Bad times at Antioch Baptist: A roofer’s torch claims another landmark Chicago church

The city must take a closer look at the use of these propane torches and come up with an ordinance to make the practice safer.

SHARE Bad times at Antioch Baptist: A roofer’s torch claims another landmark Chicago church
Chicago firefighters battle a fire at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in the Englewood neighborhood on April 15.

Chicago firefighters battle a fire at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in the Englewood neighborhood on April 15.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies,” the late Chicago preservationist Richard Nickel famously said. “Water and stupid men.”

But Nickel might’ve added a third foe, were he with us today: the propane torches used by some roofers.

Such a torch set off the extra-alarm fire last Friday that has left the Englewood neighborhood’s 130-year-old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, 6248 S. Stewart Ave., in ruins.

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The blaze — ruled accidental by the Fire Department — was reminiscent of the massive January 2006 fire that ravaged Pilgrim Baptist Church, 3301 S. Indiana Ave.

Roofers’ torches accidentally started that conflagration as well, incinerating nearly all of an internationally-known work of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler — and a birthplace of gospel music.

Chicago is filled with historic and architecturally significant 100-year-old churches that are either in need of roof repairs, or will be.

Given that, and what happened last week at Antioch, it’s time for city government to take a closer look at the use of these torches and come up with an ordinance to make the practice safer.

A New York City torch ban

Torches are used to make sure the roofing membrane being installed is tight and waterproof.

But getting the temperature right can be an art as much as a science. Installation in colder weather sometimes requires higher temperatures.

And the torches can ignite roofs with wooden underlayment beneath the membrane.

This is why in 1999, New York City banned the use of torches on roofs with wooden structures beneath.

Officials said that city had been experiencing 35 roof fires a year during the 1990s, but the turning point was a three-alarm fire in 1999 that was caused by a roofing contractor who used a torch to fix a roof with a wooden deck.

New York roofers caught ignoring the ban could face a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Contractors are allowed to use torches on buildings with concrete decks,however.

“Using a torch on a combustible roof in New York City is illegal,’’ Christopher Tempro, who was then supervising fire marshal for the Fire Department of New York told the New York Times at the time. “And we decided that we have to be pretty strong in enforcing those codes.”

After Antioch, a response is required

We’re not yet calling for a NYC-style prohibition on propane torches. Besides, Chicago experts tell us a ban would force roofers to find more expensive ways to achieve the desired seal that the use of torches provide.

New York City reported prices on roofing jobs rose 30% after the ban was put in place.

But that the Big Apple would take such a step speaks to the importance of fixing this issue.

And it’s a reminder that something has to be done to prevent buildings, particularly important ones like Antioch, from being lost.

“This has been a place where people have gotten married, found their faith, been encouraged and been empowered,” Antioch Pastor Gerald Dew said after the fire.

“It’s a neighborhood church, and we love the community,” he said.

The congregation plans to rebuild, Dew said.

What should be the city’s next move? Perhaps put in place better licensing and city-mandated safety protocols for roofers.

For anyone who cares about this city’s architecture or its civic anchors — and in a city like Chicago, that should be most of us — watching Antioch and Pilgrim go up in flames like a common abandoned warehouse is a gut punch that requires a response.

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