The Museum of Science and Industry sits near the lakefront on Chicago’s South Side, prominently situated within the beautiful Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park. It is the only one of the many large neoclassical structures built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that still stands today. The rest of the buildings in what was known as the “White City” were temporary structures, clad in bright white plaster, but the Palace of Fine Arts was a sturdier building, necessarily fireproofed due to its housing of priceless artworks from around the world. This was fortunate, as a large fire claimed the rest of the White City in 1894, just one year after it was completed.
The “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Palace of Fine Arts visible in right midground
Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum (flickr)
In the early part of the twentieth century, the building served as the temporary home of the Field Museum of Natural History until that museum moved to its permanent location further north along the lakeshore in Grant Park in 1920. It was difficult to find a use for the unoccupied building because of its massive square footage and the necessity of major renovations. The South Park Commission (a governing body over South Side parks) even at one point voted for its demolition. As a Chicago Tribune op-ed put it, “Though a vast structure it is exquisitely graceful. In a state of decay for years, it has been preserved only because no man in authority dared to order it destroyed.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 19. 1926).
Poster advertising the new Museum of Science and Industry
Credit: Work Projects Administration, 1940 (Library of Congress)
As Chicago began preparing to host its second World’s Fair in 1933, the “Century of Progress,” Julius Rosenwald became interested in establishing a permanent “Industrial Museum” in Chicago to showcase America’s history of technological innovation as well as teach the country’s youth about how modern technology works. The former Palace of Fine Arts seemed an obvious location as it had space enough for large-scale exhibits, it was owned by the South Park Commission and its graceful neoclassical architecture conveyed the promise of technology to make possible, as the Tribune put it, “our greater material prosperity and our greater leisure” and transform overcrowded and polluted cities into inspiring and recuperative public spaces. “Housing an industrial museum in the midst of classic refinement impresses us as a recognition of the fact that the machine has brought leisure and with leisure a greater opportunity for the cultivation of beauty than the world has ever known” (Tribune, Aug 19, 1926).
Slide of Daniel Burnham’s “Plan of Chicago,” early example of the “City Beautiful” movement
Photo credit: Penn State Libraries Pictures Collection (flickr)
The White City itself (and the “City Beautiful” movement it helped to spawn) was originally inspired by the beauty and gracefulness of Europe’s public buildings and public infrastructure. Likewise, Rosenwald was inspired by the great industrial museums in Paris, London, Vienna and especially Munich to create the Museum of Science and Industry. Rosenwald first visited Munich’s Deutsches Museum with his son in 1911. Later, in 1926, as he became more and more committed to creating a similar industrial museum in Chicago, Rosenwald went back to Europe with his family. Along the way, he reported to overseas Tribune correspondents about his vision for Chicago’s own museum: “I would like every young growing mind in Chicago to be able to see working models, visualizing developments in machines and processes which have been built by the greatest industrial nation in the world” (Tribune, Apr 17, 1926).
In the 1920s, two other cities in America had industrial museums in the works (Washington D.C. and New York) but with Rosenwald’s dedicated support, Chicago’s was the first to be completed. The process, however, did not go smoothly, and Rosenwald did not see the museum open before he died. Renovations of the building were complex; most of the exterior was to be replaced with limestone and the interior was a totally new design. Money was also an issue. Rosenwald intended the industrial museum to be funded similarly to his other philanthropic projects, that is, his initial large donation of $3 million would “challenge” others to support the cause. However, the Depression severely limited the ability of others in the community to donate to the fledgling museum. Rosenwald provided most of the monetary support, going as far as to personally guarantee the dividends of the flagging Sears stock he had previously donated to the museum.
When the museum was first incorporated as a non-profit organization, it was called the Rosenwald Industrial Museum. Rosenwald strongly disagreed with it bearing his name, and successfully had it changed to the name we know it as today. Although he had provided virtually all of the cash investment necessary to start the museum, he felt that it should be an ongoing public institution and thus not be associated with his family in perpetuity. Rosenwald’s biographer and grandson Peter Ascoli quotes him on this point: “From the very inception of this public project in 1926, I insisted that it should not be named after me… The Museum belongs to the people of Chicago and the nation. Whatever I contributed toward founding the Museum has been in the firm belief that it will play a useful part in our educational, industrial and scientific life. I hope the Museum will enlist the interest and aid of the entire country” (qtd. in Ascoli, 329).
Contemporary photo of the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo credit: Oscar Shen, 2012 (flickr)
Rosenwald’s gifts went largely to the substantial renovations of the building; he hoped that its exhibits and upkeep would come from the public. He outlined his vision of corporate donations to a Tribune reporter in 1926: “America has thousands of these historical old models stored away in research laboratories of many of our great industries. These and specially built working models showing the insides of the workings and why the wheels go around should be assembled together and exhibited in a great museum in Chicago” (Tribune, Apr 17, 1926).
Portrait of Rosenwald in Museum’s boardroom
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, 2011
The Museum of Science and Industry opened in stages. Several exhibits were opened to public during the 1933 World’s Fair, but the formal opening was not until March 7, 1938 (Ascoli, 379). Over its more than seventy years of existence, the museum has stayed remarkably true to its original vision. Permanent exhibits such as the coal mine, the historical airplanes and the U-Boat were all part of Rosenwald’s original concept for the museum. Others, such as the agricultural and train exhibits, were conceived by the original planning committee of the museum before it opened. Although many of the museum’s thousands of visitors likely have no knowledge of Julius Rosenwald, his presence is still felt in the museum. Rosenwald’s portrait hangs in the museum’s boardroom, there is an event and exhibit space called Rosenwald Court, and the museum has organized a “Rosenwald Society” to receive charitable gifts.
Rosenwald Court in the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, 2011
We’ve had two shoots at the Museum of Science and Industry so far for The Rosenwald Schools. Back in 2011, we shot b-roll of the building exterior and Jackson Park. In early December of 2012, we interviewed Kathleen McCarthy, director of exhibits and collections and also filmed the coal mine exhibit, which is still a favorite at the museum.
By Michael Rose
Significant progress was made on the filming of The Rosenwald Schools on December 3rd and 4th when Aviva and her Chicago crew filmed a slew of interviews in the home of Peter Ascoli, grandson of Julius Rosenwald. Our thanks go out to Peter and his wife Lucy for graciously hosting us and our interviewees.
The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments
Three wonderful individuals who had lived in the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments agreed to speak to us: former Chicago school superintendent Manford Byrd, Ralph Metcalfe Jr. and Lauranita Dugas. Mr. Byrd grew up in southeast Alabama but moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s in search of work. He explained the situation in Chicago at the time, and the significance of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments.
There certainly has been an improvement in housing for African Americans in Chicago, but when I came it was really tight and really restricted. The real estate concerns controlled the movement of blacks very tightly and at many of the places, they cut up the apartments and made kitchenettes of them. We were at that time at the tail-end of another one of the great migrations into the city, so it was just very tight. But here was this oasis, here was this Mecca in the middle of the community… (Manford Byrd)
Byrd had only been living in the city a short time when he heard about “The Rosenwald,” as the apartment building was known around town. He and his fiancee were looking for a place to live and, after months on a waiting list, Byrd was able to secure an apartment in the Rosenwald by persistently reaching out to the building manager, Gwendolyn Minerbrook.
The waiting list at the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments was lengthy because the apartments there were greatly superior to many found in the rest of the community. Indeed, as Ralph Metcalfe Jr., son of Olympian and Congressman Ralph Metcalfe Sr., put it, “In 1946, the Rosenwald building was the place to be.” Metcalfe was born in the Rosenwald Apartments and talked about the celebrities (including his own father) who called it home: Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and more. Above all, he stressed what a great place it was to grow up, a view that was echoed by our next interviewee, Lauranita Dugas.
Dugas is the daughter of Robert Rochon Taylor, who was the first manager of the Rosenwald Apartments and later the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Although she was only a child, she was extremely aware of the inner workings of the building and related many details about what the building used to hold: a nursery school, a goldfish pond, a dance studio and many small businesses. Dugas also shared with us a humorous anecdote about Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck and namesake of the building:
One day, Mr. Rosenwald came to the building […] and was supervising and observing the painters. Just making conversation, he said, ‘Is that Sears paint?’ The painter didn’t know who he was [and] said, ‘Oh, no. We don’t use the Sears paint. It’s no good. We wouldn’t put it on this fine building.’ Mr. Rosenwald was just absolutely astonished. He went back over to Homan Avenue [Sears headquarters] and said, ‘What kind of paint are we using that’s so cheap that the painters don’t want to put it on?’
Aviva conducting a pre-interview with Lauranita Dugas
Rosenwald’s Impact on Chicago
Next we talked to Dr. Irving Cutler, author of several books, a native of Chicago’s North Lawndale and probably the foremost historian on Jewish Chicago. Cutler ranks Rosenwald the most influential Jewish citizen in the city’s history, largely because of his work to bring together the Eastern European and the German Jews of the city, who at that time were often at odds and lived in separate communities. Rosenwald, whose family was part of the older wave of German Jewish immigration, reached out to the more newly arrived community of Eastern European Jews in Chicago in several ways, but perhaps most visibly by engineering the combination of the two communities into the new amalgamated Jewish Charities of Chicago, which spearheaded support for Jewish relief causes in the wake of World War I.
Dr. Irving Cutler
Rosenwald passed away in 1932, but the Rosenwald Family Association (a philanthropy ran by his children) were able to help a sizable number of their extended family members escape Nazi Germany in the days leading up to World War II. Ursula Jonas, our next interviewee, was one of these fortunate individuals, and she immigrated from Germany with her family in 1936 thanks to the assistance of William and Lessing Rosenwald and the Adler family. Jonas, who still lives in the Chicago area, spoke about the lasting bond she formed with the Adlers during her early years in the USA:
[They] were just the most wonderful, warm, generous, giving people that anyone could have. [They] took care of everything: they set up apartments. […] they helped with jobs for the family, they were there with advice and help. My mother became ill in 1939 after my sister was born [and] they hired someone to stay with us, so we had someone there helping out for actually several years. We attended Thanksgiving gatherings […] and actually later on, when I was ready to go to college, I got some assistance from the Rosenwalds, helping out with my college tuition. (Ursula Jonas)
Ursula Jonas on our set (with Peter Ascoli in the background)
We also interviewed Kathleen McCarthy, director of exhibits and collections at the Museum of Science and Industry, on the topic of Rosenwald’s impact in Chicago. Ms. McCarthy explained the fascinating details of Rosenwald’s inspiration for and founding of the museum, a topic that will be expanded upon in a future post on this blog.
Kenneth Warren, a professor at University of Chicago and an expert on African American literature and Ralph Ellison in particular, brought out the context of the Rosenwald Fund’s philanthropy and talked about the impact of Rosenwald grantees on the broader culture of the Jim Crow South. He also had an interesting rumination on Rosenwald’s legacy, which he said had occurred to him while in a department meeting in the campus’s Rosenwald Hall:
I suspect that it might be true that your Fund sought to achieve a vision that included the idea that the University of Chicago Department of English would include among its faculty African American scholars studying African American literature and that this would be an important part of the [curriculum]. (Dr. Kenneth Warren)
Aviva with Dr. Kenneth Warren
After Dr. Warren, we met with two economists, Daniel Aaronson and Bhash Mazumder, from the Chicago Federal Reserve who have done creative and significant research on the impact of the Rosenwald schools. Aaronson and Mazumder used census and military enlistment records to track the heretofore uncharted effects of Rosenwald schools on Southern communities, and found a wide range of positive effects on communities that built schools with the help of the Rosenwald Fund.
Aviva Kempner with Bhash Mazumder and Daniel Aaronson
Finally, Oyekunle Oyegbemi spoke to us about the compelling connection he feels to the Rosenwald school he attended in Prentiss, Mississippi. The Rosenwald Fund provided funding for the campus’s iconic Rosenwald Hall, a beautiful stone building that had many purposes.
[We] were actually proud of that campus and that particular building, because it was the centerpiece […] and I would later learn that that was one of the larger Rosenwald buildings. All the activities were centered around that building. We would go to Vespers services on Sundays, graduation services, the community would [have] meetings, we would have entertainment there. I was in a little band and we would perform there. Not only that, we had classrooms and a library there and on the lower level, they had the administrative offices. So that building was kind of like a catchall for everything and everything was centered around that building.
Oyegbemi, whose family helped found the school, also worked as a handyman on campus during his time at Prentiss. For Oyegbemi, a native of rural Mississippi, the Rosenwald school was a place of discovery; of art, music and his African ancestry. The school was so important to him that years later, in 1989, upon hearing that it was slated to be closed, Oyegbemi packed up and left his current home and job in Chicago and moved back to Mississippi, where he spent months attempting to save the school. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful at saving the school for its original purpose, the campus is still standing and he hopes one day to be part of a rehabilitation campaign there.
Aviva with Oyekunle Oyegbemi
Many thanks to our fantastic interviewees for relating their fascinating stories and illuminating details about Julius Rosenwald’s life and impact.
By Michael Rose