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See the Bronzeville church that is the real birthplace of gospel

With more than 350 sites to choose from during the Chicago Architecture Center’s free Open House Chicago event this weekend, it can be a challenge to decide which to visit. Here’s a suggestion: Bronzeville’s Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, at 45th Street and Vincennes Avenue. It has a unique place in the architectural and musical history of the city, but the most compelling reason to get there may be the one that stands just under two miles away, on the southeast corner of Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street.

That’s where you’ll find another great church, Pilgrim Baptist—or, rather, the gaping hulk that’s all that’s left of it. The fortresslike limestone structure, with its massive arched entryway, crown of stained glass windows, and peaked-roof clerestory that brought light into a soaring, barrel-vaulted, 1,500-seat sanctuary, was gutted by a fire in 2006.

Pilgrim Baptist was designed by the legendary architectural partnership of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Completed in 1891, it was originally a synagogue, K.A.M. Temple, where Adler’s father had been the rabbi, and was built at the same time as Adler and Sullivan’s even larger and more high-profile project, the massive, mixed-use Auditorium Building (at Michigan and Ida B. Wells). K.A.M. featured the same renowned acoustics that Adler engineered for the Auditorium Theatre.

What remains is a partial shell—facade and side walls, held up by scaffolding and open to the elements. The rear wall and roof are gone. There are plans to rebuild as a gospel music museum, but they haven’t yet materialized. It’s hard, looking at this wreckage, to imagine what was once there. But it’s possible to see something quite similar.

Two years after Pilgrim Baptist was completed, Chicago was hit by a major economic recession. It was 1893, the year famous for the opening of the Columbian Exposition. Visitors were streaming into the city, but no new buildings were getting commissioned. The partnership of Adler and Sullivan, which had enjoyed more than a decade of success that included the design of buildings like the Chicago Stock Exchange and the Garrick Theater, was already under strain. Adler wanted to bring his son into the business; Sullivan—perhaps suffering from the alcoholism that would plague his later life—wasn’t enthusiastic about that. By 1895, under the additional stress of the recession, the partnership had broken apart.

Things were so bad that Adler took a job with an elevator company, but he was soon back in business as an architect—minus Sullivan. One of the design commissions he landed was for another synagogue, Temple Isaiah, at 4501 S. Vincennes, completed in 1899. Adler gave this temple the same clear span, barrel-vaulted ceiling, and impeccable sound that K.A.M. (and the Auditorium Theatre) had, along with symmetrical rows of stained glass windows on the north and south sides that cast the 1,200-seat sanctuary in a golden glow. It was his final building; Adler died in 1900, at the age of 56.

In 1921, Temple Isaiah was sold to the Ebenezer congregation, and ten years later those excellent acoustics were put to a groundbreaking use. Reverend James Howard Lorenzo Smith, the third pastor to lead the Ebenezer congregation, came to Chicago in 1931 from Alabama. Dissatisfied with the classical, European-influenced church music he found at Ebenezer, Smith hired singer Theodore Frye, who in turn recruited pianist and composer Thomas A. Dorsey (among other things, he’d been Ma Rainey’s accompanist) to create and run something new: a gospel chorus that quickly grew to 100 members. Frye and Dorsey brought elements of blues and jazz to the sacred music, and choreographed the volunteer singers (who weren’t required to have previous musical training), so that their performance captured the eye as well as the ear.

As recounted by Robert M. Marovich in his book A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, Reverend Smith was so pleased he immediately took his new gospel chorus with him for a guest appearance at Pilgrim. Two months later, Pilgrim’s pastor invited Dorsey to, in effect, jump ship and create a gospel chorus there. He did, with great success. As a result, it’s Pilgrim that often gets credited with being the “birthplace of gospel music.”

Patricia Butts—whose family has been an active part of Ebenezer for nearly a century—is the current clerk at the church. She says the building has city landmark status and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is in need of funds for maintenance, including repairs to the precious stained glass windows.

The congregation numbers only a little more than 100 active members now, many of them elderly, Butts says. But a new pastor, Darryl N. Person, is about to be installed, and the plan is to build the membership while raising the money to restore the building. The Open House Chicago viewings are Saturday, October 19, from 10 AM to 5 PM, and Sunday, October 20, from 1 to 5 PM. If you don’t make it—or even if you do—a free gospel music concert in honor of the installation is set for 7 PM at the church, 4501 S. Vincennes, on Friday, October 25, and the public is invited.  v

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