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Pilgrim Baptist Church Demolition Put On Hold By City Landmarks Commission

By Sam Cholke | November 4, 2016 5:59am
 The city on Thursday denied Pilgrim Baptist Church's demolition permit application.
The city on Thursday denied Pilgrim Baptist Church's demolition permit application.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

CITY HALL — Pilgrim Baptist Church’s application to demolish its landmark home was denied by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday.

The commission’s eight members voted unanimously to withhold their approval to demolish any of the landmark church at 3301 S. Indiana Ave., which has been just a shell since it was gutted by fire in 2006.

The decision becomes binding after the church goes through meetings with landmarks staff and a public hearing sometime within in the next three months.

The commission agreed with all of landmarks staff's recommendation going into the meeting, including moving bracing, which is holding up the north and west walls designed by famed architecture firm Adler and Sullivan, to the interior of the church from the parking lanes on Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street.

Sheila Prendergast, the church’s attorney, said engineers had told the church it would cost $1.5-$2 million to move the bracing.

Cynthia Jones, vice chairman of the church’s board of trustees, asked for more patience from the city, which has taken the church to housing court to try to push for some action either redeveloping the church or selling it.

She said the church has spent the last three months working on a new plan to create a $55 million National Museum of Gospel Music. Under the plan the church would retain just the western arch that was once the main entrance to the church and demolish everything else.

“Pilgrim Baptist is recognized as the birthplace of gospel music through the genius of Thomas Dorsey,” Jones said.

The commission had cited Dorsey, the former music director at the church and widely considered to be the father of gospel music, as one of the reasons to save the church. But commissioners were skeptical after hearing big plans from the church before over the past decade of efforts to rebuild.

The Rev. Richard Tolliver said that many of the people who liked the style of gospel music invented by Dorsey are now dead or too old to easily travel to a gospel museum.

Under questioning from other commissioners, Jones said the church had not yet raised any money toward the museum, but had a “leadership team” in place. She declined after the meeting to identify anyone on the team.

She said the church has been working on the idea for the past three months after talks to sell the property to artist Theaster Gates fell through.

Chairman Rafael Leon said the church must make an effort soon to show it is doing something with the property and suggested leveraging eight other parcels the church owns to begin some work toward moving the braces.

“It is critical we explore the alternative to move it inside,” Leon said.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) also spoke in support of the landmarks staff’s recommendations. 

Going into the meeting the church had said it only wanted to demolish the eastern and southern brick walls not protected by the city's landmarks ordinance, but in the meeting asked to demolish everything but the main archway.

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