On 50th Street, around the corner from Operation PUSH, stands an old limestone church buffered from the street by a deep lawn. Laid out in the shape of a cross, this 75-year-old late Gothic revival structure has tall, narrow arched windows that point toward a steep slate roof and a squat masonry tower.

Neal Vogel is making his second trip here in ten days, this time with a video camera slung over his shoulder. One of the nation’s few church-restoration specialists, he has surveyed 110 houses of worship in the last five years. Like many of the 50 he has toured throughout the area in the last six months, this one–the First Baptist Church of Chicago–is in dire need of repair.

This church’s small, black congregation recently contacted Vogel’s employer–Inspired Partnerships, a not-for-profit agency that provides property-management services for old houses of worship. Set up two years ago by the Lilly Endowment and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Inspired Partnerships is the first agency of its kind in the country. The undertaking is nondenominational; it was formed because of the growing realization that churches are often an anchor for deteriorating communities.

To qualify for Inspired Partnerships’ assistance, a congregation has to run social-service programs on church premises that cater to the community at large. First Baptist Church houses a six-day-a-week, privately funded tutoring program for 60 neighborhood children, area churches use First Baptist’s gym for basketball several nights a week, and groups like Operation PUSH often hold community meetings there. It is also used as a polling place and as the site for an annual blood drive.

A renovation campaign the church held raised $60,000, but Eddie Newsome, chairman of its board of trustees, said this generation of church elders won’t be able to come up with any more funds. So the church, which was founded in 1833 and has been housed in this Kenwood building since 1923, plans to use the funds it has–for some plastering, painting, minor carpentry, and electrical work. Before proceeding, the board of trustees decided to spend $200 hiring Inspired Partnerships to do a building audit–a job any private-sector concern would have charged thousands of dollars for.

As the agency’s technical-services coordinator, Vogel assesses a building’s condition, explains where the wear and tear is worst and why, and then recommends a network of specialists who can help solve the physical problems. This is the first time he’s used a video camera; he figures it’s more effective than taking notes.

Vogel’s job seems like an unlikely one for a self-described agnostic. But Vogel believes that houses of worship and government buildings are the only public places that generally remain true to their historic character. “The time when a religious building was built still has a value for a congregation. It is a record of their past, and they are often proud of it.”

The 29-year-old native of Keokuk, Iowa, was drawn to preservation a decade ago, when a hometown controversy led to the razing of a church that his great grandfather–a German-born stonemason–helped build in 1898. He switched his college major from planning to architecture, and later got a master’s degree in construction technology. He interned with a National Park Service preservation program, surveyed religious properties during a two-year stint with the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and then came to Chicago to work for Inspired Partnerships.

“What I like about this work is trying to get something that can’t talk to tell you a story,” he says while taking pictures of the First Baptist Church’s exterior. Its various shades of tan are splotchy, which means the Joliet-Lemont limestone the church is made of was probably from an old quarry whose supply of good stone had already been exhausted, he says. “If the stone were quarried earlier in the life of the quarry, it would be a consistent color like the Water Tower is.”

As he jiggles a chunk of recently patched concrete on the church wall, he explains that the biggest problem facing Chicago’s houses of worship is poor tuck-pointing.

“All of these masonry products that came out after World War II emphasized strength without taking into account how buildings used to be built,” he says. Most mortar mixes readily available today are too hard for older buildings. The most common setting element, Portland cement, works well with hard bricks and granite, but not with a relatively soft material like limestone because it won’t fail–that is, contract when the freezing of moisture causes the wall to expand. This is especially critical in Chicago, where materials exposed to the elements are constantly freezing and thawing. “Most tuck-pointers haven’t studied six generations of building materials, so they don’t realize that mortar was intended to be the sacrificial layer–the layer that accommodates movement in the wall. “But now, because Portland is harder than limestone, the stone becomes the sacrificial layer. What contractors need to do is take the time to mix lime in the cement on-site.”

Standing in the alley, Vogel points to the roof, and evidence of another major problem affecting older buildings around town. The portion of the wall that extends above the roof–called the parapet–is discolored, which suggests a weakened wall. “Parapets can’t breathe when they’ve been tarred,” he says, referring to roofers’ habit of sealing the back side of the wall. The worn area is usually below the roof, in the flashing–that is, at the point where the parapet, roof, and wall connect. “A roofer often disregards the masonry aspect. He’s just doing his job of sealing leaks, even though this means a new problem will begin to surface in about five years.”

Vogel walks around to the sanctuary’s west side and points out another common problem: the use of storm windows to protect stained-glass windows from the elements. This secondary glazing creates condensation because of air leaking through gaps in the lead, which accelerates deterioration of the windows–and “ironically,” says Vogel, “keeps the glazers in business.” He says glass is durable enough that storm windows are needed only if vandalism is a problem. The windows we’re looking at stand some 15 feet above the ground–beyond vandals’ reach.

Vogel’s view that churches are buying services they don’t need isn’t always well received. The Second Presbyterian Church, located at 19th Street and Michigan, may be one of Chicago’s architectural gems, but when Vogel examined it last summer he found its stained-glass windows were sealed with storm windows that were caulked too tightly. “I had to convince the building committee that as a result the stained glass will be damaged in eight to ten years,” he recalls. They’d just spent thousands of dollars putting the storms up, and Vogel was recommending they take them down.

Congregations are often sold unneeded “miracle products,” Vogel says–take Holy Name Cathedral, which recently covered its stone surface with a waterproof sealant. Stones don’t really need protection against water, according to Vogel. Besides, “masonry waterproofing traps moisture in the stone and creates this gloss that looks funny when it rains.”

Churches and synagogues are easy targets for profit-driven suppliers and contractors, he says, because cash-strapped church leaders often settle for relatively inexpensive quick fixes. “Good building materials and techniques may have a life span of 50 years, which is well beyond anyone’s term on a building committee.”

The church sanctuary at First Baptist is rarely used, due to the cost of heating a space that seats almost twice as many people as the entire congregation. Moreover, crumbling plaster, peeling paint, and dirty stained-glass windows create a dark and dingy atmosphere, one that seems unfit for praising the Lord. The congregation believes some plaster, paint, and new light fixtures will solve its problems. But the true source of the darkness, Vogel believes, is the ceiling over the altar and transept crossing.

He found the truth not in the sanctuary, but above it–in the church tower now closed off by the ceiling. Inside this cube, which is dominated by 16 tall and slender windows, he points out several clues that explain the darkness below.

“Look at those chamfered beams,” he says. “The wood has been beveled around the edges for decorative reasons, to make the beam look lighter. That wouldn’t have been done if this was intended to be closed off. When I mentioned this to Mr. Newsome, he acted surprised. The people who run the church are worried about the cost of heating this additional space. Sure heat rises, but before rising 30 feet it will cool and recirculate. So why send money to the utility when you can depend instead on God-given natural light?”

Working as a building-materials expert can be rather routine. So when Vogel discovered during his first visit that this ceiling was not part of the architect’s plan, he felt as though he had made an exciting revelation. Now he’s recommending that the church use this discovery as the basis for expanding its fund-raising drive to the Hyde Park community, architectural connoisseurs, and other Baptist congregations in the region. “I don’t usually find something this major that affects the whole character of the building. Plus, this happened so long ago. It’s not like the drop ceilings of the 60s that everyone knows about. Here, the answer was right there the whole time. Concealed.

“From below, the ceiling is deceiving because it looks original. Who knows why this was put in at the time of construction? From up above it’s clear that it doesn’t fit. The idea of removing that ceiling won’t be so dramatic until they see the light coming through. Then they will really see the light.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.