Divine Word Missionaries
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Techny restoration begins
Chicago Tribune August 1, 2007
Techny restoration begins
Familiar yet little-known Northbrook landmark is being renovated to reflect the ministry's more than 100-year history
By Lisa Black | Tribune staff reporter
With its majestic brick exterior and 162-foot twin bell towers, the Techny building stands out as a familiar landmark along busy Waukegan Road in Northbrook, but one that remains largely a mystery among even its closest neighbors.
"We've had people stop by and say, 'I've been driving by for 30 years and wondered what goes on here,'" said Kitty Collins, executive director of the Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center.
The former seminary, built by a German order of priests in 1899, is now covered with scaffolding as workers begin a $10 million to $12 million restoration that has offered workers a glimpse into its past, to a time when Northbrook was a small farming community called Shermerville.
With underground tunnels, its own post office and a guest list that includes Tibetan monks, Techny Towers' colorful history stems from its mission to send Catholic missionaries across the world.
The Society of the Divine Word still trains and houses about 65 seminarians and priests on the 157-acre campus. The order of Catholic priests owns an additional 500 acres nearby that is leased to commercial and residential development or reserved as open space.
During the restoration, the Society of the Divine Word is taking care to preserve the appearance and character of Techny Towers, though it has not been formally designated as a historic landmark, said Rev. Walter Bracken, the order's rector. In addition to its 140 beds and 12 meeting rooms, the building houses three chapels. The largest -- the Chapel of the Holy Spirit -- is open to the public for mass six days a week and used for concerts.
"We decided to restore the entire building so that we can continue the types of ministry that the towers have been involved in over the past few years," Bracken said. "Everything we do on the outside is restoration and not to change the architecture at all."
Over the next year, workers will restore masonry, replace portions of the red clay tile roof and put in new windows, while preserving the richly designed stained glass in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, said Ken McHugh, owner of Chicago-based Institutional Project Management, which is overseeing construction.
Because the building has undergone several additions and renovations, workers have identified at least eight different types and shades of brick that they are trying to match, McHugh said.
Techny was originally a "ramshackle barracks-like building with a small turret on top," according to an essay by Rev. Robert Flinn, director of Techny Towers from 1985 to 1995, who has since died.
"The building was so cold and drafty in the winter that the water and wine used for mass at times froze," he wrote.
Farmers and townspeople traveled by foot, wagon or sleigh to attend chapel services at what today is the north wing of Techny Towers, according to his account.
From 1901 to 1912, the brothers educated orphans there at what they called St. Joseph's Technical School, thus giving the campus the name "Techny."
After the school closed in 1912, Techny became the first seminary in the United States devoted to training priests for foreign missions, according to the order. At that time, more than 300 people lived there, running a farm, printing press and maintenance shops. Techny operated as its own community and gained its own post office, which remains intact even after the campus was annexed by Northbrook in 1990.
The Society of the Divine Word stopped using Techny Towers as a seminary in 1969. It reopened the building 25 years ago as a retreat and conference center.
Entering a quiet lobby, groups find portraits of the society's founders and a gift shop displaying books such as "What God Wants for Your Life." Last week, a group called Zero Balancing Health Association, which seeks to "align body energy with the body's physical structure," leased space at the conference center, Collins said.
Display cases with artifacts and an "Africa Chapel" tell the stories of the priests' missions around the world. Almost all of the wood furniture, cabinets and sculptures in the building were made by seminarians. The brothers built their own pipe organ in the 1920s using parts collected around the world, including a theater-style organ and a motor built in part with an engine from a World War I airplane.
"They built this as a Frankenstein organ, with pieces from here and there," said Evanston music teacher James Smith as he tuned the organ last week. "They didn't have a lot of money as missionaries. . . . They used their ingenuity to make things happen."
As part of the restoration, workers will demolish a room shaped as a geodesic dome with a transparent ceiling that does not fit the tower's historic character. Added in the late 1970s, the dome was part of a contemporary, multimedia exhibit used to showcase the order's missionary work. A firm that did displays for Disney built the exhibit for the order.
Remnants from that project and others -- such as a room that contains a jumbled pile of sculpture pieces, including legs, arms and Jesus figures -- have fascinated the workers as they comb through the building. Techny also has a network of underground tunnels and rooms that "almost looks like something out of a medieval movie," McHugh said.
The passageways connected the buildings on campus, aiding in the distribution of heat and water, Collins said. Seminarians used to store vegetables and fruit there, too, she said.
The tunnels will not be affected by the restoration, which focuses on more necessary improvements, such as new carpeting and a second elevator. Today, most guests use the building's 30 stairwells to move among the building's five floors. To make the building more accessible for people with disabilities, workers will make some adaptations to a front entranceway to Techny, a door that also has a colorful history.
Formerly called the "hobo entrance," it was a place where transients could count on a meal if they stopped by the seminary, Collins said.
While times have changed, the Society of the Divine Word's mission to spread the gospel remains the same, and Techny Towers will continue to be a part of that, Bracken said.
"There are many buildings in Europe that are standing after hundreds and hundreds of years," he said, "and we hope Techny can too."