St. James Academy

Quick Stats

  • LOCATION: 220 Illinois Street, Lemont, Cook County
  • STATUS: Saved
  • BUILT: 1883
  • SITE TYPE: School, Religious Structure
  • ARCHITECTURE: Italianate
  • GEOGRAPHY: Suburban
  • OWNER AT TIME OF LISTING: Institution, Catholic Church
  • THREAT AT TIME OF LISITNG: Abandonment and deterioration, with identified structural issues not being addressed, including roof problems that have compromised interior. Application for COA to demolish the building was submitted in January 2015.
  • CURRENT USE: Residential, pending
  • DESIGNATIONS: National Register of Historic Places (1984), Village of Lemont Local Landmark
  • TAKE ACTION: Interested in an apartment in Lemont? Keep an eye out for future residences in a rehabilitated St. James Academy.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

St. James Academy was Lemont’s first school to offer secondary education when it opened its doors in 1884. The two-story Italianate-style school is one of just a dozen Joliet-Lemont limestone structures still standing in Lemont, a town where quarrying was the major industry from 1850-1900. St. James Academy was cared for by St. Patrick’s Parish in the Lemont community, leading it to be renamed St. Patrick School in the 1890s. In addition to classroom spaces for students from 1st through 12th grades, the building provided living spaces for the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wis., who were in charge of the school.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time of Listing - 2015

St. James Academy remained in operation until 1963, when a new school building was constructed nearby and classes were moved there. Later, low enrollment numbers prompted the Archdiocese to merge the school with another in Lemont, leaving both the original St. James Academy and the 1963 building without a purpose. While the newer school building was converted into a parish center and meeting space, old St. James remained vacant. Periodic inspections by the Archdiocese revealed structural support problems, but they remained unaddressed for decades. As a result, breaches in the roof allowed water to enter the building, severely deteriorating the interior.

Although the Village of Lemont designated St. James Academy a local landmark, by 2015, the Diocese viewed the historic building as an unusable drain on its budget and applied for a demolition permit. Even after the Lemont Historic Preservation Commission and the village’s planning and economic department voted against destruction of the historic school, the parish continued to push for demolition, despite the fact that doing so would cost between $100,000-150,000. Aside from the roof issues and interior deterioration, however, the school exterior remained stable, with a high degree of historic integrity. Local preservationists worked with the Village to explore opportunities for the right developer to rehabilitate and reuse the building.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

To draw attention to the reuse potential of the historic St. James Academy, Landmarks Illinois included the building on its 2015 Most Endangered list. Thanks to local advocacy efforts and Lemont’s Historic Preservation Commission, St. James Academy was saved by local developer Rob Abbinante of Addison Properties Development and Management LLC. Addison Properties had previously developed other properties in Lemont and had been following St. James’ plight closely. Working with general contractor Sal Alfano (a Lemont native) and architect Simon Batistich, Rob met with the Diocese to come up with a mutually beneficial solution for the property. Reuse had to make sense on all ends Rob told Landmarks Illinois earlier this year. For St. James, this meant a design that provided additional parking areas—a priority for the Diocese—as well as a productive and economical reuse of the building itself.

In October 2018, the Village’s Historic Preservation Commission approved Addison Properties’ plan to redevelop St. James Academy as an apartment building featuring nine, one- and two-bedroom units. Rob’s goal for the property was to create a building that balances the historic elements of St. James Academy with practical reuse solutions. “Our strategy was to go in there to kind of design around the original spirit of the building and repurpose it so nine families could live in there,” he said.

The building retained a solid foundation and exterior so the crew was able to salvage the stone with pressure washing and tuck-pointing. Next, they worked to restore the roof, ending decades of water damage. On the interior, Rob repurposed as many items as possible, donating doors, fixtures, sinks, mattresses and other reusable pieces to Habitat for Humanity and local homeless shelters. Although salvaging and reusing such pieces sometimes required additional time and money, Rob felt it was more than worthwhile: “It was really cool to see the mattresses that the nuns slept on, instead of going into a landfill, going to the homeless,” he said. The renovation plans will now focus on the front of the building, including an update to the retention wall and floral landscaping. Rob and his team will also work on additional pressure washing so that the original Joliet-Lemont limestone can be featured with exposed interior walls. They look forward to the completion of the project in early 2020.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

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