The following text is from an East Village Association Preservation Committee newsletter dated December 1998.
Rising majestically from its corner location, St. Boniface stands guard over Eckhart Park as it has for almost 100 years. It was constructed in 1902-04 and designed by architect Henry J. Schlacks. The park itself acts as the church’s forecourt and thereby creates its northern wall. Viewed across the park from the south, the full dimension of this important structure becomes apparent. Rendered in a solid Romanesque style, the church and its adjacent school building dominate the block on which they sit.
The church is defined by its three soaring bell towers; their steeply pitched clay tile roofs provide an instantly recognizable symbol for the surrounding neighborhood and are visible for miles around. The base is made of rusticated ashlar block intersected by canted buttresses that extend down to the sidewalk. Its brick exterior is in excellent condition with no significant cracking or mortar loss. Detailing includes arcades, as well as intact rose window frames although their stained glass has long since been removed.
The school building to the east echoes the style of Louis Sullivan with its five prominent arched arcades. Virtually all of the window panes, which form a trefoil, motif, are in tact, although some are covered by a protective material. Its fully intact cornice contains carved Corinthian pilasters and what appear to be terra cotta spandrel panels. Overall the buildings are in restorable condition, lending themselves to many possible future uses.
St. Boniface Church was established for German immigrants in 1865. With roots in Chicago history that predate the great Chicago Fire of 1871, St. Boniface player an integral role in helping to reshape and rebuild its neighborhood and city by providing makeshift housing within the church buildings as well as clothing and meals for people whose homes had been destroyed in the conflagration.
The current building replaced the church’s original wooden structure in 1903. This larger and architecturally more monumental structure necessitated itself to a burgeoning group of members. Following the new church’s construction, Father Evers, the parish priest, spearheaded an effort to condemn the 10 acres adjacent to the church with is now Eckhart Park. The history of the St. Boniface parish is significant as it provides insight into the social and political dynamics of the different immigrant communities who settled around Chicago Avenue and Noble Street from the 1860s to the present. St. Boniface fits within the historical and physical context of other formidable sights; The Northwestern Settlement House; Holy Trinity Church; St. Stanislaus Kostka Church; and St. John Cantius Church.
St. Boniface is colored-coded orange in the Commission on Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey: “…a structure possessing historical and architectural distinction in the context of the immediate community.”
Henry J. Schlacks
Building churches was big business in Chicago at the turn of the century. When immigrants arrived from Europe, they needed a house of worship in order to really make the new country home. Between 1891 and 1945, 165 full-scale churches were built in Lake and Cook counties. These churches were more than a site to hold services. Churches were a way for congregations to proclaim their place in the city, demonstrate their worthiness as citizens, and still nurture their ethnic identities.
The arrival of large numbers of Catholic immigrants in the 1890s ushered in what historian Edward Kantowicz called “the golden age of ecclesiastical architecture”. A spirit of eclecticism enhanced this building boom – each immigrant group had their own stylistic taste. This rampant individualism contrasted with other church building campaigns. For instance, the use of a single architect (Sir Christopher Wren, surveyor of the Crown) in supervising the construction of 52 churches in London resulted in an architectural landscape very different from Chicago’s. Neither were Chicagoans especially interested in commissioning famous out of towners to design their churches. They relied on local talent, which was readily available. A pool of 40 Catholic firms and individuals made their livings largely from building not just churches, but their associated structures, including schools, convents, and rectories.
Henry J. Schlacks, the architect of the St. Boniface Church, School and Residence, was a vanguard of this group. He was born in Chicago in 1868, of German parents. Schlacks studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before his apprenticeship at the firm of Adler and Sullivan. In addition to being a working architect, he was also a teacher, and was appointed as the first Director of the Course in Architecture of the University of Notre Dame.
Schlacks’ architectural aesthetic was developed during extensive travels in Europe, where he studied church architecture throughout the continent. He had special interest in German architecture and traveled to the Moselle Valley and Berlin. He also gained expertise in what reportedly was his favorite style, Renaissance.
Catholic congregations had three major “ethnic leagues” – Irish, Polish and German – and each group showed preferences to different styles. The Irish and German favored Gothic, while the Polish favored Renaissance or baroque motifs. Gothic design was actually a revival movement. This school, which began in Europe and moved to the U.S. was a reaction to the mainstream Victorian architecture. Schlacks was a developer and teacher of Gothic Revival, and added a unique German element to the mix. While there was a tendency for each ethnic group to seek architects of their own nationality, Schlacks expertise in multiple vernaculars made him a popular choice with all “leagues”.
St. Boniface was an early commission in Schlacks’ career, constructed in 1902-1904. It was a Romanesque design, which was a style of architecture that was utilized by all ethnic groups. Romanesque architecture did not require the ornate, grandiose detailing of Gothic or Renaissance designs, and thus, this utilitarian style was more affordable and common in less wealthy parishes. This did not mean that the churches were uniform or lacking in detailing. St. Boniface shows Schlacks’ skill in “recombining the traditional architectural vocabulary in bold and subtle permutations of older styles”, in elements such as asymmetrical towers and pictorial windows.
Other West Town Schlacks projects include St. Mary of the Angles at 1830 N. Hermitage, St. John Cantius Parochial Residence, and St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital. Schlacks also built five churches that qualify as “masterpieces: St. Edmund in Oak Park, St. Ita, St. Paul, St, Adalbert, and St. Mary of the Lake. This gained Schlacks the appellation “the master of Catholic church architecture in Chicago”. However, historian Edward Kantowicz notes that even Schlacks’ utilitarian work was far from ordinary. To ignore these less celebrated projects means missing an important part of Schlacks – and Chicago’s – legacy.
References: Kantowicz, Edward R: To Build the Catholic City; publications from St. Edmund Preservation Society.
The Catholic Parish As A Way Station, by Stephen Joseph Chaw, 1991
Chicago Churches and Synagogues, by George Lane and Algimantas Kezys, 1981
Chicago: City of Neighborhoods, by Dominic Paczga and Ellen Skerrett, 1986
German Workers in Chicago: A Documentary History of Working-Class Culture from 1850 to World War I, edited by Hartmut Keil and John B. Jentz, 1988
Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait, edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones, 1994
There is one copy of The Annals of St. Boniface Parish, 1862-1926, edited by F.L. Kalvelage, 1926, in the Harold Washington Library, special collection (Bx46003.C5S2954). This source is of particular importance as it contains photographs of the original wooden church building, the school building when it was added, the dedication of the new building – its interior and exterior – school teachers, graduates who entered the priesthood, and long lists of parish members, etc.