Possible landmark status for Bronzeville church that birthed gospel music

February 2, 2011

A Bronzeville church that was the last commission of Louis Sullivan's collaborator Dankmar Adler--and would  later host the first modern gospel choir beneath its stunning coffered barreled ceiling--could take a step toward city landmark status today.

 Assuming the inclement weather doesn't cause a postponement, staffers from the city's Landmarks Division are set to ask the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to grant preliminary landmark status for Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, a brick Classical Revival beauty at 4501 S. Vincennes. If granted, the move would give protected landmark status to the 112-year-old church while the staff investigates the possibility of permanent landmark status.

Built in 1899 as synagogue Isaiah Temple,  the 1200-seat church is known for its beauty and for its acoustics--a hallmark of Adler's work. Adler, who with Sullivan, designed a collection of well-known buildings, including the Auditorium Theater, Pilgrim Baptist Church and the former Carson Pirie Scott flagship on State Street died in 1900.

The temple became predominantly black Ebenezer Missionary Baptist in 1921. A decade later at the church, musicians Thomas A. Dorsey, Professor Theodore R. Frye and singer Roberta Martin formed the first modern choir that sang gospel, a then-new and bluesier form of religious music, according to the city's landmark report on the building. The music won quick and widespread notice after its introduction at Ebenezer. A year later, Dorsey and Frye performed gospel at another former synagogue, Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd and Indiana, and were hired to create choir there. Pilgrim remained Dorsey's home and musical base for decades.

In the following excerpt from the 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody, Dorsey--then about 80--discusses his roots in gospel--and talks about Pilgrim Baptist while making no mention of Ebenezer, however.

If Ebenezer is given preliminary landmark status, city staffers would spend months making a case for permanent designation. A city spokesman said the church's congregation sought to have the building landmarked.