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Preservationists Plead With Pilgrim Baptist To Drop Demolition Plans

By Sam Cholke | October 26, 2016 6:11am | Updated on October 28, 2016 11:35am
 Preservationists are asking Pilgrim Baptist Church to abandon its pursuit of a demolition permit for its historic building.
Preservationists are asking Pilgrim Baptist Church to abandon its pursuit of a demolition permit for its historic building.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

THE GAP — Members of the preservation community are calling on Pilgrim Baptist Church to withdraw its application for a permit to demolish its landmark building and for the city to drop its court case against the church.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said Tuesday he has visited the church on the past two Sundays to urge the congregation and trustees to stop their efforts to demolish any of the historic church gutted in a fire in 2006.

“What everyone needs to do is stop this litigation madness and come to the table and figure this out,” Miller said.

The city has taken the church to housing court and is quickly approaching a trial in an effort encourage the church to take some action on the Adler and Sullivan-designed building at 3301 S. Indiana Ave., which the congregation has struggled to rebuild since it was nearly destroyed in a fire 10 years ago.

Representatives from the city and the church have both said they want to preserve the decorated limestone walls on the north and west sides of the building and only demolish the brick walls on the south and east sides.

Miller said there are no assurances anything will be protected until the demolition permit is abandoned.

“It is in jeopardy, it is in peril, there is no doubt about that,” Miller said. “The fact that there is a demolition permit tells me everything is in jeopardy.”

Pilgrim Baptist Church said it only wants to demolish the eastern wall (shown) and southern wall of its historic building, but preservationists say everything should remain.

He said in his talks with church leadership, he has encouraged the church to sell off the remnants of the historic building to the city or a private developer.

Church leaders could not be reached for comment.

The church’s attorney, Sheila Prendergast, said the church has abandoned earlier attempts to sell the property, but could not provide a reason. She said the church is currently still pursuing the demolition permit.

Until recently, the church had been trying to sell the building by the famed Chicago architecture firm that hired a young Frank Lloyd Wright, who Miller said had a hand in designing Pilgrim Baptist.

Miller said he was familiar with the most recent talks with a potential buyer and said the church was offered $250,000 for the building and the adjoining parking lot, about half of what he said he thinks the church alone could sell for.

Prendergast said she had no direct knowledge about negotiations to sell the property and could not comment, but confirmed that the church had previously been in talks with a potential buyer.

Miller said the church rightfully feels backed into a corner with a trial with the city threatening to further burden a congregation that has already said it can’t afford to rebuild the church.

He said when he visited the church over the past two Sundays, he encouraged the approximately 70 members in the congregation to choose a middle ground approach that would sell the property to the city and convert it into a small outdoor amphitheater geared toward gospel music.

He said that idea would pay homage to the structure’s role in developing the style of music, as well providing an opportunity to showcase its role in the civil rights movement during a visit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and its previous life as an influential synagogue.

“That was the happy medium we got to last year, and I want to get back to that,” Miller said.

Chicago Park District officials confirmed that its leadership had met with Miller and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) about the idea last year and would provide programming if it was renovated and then donated to the Park District.

City officials did not immediately respond to questions about the talks Miller said happened last year.

The church is expected to meet with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in November to discuss whether a demolition permit would be approved in part, whole or delayed.

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]

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