Let’s hang on to what we got

Preservation Chicago works to save Agudas Achim, and more of Chicago’s Jewish heritage.

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The family of Mandel Schwechter holds the stained glass window, originally installed at Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in his memory. Pictured (from left) are Zach and Lindsey Deshur; their mother Brandy Schwechter Deshur; Beth Kraemer; and Brandy’s sister Darren Schwechter. Brandy, Darren and Beth are all great-grandchildren of Mandel Schwechter.

It may look like a museum and library, filled with architectural artwork and volumes of history. But if Preservation Chicago's office holds on to the past, it is only with an eye to the future.  

The organization's goal is to save as much of Chicago's storied heritage as possible, before it all becomes just stories. Fortunately, that includes the city's long Jewish story.  

Having saved the Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation building from demolition--it exists as housing, if not a house of worship--Preservation Chicago now focuses on finding new homes for its Jewish elements. The organization's representatives say they hope another congregation or Jewish institution will incorporate its vibrant stained-glass windows and striking Ner Tamid (eternal light) fixture.  

Working with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois, they also saved the bronze plaques bearing the names of the congregation's deceased members. They cleaned and documented each one.  

"It would be great for families to be rejoined with these memorial plaques," said Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago's Executive Director. "Of course, many may not be claimed. As they were all meant to be displayed together as a united community and congregation, [maybe] these could be displayed together somewhere now." 

Miller has led Preservation Chicago since 2013--he single-handedly saved Agudas Achim's Ner Tamid, personally carrying it down flights of stairs, into his car, and into his Loop office.  

After working as an architect for 20 years, at Vinci-Hamp Architects in Chicago, he co-authored 2010's The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, and curated architectural photos for The Art Institute of Chicago. Now, his goal is to save more than just photographs of Chicago's architectural treasures. 

Agudas Achim is a case study for Preservation Chicago's work. After the decades-long effort to save the congregation failed, the organization worked tirelessly to match the building with a preservation-sensitive developer. They found one in Cedar Street Companies, whom Preservation is urging to secure landmark designation for the primary façade. The grand foyer and staircase, however, were preserved.  

Already, one of its windows has found a new home. Beth Kraemer, who lives in Deerfield, retrieved a window memorializing her great-grandfather, Mandel Schwechter. She wasn't just pleased that the window was available, she said, "I was excited it still existed!"  

And she is very glad to have it back in the family. "Preservation Chicago had it cleaned, mounted, and restored. They really went above and beyond. It's very special. I never met [Schwechter], but I have relatives who did," she said. "This window was meant to preserve his memory, and it still will-- l'dor v'dor (from generation to generation). It's a piece of our family's legacy." 

Preservation Chicago is now working to save The Standard Club building--which may become a hotel--to support the Chicago Loop Synagogue, and to renovate Illinois' oldest synagogue, KAM Isaiah Israel.  

Their efforts also include churches that were once synagogues. They helped Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church, formerly the First Roumanian Congregation, secure restoration grants and become designated as a landmark. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sermonized there-and also at another edifice they successfully landmarked, Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, which had been Sinai Temple; Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and Louis Brandeis spoke there as well. 

Miller was especially proud to save Mt. Pisgah. "This is an amazing building that's elegant and monumental, with finely crafted materials and six Ionic limestone columns," he said. "Under Rabbi Emil G. Hirsh, Sinai Temple became well-known as a social and intellectual center." 

While they don't always succeed in saving every building, or saving it for its original use, Preservation Chicago strives to acknowledge that former status. In Agudas Achim's case, its name as an apartment building is: The Synagogue. 

Learn more about Preservation Chicago's work at preservationchicago.org. 


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