Landmark church damaged in blizzard rebuilds

March 1, 2011 2:49:24 PM PST
As the governor asks the feds to declare Illinois counties hit by the Blizzard of 2011 disaster areas, a West Side church rebuilds.

The governor wants 60 Illinois counties to be declared disaster areas. His office estimates the damage from the storm could be more than $64 million. At a Chicago landmark, the damage is estimated at more than $1 million.

Work began Tuesday at First Baptist Congregational Church on the Near West Side, which sustained damage during the Blizzard of 2011. The 142-year-old church survived the Great Chicago Fire and members say it will overcome this setback as well.

"This is just one of the steps in the process of us getting the church restored, so our congregation is pretty excited about seeing things getting back to the way they were," said Rev. Christopher Griffin, First Baptist Congregational Church.

Almost four weeks ago, the blizzard's high winds toppled the church's spire, sending heavy limestone blocks through threw the sanctuary roof. The church was empty.

"If you saw the aftermath, if anybody had been sitting in that section or even below, definitely some lives would have been taken," said Wanda Washington, First Baptist Congregational Church.

All but two of the limestone blocks remain. The five-foot wide, 800-pound pieces are lodged in the balcony floor behind a tarp.

"Basically we're going to boom into the opening in the roof here, and we have a net. We're going to work those stones in and grab it with a net and pull them out and get ready to close up the roof," Orlando Lopez, contractor, said.

"It could have been worse. It could have been worse. Our church is over a hundred years old, but it's sturdy. It took the damage very well. The stone didn't fall all the way through," Griffin said.

The blocks barely missed electrical lines that could have started a fire and they spared the church's 94-year-old organ, a gift from the Dole Pineapple family now valued at more than $1 million.

"The organ tubes are made out of wood, and they're about 120 years old. And we're trying to preserve them. We have dehumidifiers in there and just taking care of it and keeping a close eye that water doesn't penetrate that room," Lopez said.

Roof repairs will take weeks. And the blocks kicked up dust which now permeates everything from floor to ceiling. Cleanup could take months.

"It's kind of also awakened us to the fact of how gifted we are and how blessed we are to have a church like this, so I think it's also going to make us a little bit more not taking the place for granted," Griffin said.

The church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has set up a restoration fund for donations through PNC Bank. In the meantime, Sunday services continue across the street at Hope Institute Learning Academy.