A Pilgrim of sorrow no more? Plans to restore fire-damaged Adler & Sullivan church

April 5, 2011

The congregation of Pilgrim Baptist Church and its architectural team have announced a $30 million+ plan to rebuild the Adler & Sullivan-designed edifice which has sat as fortified ruin since nearly perishing in a spectacular extra alarm fire five years ago.

Architect F. Christopher Lee, of architecture firm Johnson & Lee--a leader of architectural and engineering team rebuilding the church at 33rd and Indiana--said the building will be reconstructed in four phases The first phase includes building a steel interior structural system that will support the Pilgrim's heavy limestone exterior walls--walls that have been propped up by exterior steel braces since shortly after the fire. A clerestory tower that burned and fell in the January 2006 blaze will be recreated in steel braces.

The church doesn't have the money to complete the project, but is planning fundraising efforts, according to published reports. Lee said the one campaign will solicit donation to recreate the church's windows.  Meanwhile the church set up a website that seeks donations and tells of the church's history. Starting the project now shows a "good faith effort" that plans to rebuild the church--announced years ago--are stepping toward fruition, he said.

The 120-year-old building is widely seen as a high-point of American architecture. Originally a synagogue designed by the famed team of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, the church was known for its ear-perfect acoustics that allowed a cantor to be heard throughout the huge, balconied auditorium. The building was rich organic, Sullivan detailing both inside and out.

Pilgrim Baptist Church became a birthplace of gospel music and was for decades the musical home of the genre's creator, musician Thomas A. Dorsey.

A horrific January 6, 2006 fire nearly destroyed all the history and architecture. I took these photos the night of the fire and the morning after:

The first phase should be completed the end of 2012, Lee said. Along with Johnson & Lee, structural engineers Wiss Janney Elstner Associates, and Ann Arbor preservation architects Quinn Evans round out the engineering and design team.