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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Pilgrim Baptist Church Gets $216,000 Grant To Stabilize Historic Walls, But Far More Needed For Rebuild

The landmark Adler- and Sullivan-designed building at 3301 S. Indiana Ave. burned in 2006 and partially collapsed in August's vicious storm.

Bob Chiarito/Block Club Chicago
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DOUGLAS — Pilgrim Baptist Church, the Chicago landmark best known as the birthplace of Gospel music, received a grant worth more than $200,000 Thursday from the Citywide Adopt-A-Landmark Fund in what is likely the first of many steps to rebuild the church.

The grant will go towards stabilizing the exterior walls of the church at 3301 S. Indiana Ave. It will be the first project of many required to restore the church, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Place in 1973 and named a Chicago landmark in 1981. 

The Citywide Adopt-A-Landmark Fund gives money generated by Downtown construction projects to buildings designated as Chicago Landmarks. The city acquires the money by taking 10 percent of the Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus, a fee developers pay to be allowed to build increased density Downtown. 

Designed by renowned architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the historic building was largely destroyed in a 2006 fire. Then in August, the storm that brought tornadoes to some parts of the are leveled a wall at the church, but the limestone facade that faces Indiana Avenue survived and is being propped up by scaffolding.

On Thursday, the church’s grant application sailed through the Commission on Chicago Landmarks by a 7-0 vote, with member Ernest Wong recusing himself. 

The Pilgrim Baptist Church in its glory.

Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, spoke in support of the grant at the meeting, calling the church an “extraordinary landmark.”

“The structure is so very important, but historically and architecturally, to not only the Bronzeville community but to Chicago and the world,” Miller said.

Built in 1891, the building was originally a synagogue. In the 1930s, it was converted to a church that hosted Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of modern gospel music.

Since the 2006 fire, the church has been holding services at the building across the street at 3300 S. Indiana Ave.

The goal now is to rebuild the church and to also build a Gospel music museum on the site. And despite the $216,960 granted to the church on Thursday, the church will need a lot of time and money to reach its goal, a fact acknowledged by commission member Maurice Cox during the meeting.

“This is simply a small down payment to a much more audacious vision that I think we’ll all see in the near future,” Cox said. “This is a critical step to a much larger vision that they have.”

Commission chair Rafael Leon echoed Cox, saying Thursday’s grant is likely the first of many that Pilgrim Baptist will need to complete their project.

“I can assure you that they will come back with a pretty big budget when they are ready to start the museum. But for now, I think that it’s appropriate to allocate these funds to stabilize the building.”

Cynthia Jones, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, said the church is very excited to begin the work and noted that even in its current state, it’s still drawing tourists from around the world.

 “I can’t tell you how excited we are to start the work and get this building back to its rightful place in history,” Jones told the commission. 

“Even in its state now, thousands of people come every year to place their hands on those sacred walls to take pictures. We’re so excited about bringing a Gospel museum to the birthplace of Gospel music. To have something like that on that sacred ground, I just think it’s amazing.”

The south wall of the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church collapsed in the storm that hit Chicago on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.
The south wall of the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church collapsed in the storm that hit Chicago on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.
The collapsed south wall of the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church after a storm hit Chicago earlier this week seen on August 15, 2020.

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