Demolition Denied on Historic Pilgrim Church

The walls will stay up – at least for now. However, the future of historic Pilgrim Baptist Church remains uncertain for the original birthplace of gospel music.

Pilgrim Baptist Church Chicago

Pilgrim Baptist Church Chicago

During the holidays, the Chicago Landmarks Commission temporarily voted to reject a demolition permit to knock down what’s left of the 126-year-old structure.

The decision was an affirmation to Pilgrim Baptist Church members, who had been under pressure by neighbors to demolish the structure. While the move was a temporary reprieve for the structure, questions remain about the future use of the hollow walls that have been left standing for over a decade.

The building was gutted Jan. 5, 2006, from a fire on the roof as workers made repairs during a $500,000 restoration.  The fire spread throughout the building, destroying historic artifacts and records inside the Adler and Sullivan-designed building, which is at 3301 S. Indiana Ave. For 11 years, massive braces held the walls up as neighbors complained about the scaffolding taking up most of the sidewalk. Pressure mounted as community leaders and residents stepped up demands for Pilgrim to demolish a piece of history that was once a symbol of pride to members.

In September 2015, church leaders said the building would not be restored because it would be too expensive, but nothing was done to tear the wall down.  Meanwhile, the congregation continued holding its worship services across the street from the building.

The city recently took the church to housing court, hoping to get the church to decide on the fate of the building.

Despite heavy support from Preservation Chicago, Pilgrim Baptist Church members applied for a permit to demolish everything but the arch doorway that served as the front entrance. However, the commission on Nov. 3 agreed with a historian that everything is still worth saving.

The church’s attorney, Sheila Prendergast, declined to comment for this story. She said a church representative would get back to the Defender, but no one responded as of press time Tuesday.

According to news reports, the church had been trying to sell the building and the adjoining parking lot. There was also talk about turning the site into a neighborhood park.

Built in 1891, the building was a Jewish Synagogue before the Pilgrim Baptist Church congregation moved into the building in 1922. Here, the “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas A. Dorsey, the church music director, blended blues with traditional gospel songs, giving birth to a genre that became a significant part of worship services in Black churches across America. Dorsey wrote the famous hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Some of the famous singers who have sung at the church include Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin Albertina Walker and  James Cleveland.

In 2016, the church celebrated its 100th anniversary .

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