I woke up twenty minutes before the train left and ran across Grant – er, Millenium – Park, and then I bought the wrong train ticket. The machine dispensed change for my twenty dollar bill in the modern equivalent of gold doubloons. When the correct train arrived I had to pay for a new ticket, with my pirate money, before me and my mystery ticket could uneasily begin the journey back to Gary, Indiana.
I’ve done this before, but anytime I venture into a city where the median yearly wage is, on average, less the cost of my camera gear hidden in my backpack, I get anxious. I’m concerned that everyone on this train knows I’m secretly listening to Taylor Swift, that I look privileged and suburban. I even walk like someone who drinks sparkling water.
I can see the Methodist from the train station, the tower, overlooking the city. This is why I’m here. This place, this unconventional hobby. It’s a short walk, but the sight of the cathedral – so different, so stripped and barren – is jarring. This wont be like every other time. This is the last time.
The Methodist is under construction – ah, not construction – demolition. The Methodist is a popular building, yes, internet-famous in practice if not, in fact. It’s a beautiful old soul, but it comes to my attention as I cross construction lines, that, as a better writer has said: on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.
“Hi,” I said, “My name is Carol, I’m with Six Magazine, from the West Coast, I was scheduled to shoot the cathedral today at three PM, sorry I’m late. Are you Ron?” It was all a lie. I’m good at lying, which probably isn’t a good thing, but alas, the construction supervisor passes me a look that says, I’m not sure who you are, but your camera looks pretty official. Still, he’s wary.
“What’s the story about?” asks, not-Ron.
“Gary,” I respond smoothly, “How the city started, and what it’s becoming. We are specifically focusing on it’s abandoned buildings and their renovation projects.”
This banter continues, a woman in a hard-hat joins us, and I reintroduce myself under the same alias of an amusing TV character. If the shoe fits.
As it turns out, it was the woman who let me in, not intentionally, of course. As I made up the fake news story about Gary, she asked about the history of this particular building, and I told her. The church cost over a million dollars to build in 1920, and in it’s height, had thousands of members. Much of the building was destroyed by a fire in the nineties, but at one time it was beautiful. Beautiful. She asks me if the building is dangerous and I shrug, “Sometimes.”
“All my life,” she says, as we walk into the theatre, “All my life, I’ve lived here, and I never been in this building. I never knew…” she trails off repeating, “Wow, wow, wow.”
That’s how everyone feels the first time here. Like I said, this isn’t my first go-round.
I’m playing tour guide, which is an interesting turn of events. Yes, this was once an auditorium, that’s why the floor is slanted. There used to be a piano here. The crucifix is gone. Do you think this is impressive? Follow me.
This is, of course, what the Methodist is famous for. This is where the camera phones come out, this is where everyone is silent, voices quavering whispers. I don’t know why, but it’s always this. It’s nice to see adults so curious, so enthralled. So fascinated by the things we create.
This is where I leave, slinking quietly off upstairs to do my fake magazine report (it does sound like an interesting job, admittedly.) I can hear other construction workers filtering in outside while I work, I hear the voices and then the silence. It’s nice, I think, that this building inspires people. I say, let it inspire. I’m not here for a magazine, after all. I’m just inspired. I just come here to think – past, present, and future.
My story with the Methodist is not unusual. I saw it on the internet, thought it was pretty, and showed up – again and again, and again. It started as an eclectic interest, and it’s since become my destination every time I come to Chicago. I’m not sure why. It’s voyeuristic, maybe, to watch something die slowly. Each time I’m here, it’s different. Some portion of the ceiling has collapsed, some floor has given way. Some new clothes, new toys, new furniture. People live here. Police crime scene tape indicates that people die here, too, but lets not get ahead of ourselves. I’m just here to take pictures.
It’s really not exploring anymore, it’s hello, how are you. The beaten path, with little left to uncover. I’ve touched all stories of this monolith, from the roof to the rafters, between the spaces in the wall, the air ducts hidden beneath the stairwell near the gymnasium, the mezzanine, the green room and the crawlspace beneath the stage. The school, however, was new. A recently collapsed ceiling gave me access to M’s last stronghold, and I went, eager and controlled all the same.
The school is not in terrible condition, surprisingly. The walls have suffered less graffiti, the floors are mostly intact. Of course, I can’t say that for the rooms leading there. The walk was daunting.
When I got off the train today, I had not known it would be my last time here at the Methodist. It wasn’t my intention, in any case, but I think…the cathedral will fall. Sooner than later, it will be destroyed. It’s being cleared now, construction crews are pulling it apart. It’s ending, and the uncovering of the school was the end of the road for me. I’ve exhausted the Methodist’s secrets, and, if I haven’t, then let them stay.
The mystery is what brought me here in the first place. It’s what brings a lot of people, and inconsequently, turns lots of others away.
I’m drawn to stories – it’s an old habit of mine. I like ideas, maybe’s, and what if’s. For some time, the Methodist was my go-to what if. What stories happened here? Who cried, who suffered, who rejoiced and who was misunderstood? What ghosts are here, I wonder, and where do they go when people stop asking? It’s that overprivileged drivel that we young students with overpriced tuitions and strict social expectations are taught not to think about, in any amount of words: what happens after us?
The shoot lasted several hours, in the unexpectedly bracing cold of a midwestern March. It’s a good place to think, even when the sounds of construction make it all but peaceful. I can hear the water dripping in between the jackhammers, and I think, it’s been a good run. Nearly a hundred years for M and a few years faithful visitation from myself. I hope a few other people will come to appreciate this place before it’s gone. Leave only footprints, take only pictures.
I’m late for my train again, and I pay the fare with the rest of my pirate money. The South Shore reels back to a Chicago sunset, and all I can think of is how empty that corner of Washington is going to look without the – in it’s own words – “imperfect house of God” watching over. Chicago closes in to the sound of T Swift – because that’s my jam.
Peace out, Methodist. Keep on inspiring.
Made Possible by:
- Canon EOS 5D Mark II Digital SLR
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM