“Most people probably imagine a particular archetype when they think of a church: an imposing stone edifice or white clapboard building, a towering steeple, stained glass. But what about an old hat factory with glass block windows?
“That’s First Church of Deliverance in Bronzeville. Converted into a church in 1939 by Walter Thomas Bailey, Illinois’s first licensed African American architect, and the Black structural engineer Charles Sumner Duke, the building is clad in cream-colored terra cotta with horizontal red and green accents. Bailey and Duke doubled the width of the factory and added a second floor while remaking the interior into a stylish sanctuary, with a cross on the ceiling illuminated by colored lights and Art Deco touches. Two Art Moderne towers that flank the entrance were added in 1946 by the firm Kocher Buss & DeKlerk. Not for nothing does Open House Chicago call it ‘undoubtedly one of the most unique [churches] in Chicago.’
“‘This was a happening place,’ says Lee Bey of First Church when it was built, pointing to its unusual-for-the-time radio ministry and pioneering use of the electric Hammond B-3 organ in its music. ‘And the architecture reflects that. It’s very much a church of the now.’ Bey is a photographer and writer whose book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side includes First Church of Deliverance.
“Bey believes that part of the reason First Church is so vibrantly modern is because it was built by and for African Americans, who looked toward a brighter, more equitable future. ‘I think there’s a conscious push to embrace the new,’ he says. “Many architectural styles that are neoclassical come with this baggage. That modernist architecture affords the idea of the new, of the future, of throwing off the chains of the past.”
“African Americans arriving in Chicago from the South during the twentieth century’s Great Migration didn’t often have the luxury of constructing their own churches, given the speed with which they settled in neighborhoods on the South Side and the time and expense of building a new church. Instead, they often moved into existing churches or synagogues as those spaces’ white inhabitants left for other neighborhoods or the suburbs.
“Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville were both synagogues designed by Dankmar Adler before they housed Black congregations and became integral in the development of gospel music. (Bey says gospel music informed the design of Black churches like First Church of Deliverance in that they have large choir lofts, room for the choir to progress through the aisles, and “a little elbow room. You can’t hear that music and be standing still.” (WTTW, 11/19/20)