Last Saturday, Mayor Vincent Gray and others helped inaugurate a new Heritage Walk in Washington D.C. Washington’s Heritage Walks are self-guided walking tours set up in historic neighborhoods around the city, each consisting of a series of plaques telling the history of the area or a specific site.
The Logan Circle Heritage Walk plaque in front of Ella Watson’s home
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, July 18, 2013
The new tour is in Logan Circle, a neighborhood that was home to Ella Watson, famously photographed in 1942 by Gordon Parks in an provocative work he titled “American Gothic.” Parks followed Watson in her daily life for about a month, and many of the pictures in his series for the Farm Security Administration were taken in her home at 1433 11th Street NW.
1433 11th Street NW, Washington: Ella Watson’s home in 1942
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, July 18, 2013
The building Watson lived in with her family still stands but is currently vacant – increasingly rare for Logan Circle, an area that has seen rapid renovation in recent history. Below you can see a picture Parks took out the front window of Watson’s second floor apartment, showing two rowhomes across the street that are also still standing at the corner of P Street NW. Click here to browse the rest of the Library of Congress’s collection of Parks’ Ella Watson photographs.
Washington, D.C. View from the bedroom window of Mrs. Ella Watson, a government worker
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, August 1942, OWI/FSA (LOC)
Another notable site on the new Logan Circle Heritage Walk is St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, designed by Calvin T.S. Brent, an early African American architect from the District of Columbia. His son, John Edmondson Brent, who designed the Rosenwald YMCA in Buffalo, was the subject of a post on this blog earlier this month.
By Michael Rose
Wednesday night, the building that houses the Environmental Protection Agency was officially renamed for Bill Clinton, in honor of what he and his administration (including vice president Al Gore and EPA administrator Carol Browner) accomplished during his two terms as president. Darryl Fears reports in the Washington Post that Clinton requested Woody Guthrie’s famous folk song “This Land is Your Land” be performed by a youth choir at the renaming ceremony. The song’s lyrics are very appropriate for such an occasion as they proclaim common ownership over the natural beauty of the USA.
Woody Guthrie playing guitar in 1943
Photo credit: New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress
Guthrie was granted a Rosenwald fellowship in 1943 to create works in a variety of mediums. We previously reported on this blog about a recently rediscovered novel that was potentially written during his Rosenwald grant period. Although it was written in 1940, “This Land is Your Land” was first recorded in 1944, soon after Guthrie had received his Rosenwald fellowship. Although neither House of Earth (Guthrie’s novel) or “This Land is Your Land” were immediately heralded as masterpieces upon their release, today it’s clear that they’re among the best products of a Rosenwald fellowship.
It seems that every one of the Rosenwald YMCAs has a story behind it.
We first learned the background of the Buffalo YMCA from Buffalo Research, the website of a local historian in the city named Cynthia Van Ness. The “Michigan Avenue YMCA” was part of the third wave of Rosenwald-supported African American YMCAs. In the early 1910s, Rosenwald offered $25,000 towards the construction of a new building for any city’s African American YMCA that could raise an additional $75,000 within their community. This offer was renewed twice, in 1915 and 1924.
The very first Rosenwald YMCA, built in Washington D.C., was designed by Tuskegee graduate William Sidney Pittman. However, by most accounts, it was not until 1924 in Buffalo, New York, that another of the Rosenwald YMCAs would be designed by an African American architect. John E. Brent, the architect of the Michigan Ave YMCA, was a native of Washington D.C. and actually was a student of Pittman’s at Tuskegee.
Van Ness’s website lead us to an excellent work of local history by University at Buffalo’s Lillian Serece Williams, entitled Strangers in the Land of Paradise: Creation of an African American Community in Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940. Williams includes a lengthy section on the Michigan Ave YMCA. After Brent arrived in Buffalo, he worked for a series of architecture firms (notably contributing to the Art Deco Hutchinson High School, still in use and known today as Hutch Tech). In 1926, he formed his own firm and designed the YMCA as his first commission.
As with the other YMCA building campaigns, Rosenwald’s challenge grant was successful in spurring the local community into contributing. A meter that tracked the fundraising efforts was placed in the center of city at Lafayette Square. White citizens of the city also contributed, including the owner of the Buffalo Courier George Matthews. Matthews was the biggest single contributer to the YMCA, and his $100,000 investment allowed the building to be larger than planned.
Buffalo’s citizens raised the necessary funds in a short time, and according to Williams’ book, Rosenwald’s check arrived Dec 24th, 1924. As with his gift to the Washington D.C. YMCA, the date of the check recognized the Christian spirit of the YMCA by appearing as a kind of Christmas present. While this may seem ironic given that Rosenwald was Jewish, his support of the YMCA speaks to his pragmatism and open-mindedness.
The Michigan Ave YMCA opened on April 15, 1928. Williams recounts the opening ceremonies, which Rosenwald attended, in her book. Rosenwald personally lauded Brent on “the completeness and architectural beauty of the building both inside and out,” then called Brent to the podium to congratulate him on the “beautiful and successful building he had created for the colored group of Buffalo.” Indeed, the Michigan Ave YMCA was a center of the African American community for many years, with people like Brent and Matthews staying involved in its administration. Like the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, it hosted public forums with prestigious speakers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Mcleod Bethune and Walter White of the NAACP. However, as the black population of Buffalo shifted progressively eastward, the YMCA fell victim to the disinvestment of the near East Side and was ultimately demolished in 1977.
Because of population decline and large-scale abandonment, Buffalo as a city presents unique challenges to historic preservationists. Its citizens are, however, uniquely dedicated to preserving whatever possible from Buffalo’s huge stock of architectural treasures. While some of these treasures are lost to history (such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building), others (like the gargantuan Art Deco Central Terminal) have been preserved through the sheer will of passionate citizens. Unfortunately Brent’s YMCA belongs to that former category, but its memory lives on.
Brent’s name was in the air in Buffalo recently for a different commission. After painstaking research, Everett Fly and Ellen Hunt produced a successful nomination of his “Entrance Court at the Buffalo Zoo” to the New York State Register of Historic Places (which will potentially lead to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places). The nomination was interesting because the gate, which is no longer in active use by the zoo is basically unknown, and Brent’s contribution to the historic zoo (one of the oldest in the country, nestled in a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park) was seemingly forgotten. You can read more at Fly’s blog, which also includes a picture of Brent at work and a signed drawing of his Michigan Ave YMCA.
By Michael Rose