The Commission on Chicago Landmarks has approved a preliminary landmark recommendation for Greater Union Baptist Church. Located at 1956 W. Warren, the church stands at the northeast corner of W. Warren Blvd and N. Damen Ave adjacent to the United Center’s vast parking lots.
Originally built in 1886 as the Church of the Redeemer, the church was designed by prolific architect William Le Baron Jenney. In 1928, the church was bought by a black Baptist congregation and has been used as their place of worship for the last 94 years.
Meeting Criterion 1 for its value as an example of city, state, or national heritage, the Greater Union Baptist Church traces its origin back to the universalist congregation who built the building. During the Civil War, the men and pastor served in the Union Army. After the war was over, the congregation had grown and raised funds to build the present church. They worshiped for 42 years and during that time provided extensive charitable aid to the community and hosted progressive-era lectures.
For its association with two energetic pastors, the building also meets Criterion 3 for significant people. Reverend Shelbia Hamilton Graham preached from 1947 to 1967 and used the pulpit to support the spiritual needs of the congregation as well as the social needs of Chicago’s African American community at-large. Reverend Dr. Walter A McCray served from 1996 - 2002 and returned to the pulpit in 2018, serving to this day. Reverend McCray has increased community outreach and charitable programs at the church and is a nationally recognized, published biblical scholar.
The next criterion the church meets is Criterion 4 for its exemplary architecture. Designed by architect William Le Baron Jenney, the brick church reflects Romanesque Revival with its distinct terracotta details and deep-set round arched windows. Jenney’s distinct articulation is visible on the church, with the single large gables on each facade reflecting his preference for fewer elements at a larger scale rather than smaller repeating forms. His trademark varnished southern pine-clad ceilings are also present in the soaring worship space of the church.
Pairing well with Criterion 4, the church also meets Criterion 5 for its status as a work of a significant architect or designer. As discussed earlier, William Le Baron Jenney is the architect of this church, however he’s best known for the invention of the skyscraper, designing the Home Insurance Building as the first skyscraper in the world. His design philosophy and the use of the metal frame for the skyscraper cleared the way for progressive architecture to flourish in the late 19th century.
Retaining a superb level of integrity, the church also meets the separate Integrity Criterion. Over its 136-year history, the church has endured economic disinvestment in its community and the dramatic change to the neighborhood due to the construction of the United Center and its associated parking lots. With credit due to its congregation, the church is a rare survivor of dire economic issues in the area.
With the preliminary landmark designation approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the report proposed to designate all exterior elevations and rooflines as significant features to be protected. The Historic Preservation staff will now work to draft a report on the building and ultimately prepare a final landmark recommendation proposal for early this year. Approval of the landmark designation must go through the Committee on Zoning and full City Council before the building is officially landmarked.