On Jan, 6, 2006, workers hired for a $500,000 restoration of Chicago’s historic Pilgrim Baptist Church accidentally set its roof on fire.
As many watched — drawn physically to the block or glued to televisions — scorching orange flames swallowed the interior of the renowned landmark designed in 1890 by engineer Dankmar Adler and architect Louis Sullivan; with it, priceless history.
Since then, the limestone shell at 3301 S. Indiana has stood a vacant sentinel over the national birthplace of gospel music.
But no more.
“When I got the call in 2015 to come out to the church, seeing the ruins and the braces holding up its walls almost made me cry,” says Don Jackson, CEO of Chicago-based Central City Productions and founder of the 32-year-old Stellar Gospel Music Awards.
“As the congregation could not afford to rebuild it, they wanted to know if I had an interest in seeing what I could do with it.”
On Friday, Central City will unveil plans for a $32 million National Museum of Gospel Music, expected to break ground early 2019 and open the following year in September, the month designated as Gospel Music Heritage Month under former President Barack Obama.
A design rendering by internationally renowned architect Dirk Lohan of Wight & Company — whose portfolio includes the Shedd Aquarium’s Oceanarium and McDonald’s Oak Brook corporate headquarters — calls for a 45,000-square-feet facility that salvages the 127-year-old limestone shell, with a glass-encased roof addition. The architectural team will include Lohan and an African-American architect yet to be selected.
The museum will offer a research and listening library; cafe and retail store; a 350-seat auditorium designed for TV production; multi-generational programming and educational exhibits; event rental and community use facilities; and of course, the Stellar Awards’ exclusive video archives, photo and document collections.
At the announcement Friday at nearby Illinois Institute of Technology, gospel greats like Marvin Sapp, Smokie Norful, Donald Lawrence and Charles Jenkins will be in attendance to celebrate a project culminating the decade-long effort to pay tribute to Pilgrim’s long-time music director, the “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas A. Dorsey.
Pilgrim’s music director from 1932 until the late ’70s, the former blues pianist created the music genre by blending Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and blues, and drew top singers who would become gospel greats to perform at the church, e.g. Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Aretha Franklin, Sallie Martin, James Cleveland and the Staples Singers.
“Don don’t sing, at least I never heard him sing, but he’s motivated gospel a long time,” the Rev. Clay Evans, the 92-year-old, retired founder and pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Fuller Park, quipped about Central City’s Jackson.
Clay, a civil rights icon, was himself a godfather in the rise of gospel choirs at famed Baptist churches nationally that became album-producing artists. With dozens of gospel albums to its credit, Fellowship was a constant Billboard chart-topper.
“Chicago is incomplete without gospel and gospel music, and this is the birthing place, so it is remarkable to see the circle come back to where it started,” Evans says. “I want to congratulate Pilgrim for being able to stand behind this and give their support.”
“And let me say to Mayor Emanuel: Amen. Full speed ahead,” he added, not having lost the political cred he was long known for.
The city’s support has been critical, as has been that of Pilgrim’s dwindling congregation — Pilgrim turned over the landmark in a 49-year lease at $1 a year — in finally realizing a project proposed several times over the past decade, only to die in the efforts.
So why did this one finally gain traction? Largely because of the man spearheading it, whose donated $1 million of his own money to a project that totals $37.2 million with a proposed endowment.
Aside from 32 years of promoting and archiving gospel music and artists, Jackson brings a track record in museum development, having served as board chairman at DuSable Museum of African American History from 2003-2014. It was during his tenure DuSable obtained a $10 million grant from the state and convinced the city to donate its 66,000-square-feet Roundhouse addition.
“He understands the industry and the importance of the history,” Dr. Marabeth Gentry, president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses founded by Dorsey, says of Jackson. “That he wants to do this for gospel music speaks volumes.”
Jackson, a successful businessman who was the first African American to serve on the board of trustees of Northwestern University, feels spiritually led to a project honoring the legacy of the founder of a music genre he’s built his own legacy on.
Lost in that 2006 fire were boxes full of original sheet music belonging to Dorsey, who was 93 when he died in 1993.
“This will be the first gospel museum in the country. We couldn’t move forward until we had the full support of the Gap community, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and the city,” Jackson says. “I think Chicago doesn’t realize the global impact of gospel and its legacy here. I’m proud of the footprint Stellar Awards has left on that legacy and proud the museum will continue that legacy when I’m gone.”