Our Prairie Cathedral
Article published in the Chicago Tribune, Wednesday, August 24, 1994
By Julie Irwin, Tribune Staff Writer.
FRAME, SPIRITS RISE
CONGREGATION BEAMING ABOUT ITS BARN, DISMANTLED, REBUILT BY THE NUMBERS
Rick Bott refers to the 19th Century timber barns that used to dot the Midwestern landscape as “prairie palaces” and “American cathedrals.”
Now Bott, a Libertyville contractor, and an Elgin religious congregation are refashioning one of the palaces into a real cathedral, on a prairie patch miles from where the barn originally stood.
The 1888 barn, which until recently housed raccoons and the occasional teenage gathering, will soon be home to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin. Faced with moving to a new location, church members rejected the idea of building a structure from scratch and decided instead to move their old barn to another site.
“This is going to make an absolutely magnificent church,” said Bott, who has taken down about 250 barns in the last 20 years. “If this had been destroyed, it would have been a shame.”
The structure’s odyssey from barn to church began several years ago when the congregation decided to move from its former site on Randall Road. Elgin was eager to annex the land, then in unincorporated Kane County, and the area was becoming louder and more congested as development took over.
“We were afraid we were being encroached by the Panasonics and the First Cards,” two of the companies that had moved into the area, said parishioner Suzanne Hanifl. “The big businesses were coming in, and we didn’t like that.”
In searching for solutions to their problem, the church building commission hit upon the idea of moving the enormous barn on their property, then used for storage, to a new location.
The prospect might have seemed daunting: the building measures 100 feet by 36 feet and stands 35 feet high. Some members also were worried about the cost.
But in the end, the idea appealed to many in the congregation, who come from as far away as Crystal Lake, Barrington and Streamwood.
Theirs is a decision being made by many landowners in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, Bott said.
He estimates he has reconstructed 40 to 50 barns into houses and great rooms during his career, mostly in Lake County and southern Wisconsin and mostly in the last few years.
“It’s recycling on a grand scale. We’re not only saving the wood, we’re saving the structure,” said Bott, as he supervised his crew of construction workers placing beams on the church’s third floor.
“We’re also saving history. These buildings have a spirit to them that you wouldn’t find in a conventionally framed building.”
A traditional barn-raising it’s not. Church members coming to help in the effort arrive in minivans and Mercedes rather than covered wagons. And they walk amid the piles of lumber dressed in shorts and running shoes, talking things over with Bott and architect Mark Swanson.
Bott’s crew began in June by stripping the shell of the barn, then measuring and labeling the timber frame, post by post, before knocking it down. The workers are now reassembling the posts at the new site on Highland Avenue, three miles west of Randall Road.
Surrounded by cornfields on three sides and a cemetery on the fourth, with railroad tracks running nearby, the bucolic plot shows no signs of the development that crowded the church’s old site. Church members plan to landscape it with native prairie plants once the building is complete.
Bott marvels at the way the century-old barn retained its structural integrity “to a fraction of an inch,” and at its virgin white pine posts, some of them measuring 30 feet: “It’s almost impossible to find wood of this quality anymore.”
A series of huge barns in the area, including the nearby historical Teeple round barn, leads Bott to speculate area farmers must have had a barn-building contest in the late 1800s. The quality of the structures decreased after World War I, he said.
Church members don’t know if it would have been cheaper to build using new materials-they estimate their project will cost between $800,000 and $900,000-but they are pleased with their decision to save the barn.
The congregation has invested its time and energy as well as dollars. Church members have volunteered on their off-hours building the interior decking floors, and depending on the budget, they also might help install insulation and drywall.
“It’s amazing to watch the members when they get done putting down the decking,” said Rev. Dan Brosier, pastor of the congregation. “There’s this sense of pride, of accomplishment, this connection. That’s something I will remember always.”
Once the three-story timber frame of the church’s barn is fully reassembled, workers will put on a roof and wrap it in vertical cedar siding. The congregation hopes to be holding services in a temporary sanctuary on the first floor of the building by December, using a pulpit from its first church in downtown Elgin. The second floor, which eventually will hold the permanent sanctuary, and third-floor attic will remain unfinished until more money is raised.
There are concerns on the horizon: eventually they might outgrow the space, and from the second floor, there is encroaching development, in the form of new housing, visible just over the stalks of corn.
But for now, the congregation is focused on more immediate concerns. “We don’t have to worry about (growth and development) now,” Brosier said. “We have to worry about getting it finished.”
Copyright 1997, The Tribune Company. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.
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