Saturday, January 07, 2006

A Tragic Loss for Gospel Music History

Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church burned down yesterday afternoon. Not only was the building an architectural landmark--it was designed by Louis Sullivan as a synagogue and built in 1890--but it is, in many ways, the birthplace of gospel music. Pilgrim Baptist Church moved into the building in 1920. Thomas Dorsey directed the choir there, and artists like Mahalia Jackson, Sallie Martin, James Cleveland and the Edwin Hawkins Singers sang here. In 1933, it was the site of the first National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses .

This is a terrible loss. I am pierced whenever I hear of churches being lost to fire. I grieve, too, whenever important historical artifacts are lost. I'd planned to visit Pilgrim, and now that opportunity is lost.

A few years ago, I happened to be in Chicago for a conference when another historic church building, St. Stephen's, burned down. As I stood just yards away, I felt inexplicably compelled to sing "Do Not Pass Me By." The final ring of the bell above the church and its fiery descent with the building's crumbling pillars are among the eeriest and most tragic things I have ever witnessed.

Here's a link to a 1941 photo of the church. You can see the Hebrew letters above the arch.

Related Stories:

Fire Sweeps Through Historic Church (Chicago Tribune, January 6, 2006)
"Firefighters this afternoon battled an extra-alarm fire that tore through a South Side church that achieved landmark status in the 1980s."

Landmark Church Destroyed By Fire (Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2006)
"Fire swept through Bronzeville's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church on Friday, sending flaming walls and timbers crashing into the grand sanctuary where gospel music was born." That, I think, is a very good news lead. Informative, compelling and brief.

History Burns With Church (Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2006)
"[Gospel] music hardly could have been performed in a more felicitous setting, the horseshoe-shaped, wraparound balcony bringing choir and congregation unusually close to each other for a sanctuary capable of seating thousands."

Another Jewel of Sullivan's Legacy Lost (Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2006)
"Every time a Sullivan building dies, Chicago is that much more cut off from the wellspring of its architectural greatness."

The Tribune's Web site has several good shots of the fire (better visual coverage than the Sun-Times', in my opinion), including a particularly gripping one: a flaming cross, in an strikingly different context.

Blaze Destroys Historic Church (Chicago Sun-Times, January 7, 2006)
This story includes a devastating fact I hadn't read in the Trib's coverage: Dorsey's sheet music is believed to have been in the building at the time of the fire. Unbelievable.

Fire Claims Historic Chicago Church (National Public Radio, January 7, 2006)

More on architect Louis Sullivan.


Echoes of Glory: Can music save the church that gave birth to gospel? (Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1998)
"This is the place, after all, that was a spiritual home for waves of black migrants who came from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and other points due south of Chicago. This is where black Chicago went to worship, to organize, to use the telephone for finding jobs."

Little-known fact: Remember the outside shot of Triple Rock Church where the Blues Brothers went to "Get wise?" That's Pilgrim.

Photo credits:

Note: This post is updated here.

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