Page N1.1 . 11 January 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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Postcard from Chicago

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Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, has just been destroyed by fire. (Photography by William Lebovich.)

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Dear ArchitectureWeek,

On January 6th, 2006, Pilgrim Baptist Church suffered extensive fire damage to its architecturally significant interior. From news photographs it appears that only the shell remains. Although best known for its association with gospel music of the early 20th century, the 1891 building held an important place in architectural history. It was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan as the Kehilath Anshe Ma'ariv Synagogue during a period in which Frank Lloyd Wright worked for their firm.

With a three-story stone facade, a stepped voussoir arched entrance, and arched third-story windows, the building had a monumental base, which stepped back to a very tall attic (faced in pressed metal, a cost-saving measure), and above that a steep hipped roof. The latter two elements were required to create the tremendously soaring wooden ceiling of the sanctuary. The ceiling was golden in tone, with a continuous row of Sullivan-designed terra cotta at the base. In the terra cotta and in the stained-glass windows is Jewish iconography which Pilgrim Baptist Church retained, but to which was added a large cross above the altar.

"The interior of the building, with its impressive, parabolic vault formed by metal girders, was Adler's greatest engineering achievement," according the preeminent historian of American synagogue architecture, Rachel Wischnitzer, writing in Synagogue Architecture in the United States, published in 1955.

Designated a Chicago landmark, the building is one of the few synagogues documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey, with the original history written by Rachel Heimovics and photographed by Richard Nickel, who later died in the rubble of Adler and Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange. Hugh Morrison, in his biography Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture stated: "The decorative designs in the bands of terra cotta facing the gallery and at the base of the clerestory are among the richest examples of Sullivan's work."

The architect Adler was a self-taught acoustical engineer. His auditoriums such as the one in this synagogue/ church were considered to have sound quality at least as good as those of 20th century designers. This engineering masterpiece from Adler and equally impressive architectural decoration by his younger partner Sullivan have now been lost. The building's qualities were perhaps best appreciated by audiences listening to the Pilgrim Baptist Church choir.

On the road in Illinois,

William Lebovich

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