Bronzeville's Monumental Baptist Church is officially a city landmark. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

OAKLAND — A historical, more than century-old South Side church once known for its extravagant performances of Handel’s “Messiah” in the 1960s is officially a city landmark.

The City Council granted landmark status to Monumental Baptist Church, 729 E. Oakwood Blvd., last week, clearing the way for the 123-year-old building to get financial assistance for $1.5 million in sorely-needed repairs.

Pastor Cleophus Lee hopes to repair the roof and sanctuary ceiling; restore the mural above the choir section; and install a cooling system under the floor.

In March, Lee shared the church’s struggle to stay afloat, with its membership dwindling from 800 to 30 by the time he joined in 2018. He was able to grow it to 70 people before the pandemic caused it to drop again.

When the pandemic hit, he and other church leaders held virtual services to keep in touch with parishioners and provided onsite COVID-19 testing. The church also planned to expand its outreach to neighboring schools.

At its peak, Monumental was home to one of the most popular holiday performances in the city, with its sold-out Handel’s “Messiah” concerts drawing visitors from all over the country and a nod in Ebony/Jet Magazine. Hortense Love, a member of the congregation and its choir director, began the tradition, with the support of actor and baritone William Warfield, who starred in the 1951 musical film “Showboat,” according to a city report.

The church was built between 1899 and 1901 by architects Patton, Fisher & Miller in the Romanesque Revival style, which is derived from medieval European architecture —  mostly churches — in the 11th and 12 centuries, according to the city. It cost a reported $60,000 at the time. It’s described as one of Chicago’s best examples of a “central lantern church,” a style modeled after H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston.

Built in Romanesque Revival style, the 103 year-old building has round, dramatic arches and masonry construction. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden

A landmark designation report from the city’s Dept. of Planning and Development describes the church as “an enduring, fortress-like structure of brick and terra cotta with a picturesque roofline. The design conveys the strength and longevity of religious institutions and their houses of worship.”

It was originally known as Memorial Baptist Church and tied to the University of Chicago. It was rechristened Monumental Baptist Church when it was bought in 1934 by a Black Baptist congregation.

“During the Great Migration, African Americans brought with them a tradition of church attendance, and in Chicago houses of worship became vital institutions in the African American community that were not just about worship. Monumental was no exception,” according to the city report.

“Guided by skilled and energetic pastors it emerged as one of the largest and most active African American congregations in the city. In addition to spirituality, Monumental was a platform for social, intellectual and political uplift that was relevant to the daily lives of African Americans.”

For more on the history of Monumental Baptist Church, click here.

Work still needs to be done on the sanctuary, which had to be closed to parishioners for safety reasons. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden
Monumental Baptist Church was recently granted a preliminary landmark designation by the city. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/ Block Club Chicago

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