January 09: another Sullivan building in flames

2012/01/09 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2006 a huge fire destroyed the Pilgrim Baptist Church that was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in 1891.

Originally a synagogue (in which Adler was a member), the building is significant not only to Chicago’s Jewish heritage but also to its Christian history as the birthplace of Gospel music.  In addition to this sense of cultural heritage, it was one of the firm’s rare buildings for religious use and so was doubly historically important as a cultural landmark and an architectural icon.  (A fuller historical treatment is available here.)

The reconstruction efforts have been challenging at best.  Six years after the fire, there is little more to show than a four-stage plan proposed by architect Christopher Lee and an estimated price tag of $30 million for the work.  Preserving the building as a cultural center would be relatively straightforward, for it could be simply rebuilt and “modernized” (as they say) to fulfill the purposes of an archive and choral history center (addressing ADA and fire suppression concerns that were not on the table in the 1890s).  Architect Lee seems to be amenable to this approach; in an article for the August 2011 Chicago Architect he reveals his non-committal to returning the sanctuary to its original state: “In Europe, you see similar projects that were damaged in the war [and were] brought back to life with a different form.”  So, the masonry shell that survives could be filled in with a contemporary building.

Recapturing the original architectural quality of this Sullivan gem is the real challenge.  It is difficult to imagine how a congregation of 300 could raise such funds, unless the parish precinct included such family names as Zell, Wrigley, Pritzker and Winfrey–but they don’t live in the Bronzeville neighborhood.  Replacing one window according to Adler & Sullivan’s standards of craftsmanship could easily run to a much dearer cost than most congregations want to spend on pews.  And that is to say nothing of actually finding the crews that could recreate the glass, woodwork, plaster ornament, painting, and gilding.  They’re out there, but craftsmanship at that level will come at a steep price.

It is hard to imagine that the building will ever once again become what it once was (to see it before the fire, and to help, click here).  Anyone who is truly moved by this loss should first write a check, and then immediately sign up for 24/7 bucket brigade duty at Holy Trinity Cathedral to ensure the safety of what may be Adler & Sullivan’s only standing church project.

image: the church on fire, by Brian Kersey (from this source)

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