Dreaming of a future for the South Side’s historic Pilgrim Baptist Church

Planned gospel museum gets a boost with $2.1 million in state funds.

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Antoinette Wright, president and executive director of the planned National Museum of Gospel Music.

Antoinette Wright, president and executive director of the planned National Museum of Gospel Music, on a tour of the site for the planned museum — the old Pilgrim Baptist Church. | Pat Nabong, Chicago Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Tumbled-down brick walls, nubs of charred timber — even the cast-iron frame and melted strings from what was once a baby grand piano.

Strolling through the remains of the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church — on the first public tour since the devastating 2006 fire — feels almost like traipsing through Roman ruins.

“This is our coliseum. The Romans have theirs; we have ours,” said Mark Kuberski, vice president of Central Building & Preservation, as he led the tour Thursday.

Except that the Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan-designed building, erected in 1890, isn’t expected to remain a ruin. It doesn’t look like much now — only two exterior walls remain, and only because they’re held in place with steel braces.

But on Thursday, the project to transform the celebrated church into a museum of the history of gospel music got a boost, with $2.1 million in state funds. Thomas A. Dorsey, considered the “father of gospel music,” was a choir director at the church, which many consider to be the music style’s birthplace.

State Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, who attended the church as a child, helped secure the funding.

“We’re working on trying to find some more dollars down in Springfield. So I’m turning over couches and tables and chairs and rugs — and anything else that I can find,” Hunter said.

The first phase of the project — repairing the original limestone-and-brick exterior walls, replacing the two that fell down and putting on a roof — is expected to cost about $10 million, project organizers said. The hope is to have that completed within the next two years, said Antoinette Wright, president and executive director of the museum project.

Wright said the pandemic has led to delays in the project, and couldn’t say Thursday when the museum might open.

“And it’s not just a building,” she said. “We’re creating a museum as you sit here. We’re collecting artifacts, we’re getting donations from artists. ... But our next move of course is to hire staff so that we can be able to properly process that collection.”

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