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A historic church in Bronzeville with civil rights legacy could get landmark protection

Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon at the neoclassical Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church

A photo of a large stone building with exterior columns and steps.
Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development

Designed by the notable architect Alfred Samuel Alschuler, a neoclassical revival-style church complex built in 1912 could soon become the next official Chicago landmark.

Last week, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks voted to grant preliminary landmark status to the Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church Complex at 4600 S. Martin Luther King Drive in Bronzeville—which consists of the former synagogue and social settlement house connected by a common wing.

“We very much support this designation as Chicago landmark. This is an amazing building that’s elegant and monumental with finely crafted materials and it really anchors this corner at 46th and King Drive,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

Much of Alschuler’s original architecture remains, including the six Ionic limestone columns framing the main entrance and a four-story sanctuary with a barrel vault ceiling, a central skylight, stained glass windows, and many Stars of David.

The church is most famous for being the site of a famous Martin Luther King Jr. sermon but the buildings have a rich history that dates back more than a century.

Alschuler designed it in 1909 as the Sinai Temple, the third home for the Sinai Congregation, Chicago’s first Jewish reform congregation. Their first synagogue burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and two years later a second one was constructed at 21st Street and Indiana but rapid growth prompted the building of a new temple.

Under Rabbi Emil G. Hirsh, Sinai Temple became well-known as a social and intellectual center as well as a house of worship. It’s educational and social programming included talks by prominent speakers like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, social reformer Jane Addams, and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

As Chicago’s racial populations shifted and the city’s Jewish population began settling elsewhere, the synagogue was sold to the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago in 1944 and became Corpus Christi High School. From 1957 to the year it closed in 1963, it was an all-boys school.

In October 1962, the 3,000 member congregation of Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church acquired the building, moving from their facility at 467 E. Bowen Avenue, and have remained there ever since.

Five years later, MLK gave his famous sermon “Why Jesus Called Man a Fool” during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1967 and a year later South Parkway (originally Grand Boulevard) was renamed in his honor after his assassination. On the first anniversary of his death, Rev. Jesse Jackson led a service at Mount Pisgah attended by over 1,000 people.

The next step in preserving the building is a final recommendation by the Landmarks Commission and a vote by the Chicago City Council.