Historic Pilgrim Baptist church will not be rebuilt

In January 2006, a fire gutted Pilgrim Baptist, built in 1890. (WBEZ/Yolanda Perdomo)
In January 2006, a fire gutted Pilgrim Baptist, built in 1890. WBEZ
In January 2006, a fire gutted Pilgrim Baptist, built in 1890. (WBEZ/Yolanda Perdomo)
In January 2006, a fire gutted Pilgrim Baptist, built in 1890. WBEZ

Historic Pilgrim Baptist church will not be rebuilt

In a three-story building on South Indiana Avenue, congregants of Pilgrim Baptist say prayers, sing hymns and greet one another during services. They’ve worshiped in the nondescript location since a fire in January of 2006 destroyed their iconic home.

The building was designed by famed architectural firm Adler and Sullivan in 1890 as a synagogue. Pilgrim Baptist took it over in 1922, and in the ‘30s the church became the birthplace of gospel, thanks to famed music director Thomas A. Dorsey. 
 
Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers were just a few of the musical luminaries who have performed at Pilgrim over the years. 
 
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered sermons at the church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.   
Today, only a stone and brick shell still stands. On the walls, you can still see Hebrew words from its time as a synagogue and ornate carvings, a Louis Sullivan trademark. Last month, the Pilgrim church board voted to not rebuild because it’s too expensive. 
 
“We don’t have 33 million dollars,” said board Vice Chair Cynthia Jones, who doesn’t want the exterior walls to be destroyed. “We want something that would encompass those four walls. But what that’s going to be and what that’s going to look like, I have no idea at this point.” 
 
White steel girders on three of the complete walls help to keep the structure steady.
 
But not everyone wants the gutted building to remain. Parishioner Bobby Waller is a retired carpenter and has been going to Pilgrim for more than 60 years. He says the remaining walls - which are being held in place by white steel girders - should be demolished and turned into a memorial park for people to use again. 
 
“Right now it’s an eyesore,” said Waller. “I don’t want my church to be remembered like that.” 
Alderman Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward met with the church board in August, when they decided not to rebuild. 
 
In a statement, Dowell said a feasibility analysis showed the cost was “prohibitive for the Pilgrim Baptist congregation.” 
 
She says the board would report back to her with ideas for a permanent solution within 90 days.
 
Board member Cynthia Jones won’t say how much Pilgrim Baptist has from past fundraising efforts, but says it’s not close to what they would need. 
 
 
Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews.