The following is a letter from Ward Miller on December 8, 2022 to Commission on Chicago Landmarks in support of Chicago Landmark Designation for Greater Union Baptist Church.
Dear Mr. Chairman and Members of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks,
We at Preservation Chicago unequivocally support the Preliminary Landmark Recommendation for the Greater Union Baptist Church, originally constructed as The Church of the Redeemer, and located at 1956 W. Warren Boulevard, on Chicago’s Near West Side.
The Greater Union Baptist Church building has been a cornerstone of Chicago’s Near West Side for generations and has endured many changes to the community over the past 136 years, including vast nearby Urban Renewal projects, social unrest and riots following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with the expansion of multiple institutions surrounding this magnificent church. It’s a testament to the long-term commitment of its leadership and congregation, that Greater Union continues its service to the community, over the past nine decades, in which it has been located within this historic structure.
The church building itself is a beautiful sight to behold, constructed in the Richardson Romanesque Style, with its high gables of richly-colored red brick, ornamental terra cotta and sandstone. The organization of its principal facades, along both Warren Boulevard and Damen Avenue, is highly disciplined and further embellished with a variety of arched openings, often filled with highly decorative art glass windows. Its beautiful volumes are a commanding presence. This is especially noteworthy, as the building’s design captures one’s eye from a far distance, despite not having a tall tower or belfry, which is a more typical anchor and component of such an important edifice.
Greater Union Baptist Church is truly a remarkable structure, modern for its time, and with a remarkable column-free interior sanctuary, located on the second floor, with its wood-beamed ceiling, original brass chandeliers, converted to electricity, organ, curvilinear pews and richly-colored art glass by the Chicago firm of McCully & Miles. This designation may also further elevate the work of McCully & Miles, to join that of such firms as Tiffany, LaFarge, and Healy & Millet, all working in about the same time period, as the art glass windows at Greater Union are of such excellent quality.
Of great importance is the architect of Greater Union Baptist Church, William LeBaron Jenney (1832-1907). Jenney, an architect and structural engineer, who experimented with metal framing, noting his experience in the American Civil War as a bridge engineer for the Union Army, and is recognized on the world stage as the “Father of the Skyscraper,” or first steel/metal-framed building. That first early skyscraper, “The Home Insurance Building,” of 1884-1885, located on Chicago’s LaSalle Street (demolished in 1931), was designed a year prior to Greater Union Baptist Church building.
In the years following the construction of the church, originally known as “Church of the Redeemer,” William LeBaron Jenney went on to design some of the Chicago’s tallest structures and recognized Chicago Landmarks, including the Manhattan Building, the Ludington Building, Second Leiter Building, the New York Life Building, among others, while also influencing a generation of architects and the design of their buildings around the world. Jenney’s work and achievements are recognized as the beginnings of the Chicago Commercial Style and Chicago School of Architecture.
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 a 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 this Preliminary 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.
With that said, Preservation Chicago fully supports the Preliminary Landmark Recommendation and Chicago Landmark Designation for Greater Union Baptist Church.
Ward Miller, Executive Director, Preservation Chicago