The Fire Next Time

I was coming into O’Hare from New York Saturday night and I saw the headlines – Landmark Church destroyed by Fire. I looked and a wave of anguish sucked my guts. It was Pilgrim Baptist Church, a landmark in so many ways you don’t know where to begin.

The birthplace of gospel music. That would be enough.

A rare surviving masterpiece by Louis Sullivan, who invented modern architecture. That would be enough.

A centerpiece of African American culture, not only for Chicago. That would be enough.

An acoustical marvel decorated with ornament by Sullivan and murals by Scott that witnessed the premier of Mahalia Jackson. That would be enough.

A priceless collection of archives collected at Pilgrim representing 83 years of African-American history, including the original sheet music for the first gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” That would be enough.

It is as if we lost a dozen landmarks in a single fire. So much, so much. Each day we read more about the magnitude of this loss.

There is already talk of rebuilding it – the building was extensively documented thanks to its architectural pedigree. There is the precedent of the Pullman factory, destroyed by a more sinister fire seven years ago and then put back together by the state. Will the state step in? Will the city step in? They should, because this is a landmark that can touch almost anyone.

Rebuilding is never the same, but sometimes there are so many reasons, so much that was invested in a place that plaques and films and pageants can’t do it – you need a building, a living, breathing, singing building.

Pilgrim Baptist Church was a building that sang like no other. That specific, authentic voice is gone – burned. But the singing should go on.

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