Friday, January 27, 2006

Buildings on Fire - Part 1

When buildings are lost to fire, the tragedy and loss are always acute, but when landmarks burn, the loss to the community seems even worse. Fires are more common in winter, particularly in extreme cold when heating systems are over tasked, and the notorious space heater (or gas oven) are used for supplemental heat. The circumstances surrounding the tragic loss of one of Chicago’s greatest churches are more disturbing. On January 6 the Pilgrim Baptist Church on the South side of Chicago was destroyed in a mid-afternoon fire, apparently caused by inexperienced roofing contractors.

The Pilgrim Baptist Church was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in 1890, two of America’s most important architects. Originally designed as a synagogue, the building became a Baptist church in 1922 and is widely regarded as the site of the birth of Gospel Music. Reports stated that after accidentally igniting something with a torch, the frightened contractors called their boss and fled the scene, leaving a frantic pastor on the street as the building quickly became an inferno. Lost in the blaze was everything not made of stone or mortar, a remarkable church interior, and a priceless collection of church records and original sheet music. The most painful loss of all is the sense of place, which cannot be restored. Old buildings are more than just bricks and mortar. Sure, if enough money is raised the church can be reconstructed, but it will never be the same. There will always be that lingering feeling of “we rebuilt it to look like it did 100 years ago.” We don’t build today with the same manner and craftsmanship of a century ago. Gone too is the patina of history, the gently worn handrails and stairs, the knowledge when inside that Mahalia Jackson once sang here. As we slowly lose these old buildings we lose the physical examples of pride of place, great craftsmanship, ingenuity and history that slick photographs in coffee table books simply cannot convey. Preservationists will argue that it’s wrong to even try to replicate the building and they are correct. Best to work with what little original material is left and create anew.

Old buildings constructed of combustible materials are at high risk during renovation projects and accidents can happen. If the reports are true the penalties must be swift and severe. It is inexcusable that a contractor can be allowed to work on any building, especially one of this significance, without the training in fire prevention, emergency procedures and the common sense to call the Fire Department.

For more on this tragedy: Sun-Times 01-07-06

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