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Quinn Chapel AME at 2401 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago.

The Quinn Chapel AME at 2401 S. Wabash Ave. is undergoing major interior renovations.

K’Von Jackson

What’s That Building? Quinn Chapel AME Church

A major round of renovation is scheduled to start this summer inside the handsome stone church that has stood at the corner of 24th Street and Wabash Avenue for 13 decades.

When it's done in late 2025, the vast pressed tin ceiling that has been covered in paint for decades will again gleam silver 60 feet above the worshipers – as it must have in 1892, when the Quinn Chapel AME Church first opened. The worn-out red carpet will be replaced with blue, and a video wall will wrap the stage behind the pastor.

Along with air conditioning that was turned on for the first time in 2023, the 19th century building will “feel new,” said John Gay, a member of the congregation and an architect, whose Chicago firm, JAQ Corp., is handling most of the $7 million restoration.

“But we’re not removing the history,” he said.

Among the features that won’t change are the rows of stained glass windows along the sides, all intact and undamaged from the 19th century; a pipe organ moved to the church from the 1893 world’s fair in Jackson Park; and the mural above the pulpit, a depiction of a dark-skinned Jesus that has been there since 1904.

If anything, the renovations are turning up the history quotient in the church because they include digging below the old dirt-floored basement to make it deep enough to create a museum space that commemorates Quinn’s long, remarkable story.

“There’s so much to tell,” said Will Miller, a Quinn church officer and head of its historic preservation ministry. “We’re really the mother church of Black Chicago.”

Quinn is not only the oldest Black congregation in Chicago, but it played a role, before this building was built, in the Underground Railroad by helping freedom seekers fleeing slavery. And its members were involved in founding Provident Hospital, the first Black-owned and managed hospital in Illinois. The congregation also helped start the Elam House for single Black working women and the Wabash Avenue YMCA, where the concept of Black History Month was born.

The basement-level museum will tell all of that, as well as the stories of important members of the church including Underground Railroad activist John and Mary Jones in the 19th century and Milton Olive, who sacrificed his life to save other soldiers in the Vietnam War, earning the posthumous honors of a Medal of Honor and having a Chicago park named for him.

The congregation started in 1844 as a prayer group made up of seven Black Chicagoans – at a time when there were fewer than 60 Black people in the city of 8,000. In 1847, the group became part of the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME church, and named itself after Bishop William Quinn, who led the Midwestern diocese.

In its first few decades, the congregation met in a series of locations in the Loop, including their first purpose built church at Jackson Boulevard and Federal Street, where the Monadnock Building is now. That church is where, in the 1850s, the congregation reportedly harbored freedom seekers. It was destroyed in the fire of 1871.

In 1891, construction began on the church at 24th and Wabash. The exterior of rusticated stone with a pair of corner towers – one rising higher than the other – was designed by Henry Starbuck, an East Coast-born architect who spent only a few years in Chicago before moving to California, where he designed many churches in San Diego, Los Angeles and Fresno. The interior, according to some past Chicago Tribune articles, was the work of Charles McAfee, about whom not much more is known. Chicago’s landmarks registry shows he also designed some two-flats on Warren Boulevard in East Garfield Park.

Over the past 13 decades, the church’s soaring main space has been the site of speeches by Frederick Douglass, Presidents McKinley and Taft, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Harold Washington and many others. That’s why, Miller said, the space that you’d otherwise call the sanctuary is known as the “sacred auditorium.”

“Anywhere you worship is a sanctuary,” Gay said.

That notion will become a reality later this summer when the congregation starts worshiping on Sundays in what’s now the fellowship hall, the building’s street-level space. Renovation there was completed first, including installing updated bathrooms, to make possible closing down the auditorium for a year-long renovation.

One preliminary step in the work on the auditorium was peeling off plaster that was badly damaged by a leak before the roof was replaced. Gay now proudly shows off an exposed part of one wall, where there’s a barely visible outline of a shield with a banner across it.

“It’s definitely an Afrocentric-inspired look,” said Gay, who plans to replicate that stencil all around the church interior.

The tin ceiling currently looks bedraggled because the yellowish paint that was applied sometime in the 20th century has been allowed to fade and fall off unevenly. But a year or so from now it should look dazzling from below. So will the tin that wraps the balconies that run around three sides of the space.

Taking that ceiling back to the original polished tin look is an important companion to memorializing the Underground Railroad in the soon-to-be-excavated basement, Miller said.

He is eager to watch his two preschool-aged children, third-generation members at Quinn, grow up worshiping in the revitalized space – but there’s more to it than that, he said.

“Being able to preserve the physical space where all of these things happened is of tremendous importance,” Quinn said. “It’s way bigger than just our congregation, it’s Chicago’s Black culture.”

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