The National Museum of Gospel Music was supposed to open this month at the rebuilt and rehabbed Pilgrim Baptist Church. Instead, the church is in ever-worsening condition after two disasters damaged the building.
Pilgrim Baptist is a deep repository of history — the reason why in 2017, museum organizers announced they would renovate and open a gospel museum.
The vision for the museum — set to honor the form of sacred music created and nourished in Chicago’s Black churches — is a 45,000 square foot building, with an auditorium set up for TV production, exhibits, video archives and a research library.
Cynthia Johnson, the longtime board chair at Pilgrim Baptist, comp ared the church to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which sustained extensive damage during a 2019 fire.
“[Our church] has survived a lot, and we have to rebuild it. And we will,” she said.
A start as a synagogue
The building first opened as a synagogue in 1891. It was square with arched doorways and a pyramid on top built by the Jewish congregation Kehilath Anshe Ma’arav, which was founded in 1847 above a store at Lake and Wells streets. Now called Congregation KAM Isaiah Israel, it is the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago and worships in the Kenwood synagogue across the street from former President Barack Obama’s house.
The architects were Dankmar Adler, who was the son of KAM’s rabbi, and Louis Sullivan. The construction drawings were done by Frank Lloyd Wright in his early 20s, when he was still an employee of the famous Chicago duo.
Historical photos of the 3,000-seat interior show ribbons of decorative panels, like many of Sullivan’s other Chicago buildings with ornate stained glass, and an interior that soars four stories up inside that pyramid.
When the building was sold to Pilgrim Baptist in 1924, it retained — and still does — the cornerstone emblazoned with the Jewish year 5650 and the Roman year 1899. Carved above the main entrance is a line from Psalms: “Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them to praise the Lord.”
A place of music legacy
But it was the early ’30s that solidified the church’s place in music history. Musicians and composers Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues musician from Georgia, and Theodore Frye developed a new kind of sacred music that infused blues, jazz and spirituals at Ebenezer Baptist Church at 45th Street and Vincennes Avenue. Dorsey soon after moved to Pilgrim Baptist.
As Pilgrim’s music director, Dorsey shaped the sound and writing thousands of songs. Many are still being published. At least one, Take My Hand Precious Lord, was recorded by Elvis Presley.
Along with Dorsey, other musical greats who have performed at Pilgrim Baptist include Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and the Staples Singers.
By 2006, Pilgrim Baptist was in need of extensive rehab. While workers were fixing the roof, a fire broke out. The pyramidal top and much of the interior was destroyed, and plywood replaced the stained glass windows. The building stood this way for more than 14 and a half years, with the two limestone walls heavily braced with steel supports.
Then another setback happened on Aug. 10, 2020. A derecho, which has been described as an “inland hurricane,” hit parts of Chicago with winds of 100 mph. The storm took down Pilgrim Baptist’s two other. What’s left are the original street-facing walls, made of cut limestone.
What the latest tragedy will do to the already overdue plans for a museum are unknown. As of a year ago, the opening had already been pushed back to September 2022.
The head of the museum effort is Don Jackson, whose Streeterville-based production company produces Black music awards shows and the weekly Black College Quiz show. Jackson declined to discuss the project.
But Johnson, Pilgrim’s board chair, said she still expects the project to go forward, adding she can’t be more definitive while the storm damage is being assessed.
“Thank God it was the brick wall that didn’t survive the storm,” Johnson said. “If those limestone walls went down, it would be over. We can’t replace them.”
Johnson said the pre-derecho estimated cost of the project was about $50 million. Last year church officials announced they had about $20 million in pledges.
“We still do have part of the building, those two walls,” Cynthia Jones told me. “We will do it — rebuild.”