WIN: After Seven Year Effort, Greater Union Baptist Church Receives Final Chicago Landmark Recommendation

Richly-colored art glass by the Chicago firm of McCully & Miles at Greater Union Baptist Church, 1888, William Le Baron Jenney, 1956 W. Warren Blvd. Photo credit: Max Chavez / Preservation Chicago
Wood-beamed ceiling and organ at Greater Union Baptist Church, 1888, William Le Baron Jenney, 1956 W. Warren Blvd. Photo credit: Max Chavez / Preservation Chicago
Wood-beamed ceiling and organ at Greater Union Baptist Church, 1888, William Le Baron Jenney, 1956 W. Warren Blvd. Photo credit: Chicago DPD
Greater Union Baptist Church, 1888, William Le Baron Jenney, 1956 W. Warren Blvd. Historic photo credit: Chicago DPD

“A city panel will vote Thursday on whether to grant preliminary landmark status to a historic West Side church — a move that’s good news to anyone concerned about the fate of Chicago’s architecturally-significant houses of worship.

“The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will decide if Greater Union Baptist Church, 1956 W. Warren Blvd., is worthy of the honor. The 137-year-old brick-and-terra cotta beauty by the noted architect William Le Baron Jenney should be a shoo-in.

“The designation — which has the support of the church’s congregation — would protect the Richardson Romanesque edifice from demolition or unsympathetic alterations. It would also shine light on the church’s remarkable contributions to the city’s history.

“And it’s a reminder of the need to preserve the city’s old and architecturally noteworthy worship spaces — most of which have no landmark protections — as they continue to close or fall by the wayside entirely.

“Greater Union was built in 1886 as Church of the Redeemer, Second Universalist. Church of the Redeemer was prominent among Progressive Era houses of worship and hosted lectures on the welfare of children, women’s right to vote and temperance, according to the city’s smartly-written and well-illustrated landmark designation report.

“The current congregation bought the church in 1928, and kept it socially active for the next century while preserving the building’s remarkable architecture.

“The church’s column-free auditorium is a visual feast with curved pews, bronze chandeliers, a pipe organ, and exposed wooden trusses. Greater Union also boasts fine stained glass windows by Jean-François Millet.

“The church is one of four designed by architect Jenney, who was an early pioneer of skyscraper design. His buildings include Chicago’s late, great Home Insurance Building from 1884 — long considered the world’s first steel-framed skyscraper — and the landmark Second Leiter Building, now the Robert Morris Center, at 401 S. State St., built in 1891.

“Fewer than 20 Chicago houses of worship have been granted landmark status. Greater Union would be a fitting addition. The proposed landmark designation — which protects the church until the City Council votes within the next year to make the honor permanent — only covers Greater Union’s exterior. While we wish the church’s glorious interior could have been included, the designation and Greater Union’s committed congregation, is far better than no protection at all.” (Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, 1/11/23)

Preservation Chicago strongly supports the Chicago Landmark Designation for Greater Union Baptist Church. Preservation Chicago has worked with the Greater Union Baptist Congregation, Board of Directors, and both Pastor Dr. McCray and former pastor Willie Morris of Church, for over seven years towards the designation of the church as a Chicago Landmark.

We were grateful to assist the City of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Planning and Development to capture oral histories of the Pastor and many of the longtime members of the Congregation. We are extremely grateful for this opportunity to assist with the Preliminary and later Final Landmark Recommendation and bring this great honor to this amazing West Side institution.

Special thanks to the DPD-Historic Preservation Staff, Pastor Dr. McCray and the many members of Great Union Baptist Church for their help, commitment, dedication and stewardship towards this important moment in our collective history.

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