Crain’s Chicago Business

Uptown synagogue slated for residential

A decrepit Uptown synagogue, whose cavernous sanctuary is considered one of the most ornate in Chicago, will most likely be converted to residential use by the preservation-minded developer that bought it last month.

Agudas Achim synagogue, built in the early 1920s at 5029 N. Kenmore Ave., had been a teardown candidate, with extensive water damage and vandalism in its 23,000-square-foot sanctuary and years of deferred maintenance.

“We definitely are not going to demolish it,” said Alex Samoylovich, managing partner of Cedar Street, the real estate firm that bought the property for $1.25 million April 20. “We think the architecture is really amazing, and we’re trying to see what we can do with the interior.”

Agudas Achim’s sanctuary is vast, built to seat up to 2,200 people beneath a ceiling 60 feet high. Stained-glass windows line two sides of the space and on a third form a kaleidoscopic arch around the sanctuary’s focal point, the ark, or cabinet for housing the sacred Torah. The ark is 30 feet tall and decorated lavishly with Italian mosaic tile.

The sanctuary will present a challenge for division into a number of homes, but “we hope it will be residential,” Samoylovich said. He hasn’t decided whether to convert the property to apartments or condominiums but expects to have a plan in the next three to six months.

Cedar Street owns more than 2,500 apartments around the city, including one a few doors north of Agudas Achim at 5051 N. Kenmore.

In the past two years, the firm has bought the Bush Temple of Music on Chicago Avenue, an old Salvation Army campus in East Garfield Park and a former insurance headquarters a few blocks from Agudas Achim, all for conversion of at least some of the properties to residential.

Cedar Street also owns commercial properties in neighborhoods including Fulton Market and Wicker Park. Agudas Achim is the first religious building Cedar Street has worked with, “but that building is worth the effort it will take,” Samoylovich said.

Samoylovich and his co-founder in Cedar Street, the late Jay Michael, “have been good stewards of buildings that are in peril,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, which last year included Agudas Achim on its list of the city’s seven most endangered buildings.

“Cedar Street is a clever and creative developer,” Miller said. “They really enjoy adaptively reusing these historic structures and bringing back their shimmer.”

Agudas Achim’s shimmer originated with the 1922 merger of two Jewish congregations: First Hungarian Agudas Achim, founded on Maxwell Street in 1884, and North Shore Congregation Sons of Israel. In 1924, the congregation’s one-story building was enlarged with the addition of the ornate sanctuary and other spaces, designed by architecture firm Dubin & Eisenberg.

It’s a commanding presence on its block, with a three-arched entrance porch, Renaissance revival decorations and a ribbed parapet on its blonde brick facade, as well as a pair of stained-glass Stars of David. Inside, the lobby is as grand as an old movie palace, with a pair of marble staircases rising to the second-story entrance into the sanctuary.

According to a 2002 article in the Chicago Reader, the congregation was once so large that during the Jewish High Holidays, the 2,200-person sanctuary wasn’t sufficient and services were held at the nearby Aragon Ballroom. But by the mid-1980s, the congregation often struggled to pull together 10 men, the quorum needed to hold sabbath services.

In 2008 the synagogue launched a fundraising campaign to pay for the restoration of the building and construction of a community center next door. That plan eventually sputtered, and in 2015 the synagogue was put up for sale with an asking price of just under $2 million.

Real estate developers have completed or proposed conversions of several other Chicago houses of worship. They include a historical African-American church in Lincoln Park, a 108-year-old church in Logan Square, St. Adalbert’s Catholic church in Pilsen and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ukrainian Village.

“They’re beautiful buildings that you’d like to live in, but inside, it’s an engineering and construction challenge to convert a worship space,” said Scott Siegel, a Jennings Realty agent handling the sale of Hermon Baptist Church in Lincoln Park. Listed for $3.25 million in December, Hermon is under contract to a buyer in a deal expected to close by the end of the year, Siegel said.

Crain’s Chicago Business | Dennis Rodkin