Fire Claims Historic Chicago Church

Fire crews battle a blaze at Chicago's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church. i i

Fire crews battle a blaze at Chicago's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
Fire crews battle a blaze at Chicago's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church.

Fire crews battle a blaze at Chicago's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A fire has destroyed the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side. Built in 1890, the church became a catalyst for the popularity of gospel music in the 1930s under choir director Thomas Dorsey.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

A massive fire in Chicago has destroyed a landmark church. Pilgrim Baptist Church was first a synagogue on the South Side. It was designed by famed architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. As a church, it became a cornerstone of Chicago's black community and the place where gospel music became an institution. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: The fire broke out at about 3 in the afternoon and spread quickly. Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, says an ambulance crew driving by the church called it in when they saw flames near workers who were repairing the roof.

LARRY LANKFORT: In fact, we over at the fire department headquarters saw it out the window. And as--before I could make it to the lobby and get over from the front of the building, the whole roof was involved.

CORLEY: No one was injured, but much of the church was destroyed. Built in 1890, Pilgrim had been on the list of the nation's most endangered religious buildings. The church had been able to raise enough money to help restore some of the grandeur of Louis Sullivan's dramatic interior. The church's vaulted ceiling looked like the inside of a giant ark. Robert Graham, a longtime member of the church who was in training to become a deacon, called the loss frustrating.

ROBERT GRAHAM: We were just in the process of putting in an elevator to assist the older parishioners, and the roof started leaking last year, so we had to have that repaired, and now this.

CORLEY: Pilgrim's conversion from a synagogue to a church came during the 1920s as the neighborhood's Jewish population migrated elsewhere and the city's black population grew. It was in the church's immense sanctuary that Thomas A. Dorsey, often called the "Father of Gospel Music," perfected his craft. Working with generations of gospel singers, Dorsey turned the city into the focal point of gospel music, and his blues-tinged hymns became classics, recorded by gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "PRECIOUS LORD TAKE MY HAND")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on.

CORLEY: Standing about a half block away, 30-year-old Eugene Hardiman(ph) stood weeping as he watched smoke billowing from the church. Both his mother and sister were married at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Hardiman said his grandmother had also been a soloist in the church choir when Thomas Dorsey was the director.

EUGENE HARDIMAN: So I grew up going to choir rehearsal with her and, you know, every Sunday she had me there. Bible studies, I was there. It's just hard to see this. It's just hard.

CORLEY: Fire engineers will inspect what's left of the church today, and its members will also need to decide what to do next. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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