…they haven’t torn down all the old buildings yet

Last week I visited Pittsburgh for the first time. It was exciting and terrifying, a combination of business (an interview) and pleasure (a visit to family whom I have not, alas, seen in over a decade). I flew rather than roadtripped for the first time, discovering it was rather like an Amtrak train in the sky, and found that Midway is very much a Chicago airport, while Pittsburgh International is a mall that happens to have runways attached. (I don’t like malls, but was sufficiently out of my element to be more amused than annoyed at the spectacle, and at the odd statues of a Revolutionary War-era dude and a football player dotting the escalators–of which, of course, there were way too many. I did like the dinosaur, although I’m still confused by the coins thrown into its enclosure, which is what happens when one doesn’t get close enough to read labels.)

an old photograph of the station’s vaulting, taken sometime after 1933 by an employee of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Photo available on Wikimedia Commons.

While bumping along with one of my marvelous cousins D (this one looks like S, if S were a little shorter, a little older, and had short curly hair rather than long wavy hair), I got to talking about the buildings of Pittsburgh. There are some really cool buildings, and I am passionately fond of cool buildings. It’s why I focused on architecture when working on my art history degree. My aunt and uncle drove me through downtown Pittsburgh, past the stunning Pittsburgh Union Station, originally designed by none other than my old frenemy Daniel Burnham. I fully intended to walk past and take a thousand and one pictures of the building, including its lacy stone canopies and stunning vistas–but it’s amazing how hard it is to get sightseeing in, when one is in town for business, and wearing heels. (I am both clumsy and a jock, which lends itself ill to heels.) My relations took me to a restaurant in the Strip neighborhood for dinner, leading to hilarity: I, naturally, assumed that anything with the name “Strip” in it must have some, well, Magic Mike characters on display or something. (It’s just a strip of a neighborhood, apparently, not a dive.) Then, as we rolled past buildings towards the hotel, my cousin D noted that in Pittsburgh, unlike many cities, they haven’t torn down all the old buildings yet. D approves. He likes old architecture.

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View of H.H. Richardson’s courthouse/jail, with newer buildings in the background.
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A tower in H.H. Richardson’s very Romanesque courthouse and jail, Pittsburgh.

I straddle an odd line, preservationist and passionate fan of the postmodern. I love Adler and Sullivan and that hussy Frank Lloyd Wright–and I love Studio Gang. (I really love Studio Gang.) I have been known to cry over demolitions, and to salivate at new construction. A bundle of contradictions, I am, and my goodness I hope that Pittsburgh continues to see the value in maintaining its old architecture, even as it builds new and exciting (and green!) buildings to fit its changing face. And Pittsburgh has old buildings aplenty, ranging from the gracious houses of my aunt and uncle’s neighborhood to buildings like Union Station and, to my joy, H.H. Richardson’s Alleghany County Courthouse and Jail. I’m pretty sure, as I told D., that every student of 19th century or Romanesque architecture in the country has studied that building. It was incredibly exciting to look at it–even if, by the time I trudged close, my feet hurt too much to actually wander around and seek good vantage points from which to take hundreds of pictures of architectural detailing. According to James O’Gorman, H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright are our American trinity of architects¹, and it’s a glorious thing to see any of their work in person.

Chicago, somewhat like me, straddles its own uneasy line. The birthplace of modern architecture, it has torn down many early buildings–though, thankfully, many remain. (There are even tales of a curse placed on whatever building occupies the land that was once the old Chicago Stock Exchange, supposedly placed by a friend of Richard Nickel, killed during the demolition. However, these were ghost stories told to architecture history students, and are likely impossible to verify.) We tend to maintain Meis van der Rohe’s buildings², of which I am not the greatest fan, while ripping down others. (The neighborhood in Hyde Park in which I grew up is entirely gone now, replaced by sterile science buildings. Here’s a parting glass, I suppose, to my childhood spent spying on science postdocs and astrophysicists and paleontologists while playing Chicago Bulls. It was a magic time.)

Downtown Pittsburgh looked, to me, like a magical place of buildings old and new, a cavernous space carved out of the hills. It’s a space I’d like to explore more fully, along with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council‘s downloadable guide to Pittsburgh art. The mixture of old and new, and my cousin D’s comment that they haven’t torn down all the old buildings yet, brought a recent string of Chicago Trib articles about the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago into stark relief. Adler and Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist was originally built for the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagoge in the early 1890s. By 1921 it was Pilgrim Baptist.³ And, as Pilgrim Baptist and the musical home of the former bluesman Thomas Dorsey, it was the birthplace of gospel music.Since the building was almost completely destroyed by fire in 2006, the second of Sullivan’s buildings to go up that year,5 those of us not lucky enough to have performed or attended Pilgrim Baptist can only imagine how glorious gospel must have sounded in that church, with Adler’s brilliant acoustical engineering setting the stage for perfection. (If anyone wants a glimpse of Adler’s brilliance, the Auditorium Theatre is incredible–not only are the sight lines excellent, but the acoustics are amazing.)

When one loves architecture, and believes in preservation (and in honoring the legacies of the musicians who birthed gospel at Pilgrim Baptist), one’s heart rather breaks to read an article such as Meredith Rodriguez’s “Hope fades for restoring Pilgrim Baptist Church,” which ran the day I came back to Chicago. Since 2006 the church has remained a fragment of itself, barely more than its stone foundations. It is, as Rodriguez notes, nearly a decade since the fire, which seems to me to have been only yesterday. It is long past time for us to save one of our city’s landmarks. But how to save it? Is it even possible to return the building to its heights of Adler-enabled acoustical genius?

Pilgrim Baptist, back in the day (or in 1964). Photo by Harold Allen of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

Even if we cannot bring it back to Adler’s original acoustical splendor,6 I want to see that building restored. Possibilities are floating fast and furious, from a park within the buttressed husks of the church’s original limestone walls to a restored building memorializing Chicago’s hand in the birth of gospel. Blair Kamin, always practical (which is, to be sure, one of the reasons he is such a good architectural critic), has another suggestion: have Chicago-area architectural students do the work, as a sort of work-study (or maybe an internship). We certainly have architectural schools aplenty in the area, and it seems as if such an idea could stand to benefit everyone. Best of all, were Pilgrim Baptist restored–or perhaps both restored and marketed as a museum to Thomas Dorsey and Pilgrim Baptist’s role in gospel, as well as to Bronzeville itself–the building could bring tourists (and their money) to Bronzeville, and Chicago’s South Side.

In some ways, Chicago and Pittsburgh are very different, in others similar: both are (or were) essentially Rust Belt cities, tenacious and pugnacious and grand. (S will tell you Pittsburgh is cute, Chicago is grand, and the only city in the Midwest.) One never knows if Pittsburgh will eventually decide to start taking down its grand old buildings, which would be a tragedy. Chicago’s buildings are among its greatest birthrights, one of its shining gifts to the world (you’re welcome, world): after we burned ourselves down in 1871, the same day as the small town of Peshtigo went up in flames, we came back bigger and better than ever before, the Second City that was second to none. Pilgrim Baptist was one of the buildings that rose to greet the bigger, huskier, ever more brawling city, and it went on to serve as the cradle of gospel music. It deserves to be remembered, and to remain. However it’s done, whatever must be done, I hope that time does not run out for Pilgrim Baptist Church.


¹ I would argue for more than a trinity, and for more diversity. On the other hand, I’m oddly gleeful that Daniel Burnham isn’t included, so shouldn’t gripe too much.

² We did tear down one: a building on IIT campus which the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin describes as a “squat brick hut.” I’d argue his description was accurate.

³ Pinder, “Painting the Gospel Blues.” 77.

4 Pider, “Painting the Gospel Blues,” 77. Kamin, “Creative solutions needed…,” 27 July 2015. Reich, “The Birth of Gospel Music.” Reich, “Spotlight on Chicago’s legendary South Side, ” 2001. Rodriguez, “Hope fades…,” 2015.

5 Keegan, “Louis Sullivan’s Annus Horriblus,” 2006.

Yes! I confess–I love Adler’s contributions! You go, Adler, the lesser-known but never lesser!


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