Chicago Fire Louis Sullivan

Rebuilding Pilgrim Baptist Church

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Rob Powers.

Preservationists, politicians, church members and neighborhood residents are contemplating what to do with the burned Pilgrim Baptist Church (originally Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue), design by Louis Sullivan.

The options seem to be:

a.) A total rebuilding of the church according to Adler & Sullivan’s original plans. If the walls need to be rebuilt, this will cost tens of millions of dollars, and the results may be underwhelming. In 2006, we have lost some of the building techniques and materials that Adler and Sullivan had at their disposal in 1891. (This fact should make all of us pause to think about the viability of our society.) As the renowned architect Wilbert Hasbrouck says in the article, a full rebuilding would not recreate the building but instead leave the world with a replica in lesser materials.

Photograph by Rob Powers.

b.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church but creating a modern space inside.

c.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church and creating a somewhat “Sullivanesque” space inside that would not be a replica but would attempt to convey some sense of how the interior originally appeared.

d.) Stabilizing the ruins and leaving them stand as they have been left by the fire. This is what Gary, Indiana has contemplated doing with the City Methodist Church, a massive 1925 Gothic structure struck by a devastating 1997 fire. No one has mentioned this possibility in the press yet, but it bears consideration.

e.) Total demolition with salvage of some elements. I don’t think that anyone wants this to happen — even Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is interested in helping preserve the building, although the City of Chicago is taking a typically non-committal approach.

Whatever happens will be interesting to watch. While the fire is tragic, I share some of the optimism that architect John Vinci expresses in the article. This is likely the only chance most people will have to see an Adler and Sullivan building completely rebuilt in some manner. I wonder what Richard Nickel, that dogged and devoted purist, would think.