In 20 years of fighting to save historically valuable buildings on the Near North Side, Barton Faist thought he’d seen everything. Then he discovered that a developer, the Fordham Company, had started promoting the 12-block area bounded by Chicago, Ontario, Michigan, and State as the “Cathedral District,” a label it said celebrated the area’s “spirituality, beauty, history, community.” Faist saw the new label as a gimmick, one that could serve to distract local residents from the developer’s plan to tear down some of the last remaining vintage town houses in the area in order to construct a 50-story condo complex. “It left me speechless,” he says. “I guess I should appreciate the cleverness of this strategy–invoking history and community while destroying community and history.”

Over the past few years Faist, an artist and art collector, has become one of the most passionate and unbending foes of demolition on the Near North Side, though most of his efforts have ended in disappointment. “This community used to be the heart of second city,” he says. “The first city was the Chicago that was built before the great fire. Second city was what came after the fire. It breaks my heart to see what it’s become.”

Faist says that when he moved to the Near North Side in 1978, after graduating from the School of the Art Institute, there were Queen Anne, Italianate, and Victorian mansions on almost every block. “I fell in love with these buildings,” he says. “I took pictures of them. I studied them. There were a lot of 1870s and 1880s mansions made of yellow limestone. They’d have stucco on the top and cast-iron fanciness with scrolling designs.”

In 1981 Faist moved into Tree Studios, an apartment complex for artists on State between Ohio and Ontario. “This area was known as the advertising area,” he says. “There were lots of artists living around here, as well as photographers and designers.” But the artists eventually drew more upscale residents to the neighborhood, and with them developers. Through the 80s and into the 90s Faist watched with dismay as one after another second-city mansion, studio, or storefront made way for high-rise condominiums.

One of the busiest developers in the area has been the Fordham Company, which has built one upscale high-rise (the Fordham, at Wabash and Superior), is in the process of building a second (the Pinnacle Tower, at Wabash and Erie), and wants to build a third on Superior between Wabash and Rush.

“I remember when the Fordham went up–it broke my heart,” says Faist. “There was a lovely old 1920s building right there on the southwest corner of Wabash and Superior. It’s gone. There was an 1880s mansion just next to that building. It’s gone. There was another 1870s mansion on that block–gone too. These were special old buildings. I can still see their ghosts. In their place is a big, tall, ugly concrete bunker that looks just like all the other big, tall, ugly bunkers. People come from all over the world to see our architecture–and we’re destroying it.”

For over five years Faist fought to save Tree Studios. Eventually the city made the building’s exterior a landmark, preventing it from being destroyed. But the city also gave the building owner permission to convert the apartments into a restaurant, shops, and offices. “I’m so cynical about how we do preservation in this city–because we don’t do preservation at all,” says Faist. “We have the facade of preservation, just like we have the facade of Tree Studios. We say we want to save buildings, but then we don’t.”

Faist says he no longer believes officials in the Daley administration are making meaningful efforts to save valuable buildings. “They like to pretend they care about preservation, because they know the public wants it,” he says. “But it seems like every time an important building is on the block, the city finds some way to avoid having to save it.” As an example, he cites the old Cass Studios building, also known as the La Casita Court Apartments, at 747 N. Wabash. “It’s a lovely art deco building–a Richard Schmidt building–made of limestone blocks. I feared it was only time before some developer tried to knock it down. I asked the Landmarks Commission to make it a landmark, but they never did.”

The building was rated orange, meaning the planning department considered it historically valuable. Faist was relieved last January when the City Council passed an ordinance that put an automatic 90-day hold on demolition permits for orange-rated buildings. He thought that meant there would have to be hearings before the city could issue a demolition permit for Cass Studios.

But in late January, just a few days after the ordinance passed, Faist noticed that some of the building’s apartments looked vacant. “I thought something was up, like maybe the landlord was moving out his tenants, so I called the building department,” he says. “Sure enough, they’d issued a demolition permit. I called the planning department and Landmarks Commission to ask them how this could happen without a hearing. And they told me, ‘Oh, Barton, we made a mistake.'”

It turns out that the computer system that’s supposed to warn the planning department of pending demolition permits for orange-rated buildings hadn’t been installed until after the building department issued a permit to demolish Cass Studios. The building is now vacant and will probably be demolished over the summer. “We’re going to lose another great old building because of a mistake,” says Faist. “It’s another ‘oops’ building. Give me a break! How come they never make mistakes that save buildings from being destroyed?”

A few weeks ago Faist was walking along State just south of Chicago and happened to look closely at a banner hanging from a light pole. In big print the banner said “Cathedral District”; in smaller print at the bottom it said “the Fordham Company.” Next to that banner was one featuring a color photo of the Moody Church. “I thought, Hmm, this is strange,” he says. “What does the church have to do with Fordham? And what is the Cathedral District? I’d seen these banners before, but I hadn’t really thought about them.”

He walked over to Fordham’s headquarters, at 4 E. Huron. There he found a glossy multicolor brochure announcing the creation of a “12-block district” that “extends in spirit to all of metropolitan Chicago’s more than 1,000 houses of worship” (though only Jewish and Christian ones have made the banners). The brochure states, “A tremendous development boom is transforming this area, once a combination of vintage offices and trendy galleries, into a very desirable residential neighborhood. The surge of new residents opens an unparalleled opportunity to create a true community, one that celebrates the city’s religious heritage while extending a welcoming presence to all.”

Inside the brochure are pictures of church archways and sanctuaries and a menorah framed by the stained-glass window of a synagogue. According to the brochure, Fordham–spearheaded by chairman Christopher T. Carley–hired architects from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to create a $3 million “master plan for the district” that would define the area by “combining streetscape, greenways, art and architecture to establish a united, ecumenical space”; it would feature “decorative portals” at the major entrances, “wrought-iron fencing” along the sidewalks, and “special pavers” to “highlight the community’s significant structures, art, gathering spaces and historical sites.”

The pamphlet lists six religious institutions–Holy Name Cathedral, Saint James Cathedral, Chicago Sinai Congregation, Congregation Kol Ami, the Fourth Presbyterian Church, and the Moody Bible Institute–that have joined a steering committee to “guide and implement the vision of the Cathedral District.” It’s not clear who would pay to implement Skidmore’s design, though the brochure promises Fordham will kick in $1 million if someone else comes up with the other $2 million.

“When fully realized,” the brochure states, “the district will become Chicago’s center of sacred and secular celebration–the winter holidays filled with community caroling and menorah lighting, the spring heralded by seders and Easter sunrise services open to all.” The brochure also has a map of the district that shows all of Fordham’s major residential properties, including a “future Cathedral Tower” on Superior.

On the back of the brochure is a glowing endorsement of this vision from the local alderman, Burton Natarus. At press time the alderman was out of the country and not available for comment, but an aide says he stands by the endorsement.

Faist says that when he finished reading the brochure he was stunned. “My first reaction is that this is not a place of history,” he says. “It’s a place of demolition. It’s not even a cathedral district, ’cause there are only two churches–Holy Name and Saint James–actually in the cathedral district. Those other churches and synagogues are located outside the district. They’d have to bus them in. So tell me, how do two churches in 12 square blocks make a cathedral district? Then there’s that line about ‘a tremendous development boom’ opening ‘unparalleled opportunities’ to celebrate the city’s religious heritage. What does a development boom have to do with celebrating religious heritages? A development boom is a euphemism for saying ‘We’re destroying old buildings.’ What does historical demolition have to do with religion? They talk about preserving the past. Oh, they’re going to put up signs to tell you what was here before they tore it down? Do they think we’re stupid? And that thing about the community seders and the Christmas caroling–what a joke. They’re building great high-rise fortresses. How can you go caroling there if you can’t get past the doormen?”

Then he points to the site of the future Cathedral Tower. “What’s there right now is the great brick building where Crain’s used to be–that’s on the corner of Rush and Superior,” he says. “There’s also three vintage town houses–built in the 1870s, right after the fire–further west along Superior. Fordham wants to knock them down–while saying they’re for preserving history and celebrating spirituality.”

Faist sees all the do-gooder language of the district proposal as nothing more than an attempt to deflect community opposition to the tower. “It’s another facade,” he says. “It’s an ‘ecumenical’ movement conjured up by some guys in PR to celebrate the demolition of our past–or at least to divert our attention while they go about demolishing our past. Forget about setting up a cathedral district. The city should make that a landmarked district, preserving all of the old buildings there.”

Not everyone shares Faist’s outrage. Leaders of several churches and synagogues inside and just outside the district recently told a Lerner reporter that they support the proposal. “We’re happy to be part of it,” the Reverend John Cairns, associate pastor at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, told the paper. Jennifer Stocks, a spokeswoman for the Moody Bible Institute, says Fordham never got permission to use the institute’s name in its pamphlet, then adds, “But we have since spoken to a representative of Fordham, and it’s an honest mistake on their part.” Asked if the institute wants its name removed from future brochures, she replies, “We can’t say anything about this. You’ll have to ask Fordham.” Fordham chairman Carley didn’t return repeated calls for comment on this or any other issue.

Of course before any changes to the streetscape can be made the city will have to sign off on the project. Pete Scales, spokesman for the planning department, says the city has yet to receive a plan from Fordham. “As far as I can tell, the Cathedral District is a name real estate developers have used for years to market that community–you know, the way West Bucktown or Wrigleyville evolved as a name,” he says. “But there’s no master plan about turning this into an official district, and we have not seen any plans for doing the sort of streetscaping the pamphlet describes.” He adds that the Cathedral District proposal won’t influence the city’s decision on Fordham’s plan to knock down buildings on Superior and build Cathedral Tower. “That proposal,” he says, “is still pending.”

Other landmark preservationists say they plan to join Faist in the fight to prevent more demolition in the district, no matter what it’s called. “Developers have already destroyed the ambience of that area, so that we’re left to basically fight over the flotsam and jetsam of a once grand neighborhood,” says Jonathan Fine, founder of Preservation Chicago. “Now they want to change our impression of what they’ve done–or give cover to doing more of it–by giving it a respectful religious name? Give me a break. I think Barton’s absolutely on target about this.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.