The historic site of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, located at 3301 S Indiana Avenue in Bronzeville, is undergoing a transformation into the National Museum of Gospel Music. The design of the project blends the past and present, incorporating the original limestone walls of the church. The developer for the project is Don Jackson, CEO of Central City Productions and founder of the Stellar Gospel Music Awards, in collaboration with architect Dirk Lohan of Wight & Company.
Though currently home to just the exterior shell of the original building, bolstered by white metal retaining structures, The National Museum of Gospel Music is poised to be a 45,000-square-foot facility upon its transformation. Planned features include multigenerational programming and educational exhibits, a 350-seat auditorium purpose-built for television production, exclusive video archives, a collection of Stellar Gospel Music Awards programming, a research and listening library, a café, and a retail store. Currently, the timeline for the project’s completion also remains unclear due to delays caused by the pandemic, affecting its initial 2022 opening date.
The Pilgrim Baptist Church itself has a rich history dating back to 1891. According to a 2022 article by Block Club Chicago, the church was originally constructed as a synagogue by renowned architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. The building would be purchased by a baptist congregation in 1922, and under the direction of Thomas A. Dorsey, the church later earned recognition as a birthplace for gospel music. Despite the building’s historic significance, attested by its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and its designation as a Chicago landmark in 1981, the church has faced significant challenges over the past two decades. A fire in 2006 devastated the structure, leaving only the limestone facade intact, and a storm in 2020 led to the collapse of the south wall.
Despite these challenges, plans to transform the church into a gospel music museum have persisted. The project recently received a significant boost with the acquisition of a $2.1 million grant, secured with the help of Senator Mattie Hunter. The first phase of the museum construction, which includes repairing the exterior walls and adding a roof, will cost approximately $10 million. This state grant brings the project closer to fruition. In addition, Congressman Bobby Rush has requested a $500,000 grant from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations to support the museum’s establishment.
The overall projected cost for the National Museum of Gospel Music is $37.2 million, with $32.2 million dedicated to construction and exhibits and a $5 million endowment. As the project progresses, the immediate priorities are collecting artifacts and hiring staff. Upon its completion, the museum is projected to make a significant cultural contribution to Chicago, attracting an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 visitors each year.