LAKE BLUFF, Ill. (
) -- To its adherents, a church is a place of worship, a sanctuary and a second home. What it often isn't, however, is a $12.5 million mansion on Lake Michigan.
Chicago banker and realtor George Michael says he was acting in good faith when he built a 14-person chapel for his wife, who suffers from an autonomic heart disorder and progressive multiple sclerosis, in their five-acre estate. Michael and his wife, his third cousin, had attended services at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church on Diversey Street in Chicago before her declining health prompted their move to the waterfront home on 265 feet of private beach in 2004.
Banker George Michael of Lake Bluff, Ill., built a chapel in his mansion on Lake Michigan so his ailing wife could continue to attend services.
When she was no longer able to attend services, Michael built the chapel and invited Armenian priests to hold services for his family and guests. Before doing so, however, he applied for a church tax exemption that state revenue officials initially approved, allowing him to avoid $80,000 in property taxes. After neighbors told newspaper reporters that they never saw services held on the property, and a Department of Revenue judge reversed the initial ruling that he called a "sham," Michael faced lawsuits, suspended sanitation service, nearly $800,000 in proposed fines for services, visits from local law enforcement and the press. The scrutiny led him to put the house on the market through his own agency in September and October before withdrawing it.
"We thought it would probably be best if we left Lake Bluff, because we weren't wanted there," Michael says. "I put it on the market for a few days, but I discussed it with my wife, and she doesn't want to move."
When the house was listed, however, little about it resembled a house of worship -- Armenian or otherwise. Photos of the chapel were absent amid shots of five master bedrooms, a master suite with full wet bar and air hockey table, balconies overlooking Lake Michigan, another balcony overlooking an indoor pool with a hydraulic cover and basketball hoop.
The chapel wasn't mentioned at all in descriptions of the 17 other rooms -- which include a barbershop, home theater, multiple steam rooms, a wine cellar and formal dining room with a butler's pantry and ceiling painted -- or the guest house and 12-car heated garage. The only church-like element displayed was the cathedral ceiling over the mounted deer's head and pool table in the building's great hall.
Even if the nave were included among the offerings, its altar would be considered artifice by church standards. To found a church in The Armenian Church of America's Eastern Diocese, which includes Illinois, an entire Armenian community must petition the diocese center in New York for inclusion. Once the diocese makes its own inquiry into the community and whether it can sustain an Armenian church "in perpetuity," there is a full blessing process that must take place before a church can be established, diocese spokesman Chris Zakian said.
"When an altar is set up, there's an entire ceremony that consecrates, first, the plot of land, then the cornerstones on which the altar will be set upon and then the altar," he says. "It's not something that's taken lightly and not something that can be done ad hoc by any individual."
The diocese last completed this process in 2007 for an Orlando, Fla., parish. The Armenian Church recognizes only four parishes in Illinois that were founded generations ago, and Michael's isn't one of them. Zakian says the church is sympathetic toward Michael's wife's illness, but notes that Armenian priests routinely visit private homes, elder-care facilities and hospitals to administer communion.
"It does not require the establishment of an altar and does not warrant tax-exempt status," Zakian says. "It would be an unusual circumstance for a person to have a private chapel. Aside from kings in Armenia, I haven't heard of people having private chapels."
Though Michael has delisted the home, he says it may return to the market in the near future. He says both he and his children have been held to ridicule over the incident, to the point where he opted not to take them trick-or-treating this Halloween, but that he's left the decision to his wife.
"I think it's probably best that the people of Lake Bluff are free of me," Michael says. "If I had it to do all over again, I probably would have moved right next door to the church on Diversey."
-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.