Ornate reliefs of angels and lions adorn the redbrick facade of the apostolic church at the northwest corner of Ogden and Kedzie, the tallest and most ornamented building in the vicinity. Vestiges of the building’s past also greet worshipers on their way in: over the front entrance are the words Douglas Park Auditorium, and an inlaid terrazzo doormat says WC Lyceum.
Minister Oatis Hunter claims the building dates back to the late 1880s, though the American Institute of Architects pegs its construction at 1910 and the city’s Department of Buildings has it at 1911. Whatever the year, workers began by filling in a lagoon. “They did a sloppy job,” Hunter says. As a result the floor of the dining hall contains noticeable ripples and constantly floods: “A hundred and ten years ago, the codes were really relaxed.”
Little is recorded about the building’s earliest use. What’s certain is that shortly after 1915, when large numbers of Jews began moving into North Lawndale, the Douglas Park Auditorium–with its marble wainscoting, mosaic tile floors, and huge ballrooms–became a hub for the city’s Jewish social, political, and cultural life. “I’ve met quite a few older Jewish people that went to many parties here,” Hunter says. “They said they’d have five or six parties going on at one time.”
The building was also a “hotbed of leftist causes,” according to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Anne Brooks Ranallo. In 1923 a Jewish organization called Workmen’s Circle bought it and renamed it the Labor Lyceum. Irving Cutler, author of The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, says the WC provided medical benefits, burial provisions, and educational and recreational programs for working-class Jews. (Cutler, like Hunter, believes the building dates back to the late 19th century.) The Lyceum served as a meeting place for Jewish labor unions and was home to the last “full-season Yiddish-speaking theater,” says Cutler, where top Yiddish actors shared the stage with upstarts such as Bernard Schwartz, who later went off to Hollywood and became known as Tony Curtis.
The theater closed in 1951, and by the time the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ purchased the building in 1955, North Lawndale was on its way to becoming a segregated African-American neighborhood. Hunter, who arrived from Mississippi in 1957, remembers a few Jewish holdouts, such as the tiny kosher “corned beef joint” in the building. Today it’s a church-operated soul-food restaurant, though the cook, Hunter’s wife, Betty, has kept corned beef on the menu.
Many other storefront businesses have come and gone there: Hunter remembers a “ma-and-pa grocery,” a rug and linoleum store, and a fish market. And there used to be a bar behind the building, he says. “A terrible bar. You could hardly have church for the noise!” Now it’s an empty lot where churchgoers park.
Hunter says hundreds of people regularly pack the auditorium to listen to Bishop Shelton Rapha Chabash Luke’s simulcast sermons, beamed in from Philadelphia. When church isn’t in session, the doors of the once-bustling community center stay locked. “There are a lot of ganefs around,” Hunter says. “That’s the Yiddish word for thief.”