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In Bronzeville, a 133-year-old Romanesque church heads for landmark protection

Blackwell-Israel Samuel A.M.E. Zion Church has a notable architectural and cultural legacy

A stone church stands of a corner. The design has numerous arches and a tower missing its steeple.
The Romanesque Revival design features rough-faced Indiana limestone facade, broad arches, and a steeply pitched roofline.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development

A Bronzeville Romanesque Revival church built by prominent architects in 1886 is on its way to becoming an official Chicago landmark.

The Blackwell-Israel Samuel A.M.E. Zion Church located at 3956 S. Langley Avenue is an important building on the South Side and the Landmarks Commission voted to give the church a preliminary landmark status. An official designation would protect both the building and the church’s congregation, according to Maurice Cox, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development.

“It is an explicit effort to preserve Black culture in Bronzeville,” he said during the meeting.

The South Side building is the only Chicago church designed by national architecture firm Edbrooke and Burnham. Led by partners Willoughby James Edbrooke and Franklin Pierce Burnham (no relation to famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham), the practice is responsible for the Georgia State Capitol as well as the Government Building for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Edbrooke and Burnham crafted the sturdy Bronzeville structure—originally known as the Oakland Methodist Episcopal Church—in the then-popular Romanesque Revival style, which incorporates a rough-faced Indiana limestone facade with broad arches. Although the building lost its wood-frame steeple in a 1991 fire, the design still emphasizes its verticality in its steeply pitched roofline, according to the landmarks report.

The Blackwell-Israel Samuel A.M.E. Zion Church is not only remarkable for its architecture. The report recognizes the Bronzeville site for its continuous role as an important cultural and social hub that served the surrounded community for nearly 135 years—hosting classes, club meetings, lectures, social events, and civil rights gatherings.

At the Landmarks meeting, the commissioners also voted to grant final landmark status to Bronzeville’s Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church at 4600 S. Martin Luther King Drive. Designed by Alfred Samuel Alschuler, the neoclassical building was the venue for Martin Luther King’s “Why Jesus Called Man a Fool” sermon in 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The next steps in protecting the two historic South Side churches will be a second Landmarks Commission recommendation for the Blackwell-Israel Samuel A.M.E. Zion building and a final vote by the Chicago City Council to officially landmark Mt. Pisgah.