The history of gospel music is rooted in Chicago’s south side – and if organizers have their way, those roots will grow into the future site of the nation’s first ever gospel museum.
Widely recognized as the precise “birthplace of gospel music” is Pilgrim Baptist Church – a building steeped in historical significance. Designed by architectural greats Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in 1891, it served as a synagogue until the 1920s, when it became the spiritual refuge for blacks migrating to Chicago from the south. During the 1930s, the church’s musical director – Thomas Dorsey, now known as the “father of black gospel music” – began weaving together blues and jazz into Christian hymns. And in the decades that followed, gospel greats like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin sang there.
Then in 2006, a tragic fire destroyed all but two limestone walls of the structure – taking with it part of a neighboring school building, nearby cars, and boxes of Dorsey’s original sheet music. But what remained was deep sense of spiritual, cultural, musical, and architectural significance. Twelve years later, Chicago businessman and southside visionary Don Jackson is bringing back gospel’s good news with ambitious plans for the National Museum of Gospel Music.
“I think Chicago doesn’t realize the global impact of gospel and its legacy here,” Jackson said. “Today, gospel is sung in churches and concert halls all over the country, but it started here and many of its legends have come from Chicago – and from Pilgrim in particular.”
Jackson owns the 47-year-old Central City Productions, which produces the annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards. He also has a history of museum management and support, having served as the Board Chair for the DuSable Museum of African American History for 12 years. While others’ attempts to rebuild the Pilgrim site have floundered, Jackson is moving quickly to pull together plans and support – already, he has secured statements of support from the church, the community, and elected officials; retained at least $2 million of financial commitments from his own Stellar Awards and the gospel music industry; and partnered with noted architect Dirk Lohan to create a rendering of the proposed new building.
What’s more, Jackson has appointed former DuSable President and CEO Antoinette Wright to be the executive director of the new gospel museum. She is creating the infrastructure for the museum’s fundraising efforts, including seeking its official 501(c)3 designation so they can seek commitments from philanthropic institutions and individual donors.
“We probably got the biggest jump start working with IFF,” Wright said. “They helped us get down what we wanted to see in the space and helped us make sure we could do everything we wanted to do on the project site. From that, we were able to get preliminary conceptual drawings from the architect. And that’s the vision we’ll present when we ask for support.”
IFF’s real estate solutions group worked with Jackson’s and Wright’s team to estimate the projected size of the facility based on their proposed programming, develop scenarios for space needs, prepare a development budget, estimate occupancy costs to inform the museum’s operating budget, and prepare preliminary financing scenarios.
The vision for the museum includes a 4-story, 45,000-square-foot facility that salvages the 127-year-old limestone walls. The new structure will include a research and listening library, multi-generational programming, educational exhibits, clothing and artifacts from gospel legends, and collections of gospel videos, photographs, and documents, as well as a 350-seat auditorium designed for TV production.
Wright and Jackson must raise an estimated $32 million for the building, and another $5.2 million for an endowment, with at least half of that secured by the hope-for groundbreaking in early 2019.
“For me, the environment of the world we’re living in now is creating a perfect storm,” Wright said. “Gospel music talks about making it through the storm, about getting over, about how this too will change. We need to be able to give hope, renewed hope, to our souls through gospel music.”