MONDAY STORMS FURTHER DAMAGE HISTORIC PILGRIM BAPTIST CHURCH
‘Visionary’ behind effort to transform Bronzeville landmark says destruction ‘forces the urgency,’ while others worry that it could upend the venture
It didn’t take long for Cynthia Jones to find out how badly Pilgrim Baptist Church had been damaged when winds of nearly 100 mph tore through the city Monday afternoon.
By 4:15 p.m., Jones, chair of the church’s board of trustees, had gotten calls from plenty of neighbors.
“Any time you have any kind of damage, you’re concerned,” Jones said Tuesday. “I have faith in God it’s for a reason.”
Tuesday afternoon, heaps of bricks rested in front of what used to be the south wall of the church, at 3301 S. Indiana Ave. in Douglas.
Now, only two walls remain intact — the north and west walls, made of limestone and braced by metal beams.
The building has been a shell since January 2006, when it was gutted by fire.
Since 2017, the church has been fundraising for a plan to build the National Museum of Gospel Music. The project was to be completed this fall but already had been delayed to 2022, Jones said.
Instead of halting plans for the museum, Don Jackson — founder and CEO of Chicago-based Central City Productions and the “visionary” behind the museum project — called the collapse a “godsend.”
“This forces the urgency,” Jackson said. “This has been a blessing for the project that says that we need to get started,” adding that he still thinks the museum can open in September 2022.
The state has allocated $2.1 million to the museum, but Jackson said the church has yet to receive the money. He expects the state and city each will contribute about $10 million total to the project, now estimated to cost $48 million, Jackson said. Monday’s destruction could expedite state and city action, he said.
Others worry the wall’s collapse could upend the project.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said though he “loves the idea of a gospel museum,” operating and maintaining a museum is expensive. Still, he would welcome “anything” to preserve the space, such as an open-air concert venue, a community center or a fieldhouse.
“It’s still an important component to save,” Miller said. “It has a lot of significance to the nation and to the world, culturally in music and, of course, architecturally.”
Built in 1890 and designed by famous architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the building originally operated as a synagogue before the church purchased the property in 1922. Thomas A. Dorsey, considered the “father of gospel music” was a choir director at the church, which many consider to be the music style’s birthplace.
Since the fire, the church congregation, community groups and gospel performers have proposed myriad plans to preserve the building’s history, eventually landing on the National Museum of Gospel Music in 2017.
Jones, who’s in her 70s, said she’s attended the church since she was baptized there at age 7. The church now meets across the street at 3300 S. Indiana Ave. Monday’s destruction is a “hiccup” compared to the “day and night of devastation” of the 2006 fire.
Jones is “confident” there will be a museum, she said — it’s only a matter of time. She anticipates Monday’s damage could delay the project a year.
“We’re very positive that’s going to come to fruition,” she said. “It should be here. Where else would it be besides Chicago?”
The south wall of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville collapsed in Monday’s storms. Already gutted by a 2006 fire, the historic site is the planned location for a National Museum of Gospel Music.