Monday, July 11, 2011

The Flaying of St. John

click images for larger view
The distant view, through Sherman Park, is a glimpse of something weird, almost Gaudian.

As you get to the edge of the park, at 52nd street, you come upon the immensity of it.
The story of St. John of God church is one repeated throughout the changing neighborhoods of every city. A great house of worship built to serve an influx of immigrants - in this  case, Polish.  Designed by Henry J. Schlacks, whose Renaissance facade was described by the AIA Guide to Chicago as a masterpiece, St. John of God was completed in 1920.  By 1922, 2,400 families called it their parish.  Then, as the story always goes, those families begin to disperse as white flight claims the neighborhood.  Membership plummets, and, in 1992, the church is closed, a grand edifice sealed for an uncertain future.  In time, after few can even remember when the building was active, it's demolished.  A piece of architecture that defined the lives of tens of thousands of people vanishes into thin air.
Except St. John of God doesn't.  To be sure, the building will soon be forgotten history.  It's carved limestone, however, lives on.  Carefully, it was peeled away, to be re-assembled on a new church for St. Raphael the Archangel in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border.

For now, a single automobile tire rests incongruously in the foyer.  Rubble is everywhere, even framing the great altar.
 Mosaics disintegrate like pixels fading to white.
The destruction of St. John of God, and so many others like it, is testament to a society where everything is disposable. With their massive scale, solidity, and classical grandeur, structures like St. John look like they were built to endure forever.  Now, stripped down to raw brick, it looks like a monument from some not-quite-placeable ancient civilization.
All of Schlack's Renaissance finish and detailing scraped away, St. John now appears timeless, its architectural style malleable and mysterious.  The ruined entrance looks like it could be some ancient shrine in the Holy Land.
The stripped pillars of the bell towers resemble Mayan columns.
This is the afterimage, lingering in the eye for a millisecond before disappearing forever.  But in that brief time, it brands itself into your consciousness.  Is this what's beneath our dreams?  Is this a ruin, or is this the essence?  Too real, too primal, not to have us gild it in polished finish?

10 comments:

Freeman said...

Beautifully written!

DKNJ said...

Beautiful article. BTW: "Altar." Not "Alter."

Lynn Becker said...

strangely enough, "alter" wasn't flagged by the spellcheck, and writers can't spell. Corrected now. thanks.

vmichael said...

Well done.

Edward Lifson said...

Beautiful, Lynn.

Anonymous said...

Modern day Petra.

jamesiska said...

Thank you Lynn for posting this beautiful piece. I long ago marveled at St. John's mystical presence behind Sherman Park and was struck last month by the strange disassembly. Now it all makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for capturing the last looks of our church. BTW It's St John of God not St John of Word.

Anonymous said...

It's actually is Saint John "by God". This sums it up....

Holly Lama said...

Okay, this makes me sad. Nice writing.