Monday, January 09, 2006

Pilgrim Baptist/Home of Gospel RIP + Muschamp's Secret History

Just a few short entries today, since this week is a very busy one.

PilgrimTwo nights ago Chicago and the world suffered a incalculable tragedy when the Pilgrim Baptist Church (at left), a Richardsonian Romanesque showpiece in the heart of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, burned to the ground. The church, which was designed by acclaimed architect Louis H. Sullivan (with Dankmar Adler), was originally a Jewish synagogue when it opened in 1891, but had been the home of the Black Protestant congregation since 1921.

Pilgrim Baptist Church's importance lay not only in its esteemed architectural provenance and spiritual and cultural centrality to the local Black community, but also in its having served as the home church for one of the greatest figures in American and African-American musical history, Thomas A. Dorsey, a blues and jazz musician who became the "father" of African-American gospel music. Dorsey served as the church's music director from the late 1930s through the 1980s (55 years in total), and pioneered this form of Black American sacred music that is now sung and studied all over the world. It would not be far-fetched to call it gospel's cradle. Among the major figures who led or sang in the choir during the Dorsey years were many giants of the Black musical tradition, including James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke. (One could also easily speak of Pilgrim Baptist's as the forge of other major musical traditions, given gospel music's role in the development of rhythm & blues, rock & roll, and House music.) As the Baltimore Sun (to which I've linked above) notes, the church's beautiful interior, its valuable archives and its exquisite religious murals, by artist William E. Scott, were completely destroyed, or as Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said, it was a "total loss." But I heard local residents on the radio this morning vowing to rebuild it as soon as they could. The spirits of Dorsey, Jackson and others who inhabited Pilgrim's pews and pulpit will ensure that this remains sacred ground forever.

2 Columbus CircleThis weekend former New York Times chief architecture critic Herbert Muschamp published a smart, provocative essay, "The Secret History of 2 Columbus Circle." It ostensibly is an discussion on the preservation battles surrounding the often-attacked, non-landmarked building at right, whose exterior is currently being bedizened or benighted, depending upon your perspective, by architect Brad Cloepfil. (I have always found this building, and specifically its pedimented based, utterly fascinating and transfixing, and never fail to stare at it when I pass through Columbus Circle.) The marble-clad quasi-Venetian structure was designed by modernist Edward Durell Stone at the behest of A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford, who funded, erected and opened it in 1964 as his idiosyncratic and ultimately failed Gallery of Modern Art. (It was later the New York Cultural Centeral and a Kunsthalle of sorts, before sitting for years as a literal white elephant.) I won't restate Muschamp's article, but it's really worth reading. I was impressed at how he weaves in various queer themes, and queers New York history itself; he writes about "swank" style as a predecessor to "metrosexuality"; about camp and gay and queer appropriation/recycling--or détournement without the Marxist freight--which he points out later gets reappropriated and assimilated by the mainstream; and gay people's roles--and his focus is gay and queer men--in the practice of cultural memory and preservation. He also notes the devastating impact of AIDS (just see how he resituates the commentary around Giuliani's successful regimes), the trauma it's left as a legacy, and its effective erasure not only of generations, but of generations who might have remembered and cared. But there's so much more, and it made me realize how rarely mainstream newspaper commentary explores topics of any sort so deeply or creatively. Perhaps they no longer remember how to. Or care.

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