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'Birthplace of Gospel' Could Be Torn Down As Church Seeks Demolition Permit

By Sam Cholke | October 20, 2016 1:43pm | Updated on October 21, 2016 11:40am
 Pilgrim Baptist Church has applied for a demolition permit to tear down at least portions of its landmark church.
Pilgrim Baptist Church has applied for a demolition permit to tear down at least portions of its landmark church.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

BRONZEVILLE — Pilgrim Baptist Church has applied for a permit to demolish its landmark home, which the congregation spent almost 10 years trying to rebuild after a devastating fire.

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department said Wednesday the church applied two weeks ago for a permit to demolish the remaining walls of the historic church at 3301 S. Indiana Ave.

The demolition permit for the Adler and Sullivan-designed church comes as the city has started asking increasingly tougher questions in housing court about when rebuilding or a sale of the property will happen.

The church's attorney, Sheila Prendergast of McDermott Will & Emery, said church leadership has interpreted the push for action by the city as encouragement to demolish at least portions of the building.

Pilgrim Baptist Fire
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Youtube/Ace Henderson

"If the city didn't want demolition, they had a funny way of showing it," Prendergast said after a Thursday hearing at the Daley Center.

A judge has asked for engineering and structural reports on the church to see if the walls and bracing holding it up are still stable 10 years after the fire.

Prendergast said the reports showed the structure remains stable and there is no imminent threat of collapse.

The church, legendary for its role as the birthplace of gospel music, burned down in 2006 when workers accidentally set the roof on fire during a $500,000 restoration effort. The city rallied around the church’s fundraising efforts after the fire, but it was never enough to rebuild.

McCaffrey said the church is in court because it continues to leave the supports that keep the remaining walls of the church upright in the street, and it is not allowed to have a structure left open to the elements as long as it has.

“The church has discussed the permit with preservation staff, as it wants to save the building, but discussions are ongoing,” McCaffrey said.

Church officials could not be reached to comment.

Prendergast said the church wants to save at least the north and west limestone walls with the arches that define the building, and would only demolish the remaining two brick walls if a demolition permit is issued.

Neighbors, who came to court Thursday to urge the judge to restore access to the street that continues to be used for the bracing, said they were not sure the church would preserve any of the building.

"We believe no walls should be torn down," said Leonard McGee, president of the Gap Community Organization.

Last year, the church said it could no longer afford to rebuild and would try to sell the property.

McCaffrey said that church has said in court that it was in negotiations to sell, but the deal fell through.

Prendergast confirmed that the church had tried to sell the property and could still not afford to rebuild, but at this point was not actively trying to sell.

McCaffrey said the city still would like to find a solution for the church and is asking the judge on Thursday for more time to come up with a way to save the church.

McGee said at the Gap group's Oct. 4 meeting, artist Theaster Gates of the Rebuild Foundation said he had approached the church about reusing the structure but could not work out an arrangement with the church.

Gates could not be reached for comment.

The city’s Commission on Landmarks is expected to review the demolition permit during its November meeting.

Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed by Adler and Sullivan, is a Chicago landmark for its role as the birthplace of gospel music. [Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

People leave Pilgrim Baptist Church on Easter Sunday in this undated photo. [Courtesy of New York Public Library]

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