First African Methodist Episcopal Church
The AME Church in Gary, Ind., although currently in disrepair, is a testament to one of the first Black architects in the U.S. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? The First African Methodist Episcopal Church In Gary, Indiana

The AME Church in Gary, Ind., although currently in disrepair, is a testament to one of the first Black architects in the U.S. Jason Marck / WBEZ
First African Methodist Episcopal Church
The AME Church in Gary, Ind., although currently in disrepair, is a testament to one of the first Black architects in the U.S. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? The First African Methodist Episcopal Church In Gary, Indiana

At the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gary, Ind., parishioners worship surrounded by the architectural artifacts of their congregation’s history.

Located in the historically-Black Midtown neighborhood, services are held in a new church built in 2007, which contains most of the stained glass windows and long-chained chandeliers from their 1923 sanctuary next door.

Nearly a century after the old building was built, it’s in disrepair. But as one of only two buildings in the city left by a pioneering Black architect, the AME Church’s state shows just how close Gary is to losing any mark of William Wilson Cooke’s work — one of the nation’s first Black architects and the first to be licensed in Indiana.

Here’s a look inside the historic church, which is closed to visitors due to safety concerns.

First African Methodist Episcopal Church
Jason Marck / WBEZ

Built in 1923 on Massachusetts Street, the brick building is in terrible shape, with the wood-trimmed ceiling falling in, plaster and other debris covering the floor and water puddling on the carpeted center aisle.

A main aisle slopes down to the altar and choir between rows of wood pews. A few stained glass windows still color the daylight as it comes in.

William Fair First African Methodist Episcopal Church
William Fair is an 84-year-old Gary native who joined the AME Church when he was 13. Jason Marck / WBEZ

The old building remains standing in large part “because we couldn’t afford to tear it down,” said William Fair, an 84-year-old Gary native who joined the congregation when he was 13.

In the seven decades Fair has been with this congregation, Gary has gone from a vibrant center of the nation’s steel industry to an emblem of industrial decline and racially charged disinvestment. The church building mirrors that trajectory, Fair said. Once the church was “a beautiful structure that people gravitated to,” he said, but now “it’s a home for mice and other rodents.”

But he added that the building’s history was also “a source of pride.”

On the tall wall behind the choir is a big circular hole; the stained glass depicting Jesus Christ that used to hang there was moved to a similar spot in the new building, although illuminated by electric lights instead of the morning sun.

Fair said the historic building is structurally unsound and “some shortcuts were taken” during construction, which took four years and was funded by donations from the working-class congregation.

First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gary, Ind.
A hole in the wall above the choir loft shows where a stained glass window picturing Jesus Christ used to be. The window is now in the church’s new building. Jason Marck / WBEZ

Nobody has a solid estimate of how much a total rehab would cost, and it would likely require government or philanthropy funding.

But Tiffany Tolbert, a Chicago-based field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said that the work of restoring this building can and should be done.

And that’s due, largely, to the notable Cooke, she said, who lived in Gary and designed churches, settlement houses, a hospital and other buildings for the town’s growing middle-class Black population in the 1920s.

Cooke was born in 1871 in South Carolina to a father who was formerly enslaved and a mother who was free before the Civil War. He attended Claflin College (the historically Black school now known as Claflin University) in South Carolina, and later studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Despite facing discrimination, Cooke became the first African American to work in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of the Supervising Architect, overseeing construction of post offices and federal courthouses in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

Cooke moved to Gary in the 1920s with his wife, Anna. There he found a burgeoning Black middle class there to support his work, Tolbert wrote in a 2011 article in Traces, an Indiana Historical Society magazine.

During that decade he became Indiana’s first licensed Black architect and designed at least six buildings in Gary. He also ran a building-and-loan society that helped Black people finance their homes and businesses and is reported to have led a Black businessmen’s group that resisted the Ku Klux Klan. Cooke died in 1949.

Stain glass windows from the old historic building are now featured in the new church building. Jason Marck/WBEZ

One of his first clients was the local AME congregation. When complete, Tolbert wrote, the church “stood as a symbol of the growth and vitality of Gary’s African-American community.”

Last fall, one of three remaining Cooke buildings was torn down: the decrepit St. John’s Hospital, built in 1929 for Black residents when health care was segregated. The only other left is a boarded-up union hall built in 1928 on Washington Street, now owned by the city.