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UPTOWN CHICAGO COMMISSION

Uptown in the News  

June 13, 2003
Chicago READER
Final Chapter for Prologue?
Bureaucratic baloney threatens one of the city's best schools for at-risk teens.
By Ben Joravsky


Over the past few weeks key aides to Mayor Daley have been working behind the scenes to help turn the long-abandoned South Side Masonic Temple, at 64th and Green in Englewood, into a school. At the same time lawyers for the city have been in housing court demanding that the building be demolished.

This case of one set of city officials apparently not knowing what another set is doing---one observer calls it "municipal schizophrenia"---could be written off as a mildly amusing tale of bumbling bureaucrats if the stakes weren't so high. If the city tears down the temple it could also destroy Prologue, the highly regarded alternative high school that wants to move there. "Our survival's on the line," says Nancy Jackson, Prologue's executive director. "We've invested a lot of money in the Masonic building. If we don't get it we'll probably go out of business."

Prologue is a school of last resort---a not-for-profit alternative that serves teenagers who've dropped out or are about to. Since it started in 1973, says Jackson, Prologue has taken in thousands of students, about 70 percent of whom have gone on to college. "Most of these kids would have been out on the street," she says. "As a school, we are a success."

Despite that success, the school has had trouble in recent years finding a permanent location. It now operates out of three sites, the main branch being in the old Catholic high school at 640 W. Irving Park. For most of the 80s and 90s it was located in an office building on Lawrence Avenue near the Red Line stop. "That was an ideal spot for us because it was so close to the train," says Jackson. "But by the late 1990s we realized it was only a matter of time before we would have to move. The neighborhood was gentrifying. Our rent was going up."

In 1997 school officials began looking for a new site, which is how they found themselves in Englewood, visiting the Masonic Temple. The temple was old and dilapidated. "It hadn't been used in about 12 years," says Jackson, "but it also had great potential. It's big and sturdy---six stories high with about 10,000 square feet of space."

It was also just a block from the Halsted-63rd Green Line stop and across the street from the new campus Kennedy-King College was building. "We thought, here's a chance to be part of a big educational campus that could help revive Englewood," says Jackson. "It was one of the most prominent buildings in the area, even if it hadn't been used in years. It could be a beacon of hope to young people in Englewood, which has one of the highest levels of violence in the nation and could use the investment."

Jackson and other school officials were excited because the building would allow them to expand their arts curriculum. "There are two theaters in the temple," says Jackson. "We could do all sorts of musical and dramatic productions there. We could have a television studio."

They also thought they'd be preserving a valuable old building that might otherwise be destroyed. "I think the temple should be landmarked and preserved," says Jonathan Fine, director of Preservation Chicago, the city's leading group of preservation activists. "It was built in 1921 and designed by Clarence Hatzfeld. The thing about the Masons is that they were craftsmen, and their buildings are built to the highest standards with the finest materials available. These are buildings meant to last."

When Prologue officials first saw the temple it was in housing court because its owner had abandoned it. Prologue bought it in 1999 by paying the county more than $100,000 in back taxes. Renovating it would cost at least $3.5 million more, says Jackson. "We knew it was an ambitious plan."

At first the plan's supporters hoped to raise the money by creating a joint venture with Edison, a corporation that runs schools for profit, but that deal crashed. Then they began looking for funds from private developers and enlightened celebrities, including Bill Cosby. "But every time we thought we had a deal," says Jackson, "it fell through."

In 2001 the city took Prologue to court in an attempt to force it to fix up the building. "The temple was in bad shape---it was a danger to the community," says Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city's law department. "If they couldn't repair it, we wanted it demolished." According to Hoyle, "The exterior is stable, but the interior is not. That's substandard. It's gutted. The building cannot be left unoccupied, because someone could get in there and get hurt."

For the past two years Prologue and its lawyers have been in housing court pleading for more time to raise the rehab money. "We've had so many deals so close to being done," says Jackson. "We had developers interested in working with us. Other schools too. But each deal fell through. Let's be honest. We're a relatively small, not-for-profit alternative high school that services primarily African-American kids who are on the brink of dropping out. It's not easy for us to get financing."

The delays cost Prologue the faith of 16th Ward alderman Shirley Coleman, who has to approve the development of any site in her ward. "I have no problem with them coming here and rehabbing the temple," she says. "But I do have a problem with them coming in with grandiose talk about what they plan to do. Bill Cosby was supposed to help them, then that didn't work. They talk big, but it's always talk."

Coleman says she's been approached by developers interested in demolishing the temple and building housing in its place. "It's not that I'm against Prologue," she says. "I just can't wait forever."

By January 2002 the school's frustrated staff had all but given up hope, and Prologue entered into a "demolition agreement" with the city. "Under that agreement they had 60 days to come up with a plan, including architectural drawings and financial support," says Hoyle. "After the 60 days, the building would be demolished if the didn't have their drawings and support."

After 60 days the city sent a crew to inspect the temple. "They discovered the temple had extensive asbestos in it," says Hoyle. "So they had to remove the asbestos" before the temple could be demolished. The city got rid of the asbestos, then billed Prologue.

In April 2002 Prologue came back to court and asked that the demolition agreement be dropped. "We had interest from some developers," says Jackson. "We thought we could put a deal together if we had more time."

Judge William Pileggi gave Prologue an extension but ordered its officials to remove several loose parapets and fire escapes that hung over the alley and to post a full-time guard on the property. "We removed the thing the city wanted us to remove, and we hired a guard to watch the temple 24 hours a day," says Jackson. "It costs us about $6,500 a month for the guard."

Last year the school also had to move out of the Lawrence site, which had been sold out from under them, to the Irving Park one---which happened to be more expensive. "It's painful to add up how much this is costing us while we wait to finish the deal on the temple," says Jackson. "We're paying for the guard outside the temple and about $25,000 a month, or $300,000 annually, to rent space on Irving. And that's not even the worst part. The worst part is that if our deal falls through, if we can't move into the temple, the city will demolish it and then stick us with the demolition bill. We'll wind up paying for the demolition of our own property."

Jackson says the school has already invested about $500,000 in the temple "including back taxes, architectural work, various legal fees, construction, and maintenance work. Demolishing it---particularly making us pay to demolish it---would put us out of business."

Still, she's hopeful. "In April we went back to court to ask for more time, because we had been talking to some potential backers," she says. "Judge Pileggi gave us until June 10, after which the temple would be destroyed."

One reason she's hopeful is the recent intervention of Lee Bey, one of Mayor Daley's top aides. According to Jackson, Bey (who didn't respond to calls for comment) has pledged his "heartfelt determination to get us into that temple." She adds, "Lee Bey has called me several times to tell me how important this project is to him. He says he's going to meet with the key city officials. I'm very encouraged."

Another reason for hope is a case currently before the Illinois Supreme Court that challenges a municipality's authority to order the demolition of private property that's not a danger to the public. On May 27 Prologue's lawyer, Lori Granger, asked Judge Pileggi for another extension. "I filed a motion to get another stay of our case until the other case is decided," she says. "The building's not a danger. The city's never made the argument that the building's a danger. We're providing a 24-hour guard. The asbestos has been removed. In fact, our guard is providing a service to the community."

At the May 27 hearing David Smith, a lawyer for the city, contested Granger's request, arguing that Prologue had already been given too many extensions. "Smith strongly argued that the judge order the building demolished," says Jackson. "I suppose you have to sort of give him credit, because he was really fighting to have us demolished."

And so there was Bey using his clout to save the temple while Smith was fighting to have it destroyed. "I don't really think the city has anything against us," Jackson says. "In fact, I always thought we had a good relationship with the city. Why, Maggie Daley---Mayor Daley's wife---came to our school last year with some executives from the city's Department of Cultural Affairs to give us an award. Still, it's strange to have one part of the city working against another. I can only think it's a case where one part of the city doesn't know what the other one's doing."

It wouldn't be the first case of poor communication between city officials regarding the future of an old building. In April 2002 the building department issued a demolition permit for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a historically valuable downtown office building, even though Mayor Daley didn't want it destroyed. According to planning commissioner Alicia Berg, Daley was furious to learn that a demolition permit had been issued. Preservationists say they can't understand why city officials are making the same mistake again. "If this temple goes," says Fine, "they would be allowing another historic resource to fall to the wrecking ball for no good reason."

Alderman Coleman says she'd be willing to talk to Bey about saving the temple. "But I've not heard from Mr. Bey," she says. "I don't know how hard he's working to save the temple if he hasn't contacted me." Hoyle says Bey hasn't contacted her department either.

In the meantime Prologue---which got another extension from Pileggi, until July 29---has been carrying on, graduating another class of seniors on June 6. "I know we're not the best of businesspeople," Jackson concedes. "Was it stupid for us to pursue this? I hate to say yes to that question. It's important to have dreams and to be visionaries. It's important to save valuable old buildings. What we need is a champion. We need somebody like Oprah, who has an educational foundation. We're local. We're in her backyard. We're not asking her for a million. If she brought her energy and voice to this cause, that's what we'd need."

Last week Chris Fogarty, a retired carpenter who teaches his former trade at Prologue, led a tour of the temple. He says the basic structure is sound, but the rest is a mess. Each floor is piled with rubble. The windows are smashed, and pigeons fly freely throughout the building. "There's nothing wrong with this building that a little rehab won't fix," he said as he stood on the roof overlooking Englewood. "Look at this community---look at the vacant lots. It's heartbreaking that the city would tear this down."


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