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Pilgrim Baptist Church to be reborn from ashes of 2006 fire

Fittingly occurring during the Christian season of Lent, leaders of Bronzeville’s historic Pilgrim Baptist Church on Saturday unveiled plans for the resurrection of the architectural masterpiece that went up in flames five years ago.

Under newly minted architectural plans, by September 2012, the burned-out shell of the church widely revered as the birthplace of gospel music, will have a brand new roof and reinforced walls.

Gone will be the imposing exterior bracing — needed support against Chicago winds — that have all but hidden the city landmark designed by famed Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan since the fire.

But it will only be the first in a multi-phase plan to re-open the sanctuary at 3301 S. Indiana for worship, and likely a few years before its members will actually be able to attend services there.

The project is expected to be done in four phases, with the pricetag for the full restoration at about $41 million. Church officials estimated it will take about a third of that — $14 million to $15 million — to get the doors open for worship services.

“It is a monumental day for this church,a great moment for the church members,” Cynthia M. Jones, vice chair of Pilgrim’s board of trustees, said. “For the church, we’re going from a tragedy that robbed this nation of an architectural jewel to a rebirth, from ashes to light.”

Chicago-based Johnson & Lee Architects Ltd., in the South Loop, is handling the design.

The first phase, to cost $3.5 million, is about “keeping the elements out” during restoration, said Architect Christopher Lee. Braces and columns will be added inside the church to reinforce the walls and lay the groundwork for the installation of floors, and a roof will be added, along with the framework for a clerestory — complete with lighting to showcase the project at night, Lee said.

Any work would first have to receive the blessing of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, he said.

“What we’re going to do is follow what was done historically with the building in terms of the design, but we’ll update it,” Lee said, noting a “fire suppression system” will be installed.

As to how the church is footing the bill, Jones would only say, ”Fundraising continues.” The board hopes people would be inspired to donate when the renovation is solidly underway, Jones said.

“Once people see the lights, they’ll know we’re in the fundraising process,” she said.

The board could offer no firm date on when exactly the 300-member congregation could expect to once again worship at the church. Services are currently held at a community center across the street.

And Jones declined to discuss the fate of a $41 million plan to rebuild the sanctuary and some other facilities on the site that church leaders had unveiled in 2008.

“We are on a journey,” she said.

But it’s clear the landmark must expand beyond just a place of worship, to potentially a home to cultural and community events, she said.

“The building is one of the most architectural and culturally significant buildings in the world (from) Adler and Sullivan,” said Jones, referring to Dankmar Adler, Sullivan’s partner on the 1891 building, which started out as a synagogue. “We realize we have to go beyond the Baptist faith.”

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