National Museum of Gospel Music planned for Bronzeville site
If planners get their way, Chicago will have the nation’s first major gospel music museum, on the site once occupied by Pilgrim Baptist Church, known as the birthplace of gospel.
The National Museum of Gospel Music will unveil its plans for the $37.2 million Bronzeville institution, targeting a 2020 opening, at a news conference Friday afternoon on the nearby campus of Illinois Institute of Technology.
“This is the kind of project that’s like apple pie and ice cream. It just fits,” said Don Jackson, founder of the Stellar Gospel Music Awards and former chairman of the DuSable Museum of African American History, who is leading the project.
The project has the support of City Hall in spirit, at least. “Chicago is the birthplace of gospel music and the perfect home for the new National Museum of Gospel Music,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “The museum will pay further tribute to the home-grown genre that’s given life to legends like Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Jessy Dixon, Shirley Caesar, and so many more.”
As the man behind Stellar, the leading gospel awards, Jackson said other cities have come to him to talk about gospel museums there. But he withheld support: “I always thought if there was going to be a gospel museum, it should be in the City of Chicago,” he said.
When he was invited by Pilgrim Baptist Church leaders two years ago to tour the 3301 S. Indiana Ave. site where their church had burned down in 2006, leaving only exterior walls standing, the wheels began to click for Jackson, he said: “I walked through the ruins, and it got me thinking about all the history on that spot.”
First a Jewish synagogue designed by Adler and Sullivan, the church became Pilgrim Baptist during the Great Migration, and blues musician Thomas A. Dorsey, the music director beginning in the early 1930s, developed the style of music now known as gospel. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers are among the musicians who performed there.
“We know it will bring international tourists,” Jackson said, emphasizing not only broad interest in African-American culture but the site’s location close to Lake Shore Drive and the booming South Loop. “For Chicago to only have the DuSable Museum, in terms of an African-American institution, it is really underserved.”
As a sort of model, he cited Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music, scheduled for a 2019 opening. The Gospel Museum is incorporated as a not-for-profit, Jackson said, and has a design already for a 40,000-square-foot building that would include exhibitions, an auditorium and a research library.
Noted architect Dirk Lohan adapted a design making use of the existing church walls that he had already done for the site as a Chicago Architecture Foundation project, Jackson said, adding that Lohan has joined the planning team. Lohan could not be immediately reached for comment.
The museum has already begun work on securing funding, Jackson said, but a key will be to see what, if anything, the city might be willing to contribute through sources such as landmark preservation funds “so we can present an outline to our funders of what exactly is the city commitment.”
“The fundraising campaign will be going all the way to September 2020,” the target opening, he said. Of the $37.2 million in projected costs, $32 million is for the building and the remainder for an endowment. Operating costs are projected at about $4 million a year, to be raised from admission and other user fees.
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