Friday, January 20, 2006


The world has lost Wilson Pickett and Lou Rawls in relatively quick succession. I'm not sure how much I have to say about this; it's always sad when people die, of course, and when people have touched many lives with their talent the sadness is felt more widely. Often when musicians I admire die, I scold myself that I didn't fully appreciate the fact that they had been alive, but what does it really mean to appreciate that they were alive? It is worth noting, I think, that a half century after the birth of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, arguably the three central figures in early Rock and Roll, are all alive. But somehow this fact is cold and abstract, and despite having noted it and written it down, after they have lived their hundred and twenty years and are no longer alive, I will still think to myself, "I wish I appreciated the fact that they were alive," even though I tried to do just that.

But there is another recent death that grieves me deeply, even though it is not of a living thing, but of a building. The Pilgrim Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago burned down recently. It was a beautiful and unique building, as you can see for yourself:

It was designed by the legendary Chicago architects Adler and Sullivan, who served (Sullivan in particular) as a bridge between H. H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright in the development of modern architecture. Over the years Chicago has lost most of its Sullivan buildings, the majority to demolition, which makes the destruction of any remaining Sullivan buildings especially tragic. But this was not just any Sullivan building.

It was built in 1890 as the Kehilath Anshe Mayriv(KAM) Synagogue, which later merged with Temple Isaiah Israel, whose previous building was around the corner from the building I grew up in, and whose new home was and still is around the other corner. In a pattern that would become increasingly familiar, the old KAM building became a Baptist Church as the neighborhood changed from mostly Jewish to mostly African American. The Pilgrim Baptist Church in turn became famous since its music director was none other than Thomas A. Dorsey (not the bandleader), who is known as the "Father of Gospel." It was in this building that much of the development of African American Gospel music took place.

In short, this building brought together various themes that are of great personal importance to me -- The South Side, architecture, American Jewish history, Gospel music -- and yet I never saw it, even though I spent the first eighteen years of my life less than three miles away. I don't know what I could do to appreciate Wilson Pickett while he was alive, but I do know that I could have gone to see this building, whose existence and history I always knew, and now I can't.

1 comment:

Pat said...

What a tragedy. What extraordinary architecture.