Birthplace of gospel music

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville, Chicago

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville, Chicago

Buildings by the Chicago architects Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan are precious both for their quality and their rarity.  In Chicago itself, their Auditorium Building and the exquisite Getty Tomb are celebrated, but their Old Chicago Stock Exchange Building was demolished in 1972, and one of their most powerful and resonant surviving structures in the city faces an uncertain future.

The Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, south of the Loop, was originally built in 1890-1 as the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue.  Dankmar Adler’s father, Liebman, was rabbi there.

This powerful corner-site building was sold in 1922 to the Pilgrim Baptist Church which had been founded in 1915.  It is celebrated as the birthplace of black gospel music:  its music director from 1932 was Thomas A Dorsey (1899-1993), writer of – among much else – ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’.  In 1936-7 the interior was decorated with murals by the African-American painter William Edouard Scott (1884-1864).

Its spectacular interior and excellent acoustics [] derived from the metal-clad timber superstructure  that almost doubled the height of the robust masonry walls, which feature round-arched windows and a monumental entrance, embellished with the inscription, in Hebrew and English, “Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them, to praise the Lord” [Psalm 118 v 19].

When the roof caught fire during restoration work on January 6th 2006 [] the interior was completely destroyed but more than three quarters of the walls survived.  They remain supported by an obtrusive steel scaffold while plans for either a complete restoration or conversion to a memorial garden are stalled by controversy and litigation:

There is an extended essay about the Pilgrim Baptist Church by Lynn Becker, ‘Kaddish for a Legendary Church’, (2005-6).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *