Located at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue in Uptown, Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation Synagogue stands as Chicago’s lone surviving example of a grand, cathedral-style synagogue. In it’s heyday, the 23,000-square-foot synagogue regularly drew more than 2,000 people for Shabbat services. Today it stands vacant and for sale at an asking price of $1.99 million.
Visiting the space, one can easily imagine its former glory through the tattered elegance that remains; however, one can also see the many way the years have taken their toll.
The synagogue’s story began in the 1920s, when two Uptown congregations merged and decided to build a beautiful new place of worship. Chicago architect Henry Dubin began work on building in 1922, and his design conjured a bold, eclectic grandeur that can easily remind one of the Balaban and Katz movie palaces of the era. Features included Romanesque entryway arches, curved marble staircases leading from the entrance hall to the main auditorium, baroque windows, cantilevered balconies, elaborate stained glass windows, and an art deco parapet.
The focal point of the auditorium is the opulent Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark. Dubin designed the Ark and commissioned German artisans to execute his vision in Italian glass mosaic.
The Ark was placed at center on the eastern wall of the sanctuary, framed by the colorful illumination of a spectacular stained glass window. While the years have not been kind to many areas of the synagogue, the Holy Ark and its stained glass window backdrop defiantly retain their original splendor.
The current condition of the synagogue evidences difficult decades of vandalism and neglect. In the1960s, many Jews left the Uptown community and the congregation dwindled. The trend continued through the 1980s, and without the financial support of a vibrant congregation the building fell into disrepair.
A leaky roof caused severe damage to the ornate plaster work in the sanctuary and rotted away the pulpit. Plumbing, heating and electricity issues arose. Periodic visits from vandals resulted in even more heartbreaking damage, including much destruction of its beautiful stained glass windows and fixtures.
Today the magnificent Holy Ark is the most prominent reminder of the synagogue’s grand past- one of the few things untouched by vandals during the congregation’s bleakest days in the 1980s.
The synagogue had a revival of sorts in the mid-1990s-a new rabbi was brought on, and a new congregation was formed from the neighborhood’s burgeoning population of Russian Jews. Efforts were made to renovate the building’s first floor, and badly needed repairs were made on the roof and the HVAC systems.
The building has been closed since 2008, and it has been estimated that a full renovation would cost at least $3,000,000. Hopefully a buyer with the resources to save the building will be found. Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation Synagogue is a distinctive, beautiful, and historically significant Chicago treasure.
References and further reading:
- Introduction to Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation
- Agudas Achim history
- Saving the Ark: Chicago’s grand synagogue Agudas Achim (The Magazine Antiques)
- Agudas Achim: Saving the last grand Chicago synagogue (Schmooze Magazine)
- Agudas Achim Synagogue Goes On The Market (Uptown Update)