The possession of something extraordinary isn’t always such a wonderful thing.
What do you do if, in a city of high-profile collectors of multimillion dollar art, your treasure is too precious to neglect, but not valued enough to attract the support needed to maintain it?
That’s the question that has plagued the Thomas family, whose legacy includes the Northside Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church and its remarkable Bill Walker mural, All of Mankind.
Painted across the entire front of the building, surrounded by the empty land that used to be part of the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, All of Mankind was a compelling sight, even if you didn’t know that Walker (1927-2011), who painted it in 1972, had previously spearheaded the south side’s legendary Wall of Respect. Or that some consider him the Diego Rivera of the United States.
Look, the mural seemed to say to passersby, here is something so urgent, it has spilled out from the constraints of proper stained glass windows to cover every inch of this facade.
The mural’s central image consisted of four towering but simple figures, standing with arms entwined. They represented an ideal unity, a human connection that could transcend differences of race, religion, or sex. But they were set in a context of painful historical reality. Above them, along the peaked line of the church roof, was a question: “Why were they crucified?” And all around was a litany of names and events that question implied, starting with Jesus, Gandhi, and Dr. King. The whole thing was flanked by imploring masses of mankind.
Powerful stuff—but not anymore. On December 10, while a small group of preservationists were scrambling to figure out how to raise the money to save the mural, All of Mankind was whitewashed.
The preservationists include Jeff Huebner, who has written at length about Walker in the Reader, and has spent the last three years working on a book about him. Huebner was one of those who got word that the mural was being painted over, and rushed to 617 W. Evergreen, near the intersection of Clybourn and Halsted, only to find that it was too late. The painters were just finishing up. “It was shocking,” Huebner says.
On the other hand, there was an element of deja vu: in 2004, a major mural that Walker had painted on an interior wall of the church had also been abruptly whitewashed.
The Northside Stranger’s Home building was an Episcopal church when it was built in 1901. Catholics took it over in 1927, when the neighborhood was largely Italian, renaming it San Marcello. In the early 1970s it was run by a Benedictine priest, Dennis Kendrick, who raised money for repairs, allowed a counseling center for heroin addicts to set up in the basement, and commissioned Bill Walker to turn the structure into a work of art.
But, Huebner told me, the methadone center didn’t sit well with the archdiocese, which closed the church in 1973 and, later that year, transferred the title to Stranger’s Home, then headed by the Reverend Dempsey Thomas. One of Thomas’s daughters, Christmas Trotter, has succeeded him as pastor; other members of his family sit on the church board.
“No one was going to buy the church with the murals on it.”
—A rep from Northside Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church
Chicago Public Art Group emeritus executive director Jon Pounds has been in contact with the church off and on since the 1990s, when Public Art first offered to help find money to get the murals restored. They managed to do a demonstration project, but the full restoration never happened. The family has been trying to sell the building, which is within the Cabrini-Green Development Zone, for years now, starting with a multimillion-dollar listing price.
This fall, on the market at $999,900, the building found a buyer. A representative for the church board, who didn’t want her name used, confirmed that a contract has been signed and the sale is pending. Preservationists were given five days to find the money to either move the mural—which Pounds says is not a viable option—or to counter the offer and buy the building.
“There just wasn’t enough time to put that together,” Pounds says. “But we did not think the mural would be painted over. We thought we’d be able to deal with the buyer.”
Not enough time? Here’s what the church spokesperson had to say about that: “We had five and a half years to repair those murals and nothing happened. We got no support. The money wasn’t there. And our demographics have moved out. So we had no choice. The only logical decision was to paint [over] the murals.”
And then she got to the crux of the matter: “No one was going to buy the church with the murals on it.”
So maybe, in the city’s hottest development area (as the real estate listing described it), the repairs were never the issue. v