Fire destroys Chicago church prominent in gospel music history

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Fire swept through Bronzeville's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church on Friday, sending flaming walls and timbers crashing into the grand sanctuary where gospel music was born.

The building, a cornerstone of Chicago's African-American community and a landmark work by architect Louis H. Sullivan, was a total loss, fire officials said. As the ruins steamed Friday evening, that loss had to be assessed from many angles. A neighborhood had lost a church; worshipers, a church home. Chicago had lost a precious Sullivan building. And American culture had lost the soaring hall where Thomas A. Dorsey, a jazz and blues artist who turned to church music during a period of personal grief, had developed a new musical idiom called gospel."I can't imagine another space comparable to it anywhere in the country," Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Planning and Development."It was a masterpiece and something like this can never be replaced." For others who gathered near the church at 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue as the fire raged, the loss was deeply personal."I'm devastated," said Valerie Miles, 53, a lifelong member of the church."I hate the loss of such a great structure. It will be missed." The fire broke out at about 3 p.m. and quickly roared into an extra-alarm blaze, sending flames high into the sky. Smoke could be seen for miles. The flames burned so hot that nearby parked cars caught fire and a melting copper cornice on the church's roof dangled like a strand of holiday tinsel. The cause of the fire was under investigation, fire officials said Friday evening. However, it appeared that the fire started on the roof where workers were making repairs."The roof was being worked on and the fire began on the roof," said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford."That's what we know." The roof was being worked on Friday before the fire started, fire officials said. Four firefighters suffered minor injuries, Langford said. About 60 pupils at the adjacent Loop Lab School had to be evacuated. The school, too, burned in the fire. Langford said the church was"a total loss." Inside the 10,500-square-foot building, history also burned. Rows of wall murals painted by legendary African-American artist William E. Scott were likely destroyed, said Rev. Hycel Taylor, a former pastor who has sought to restore the building. Also likely destroyed were the church's horseshoe-shaped oak balcony, the high ceiling curved into a half moon and an intricate panel of terra-cotta designs crafted by Sullivan and his engineer partner Dankmar Adler. The building, completed in 1891, was originally a Jewish synagogue. It became the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1922 and quickly became a spiritual pillar of black Chicago.

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