Church Properties Reimagined was given control of the Epworth campus from its congregation, which grew too small in recent years to financially care for the property. The Methodist nonprofit used its religion’s “social justice” beliefs in conjuring a new use for the church facility, Jones said.
“One of the issues facing many parts of the city is the gentrification of neighborhoods, making it difficult for many people working and living in those neighborhoods to continue to live in those areas,” Jones said at the March public hearing. “Our hope is to help those most in need of affordable housing to be able to stay in the Edgewater neighborhood.”
It’s also possible the building could include transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness, Jones said. Epworth is home to a homeless shelter run by Uptown-based Cornerstone Community Outreach, which could “expand” its presence on the campus, he said.
Church Properties Reimagined leaders said they agreed to the landmark status for the property, but they asked officials not to landmark the buildings’ windows and doors.
Many of the windows were in disrepair or not functional for a conversion to residential use, the development team said. Neither are the doors, which are mainly large, wooden doors that don’t let in light. Reuse of those features would be cost-prohibitive and not environmentally friendly, the team said.
City officials on Thursday agreed to exclude the windows and doors from the landmark recommendation, giving developers leeway to change those during construction. The landmark recommendation instead preserves the facade and roof line. Much of the historical interior elements were removed when the church closed, officials said.
The city’s review of Epworth Church showed the structure met four of seven criteria of a historic structure, enough to be classified as a landmark. That includes its heritage in the Edgewater neighborhood and its architectural significance, officials said.
“It’s rare for its granite field stone walls, likely unique in Chicago,” Matt Crawford, architectural historian for the city, said at Thursday’s commission meeting.
Epworth United Methodist Church formed in 1888, when Edgewater only had a few hundred residents.
The church building was completed in 1891, with noted architect Frederick B. Townsend donating his services, according to the Edgewater Historical Society. In the 1930s, the building was expanded and a community house added to accommodate a growing congregation.
The church has been since been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Because the church was rated “orange” in the city’s historical survey, any requests to demolish the structure automatically trigger a 90-day period to review the building’s historical significance.
During that review, the city found enough evidence to consider making it a landmark. It received preliminary landmark status in July.
Church Properties Reimagined originally did not agree to the landmarking process, which required a public hearing, city officials said. That hearing was held March 30, when the owners said they would not object to the landmarking if it meant not having to preserve the windows and doors.
The commission unanimously signed off on the measure.
Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said he is in support of landmarking the church and called it a critical part of the community.”
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