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
One of the pleasures of producing The Rosenwald Schools has been that, even though we select our interviewees based on their knowledge on a specific topic, more often than not they surprise us with fascinating facts, anecdotes and new points of view that we weren’t previously aware of. This was very much the case with the interviews we filmed on December 11th, and we’re extremely thankful for the time and effort of the interviewees who spoke with us that day.
The Rosenwald Schools
One great surprise occurred during our interview with David Driskell, a longtime art professor and a noted artist himself. We initially reached out to Mr. Driskell because of his knowledge of African American art and Rosenwald Fund fellows (several of whom he knew personally), but it turns out he had a story to share about a Rosenwald School as well from his upbringing in rural Rutherford County, North Carolina.
In the spring of each year, we would leave our little one-room school to go down to Cliffside, North Carolina to a four-room school, which I was told was a Rosenwald school. It was a brick building, and we didn’t have any brick buildings in our area. We would go there for what we called Commencement. It had nothing to do with graduation, it actually had to do with displaying your creative skills, your oratorical skills, drawing, paintings […] and it was where I first exhibited my art made from the local clay in the brooks. (David Driskell, Dec. 11, 2012).
David Driskell (with a poster advertising his artwork in the background)
Another unexpected connection was made in our next interview, with Denise Johnson. Ms. Johnson is a descendent of Clinton Calloway, head of Tuskegee’s Extension Department and a crucial administrator of the Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Johnson is a resident of the Washington D.C. area, and she also shared with us that Clinton Calloway’s brother, Thomas, founded a town named Lincoln in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he organized the construction of a Rosenwald School.
It was Thomas’ idea to give African Americans at the time an opportunity to buy land to live in a community on their own. Thomas bought land and sold it in small plots to families. As the communities started to grow they needed to have a school, and it’s my understanding that the local government was not forthcoming in providing the funds for the school. Interestingly enough—and maybe not as a surprise—Thomas decided to call on the Rosenwald Fund and ask for help. (Denise Johnson, Dec. 11, 2012)
Aviva Kempner with Denise Johnson
The Lincoln Rosenwald School is one a few extant Rosenwald Schools in Prince George’s County, though it is heavily remodeled. Its current address is 5201 Baltimore Lane, Lanham, Maryland.
The 12th Street YMCA
The legacy of the Rosenwald Fund is felt even more strongly in another part of the D.C. area, where the pilot building in Rosenwald’s YMCA-building program stands in the heart of the historic African American community around U Street NW (we detailed the path the building took to construction in another blog post). In addition to shooting footage of the YMCA’s beautiful and well-preserved interior (which includes historical exhibits about the luminaries who frequented the building), we talked to the Dodsons, a father and daughter who are both experts on local history. Norris Dodson, who used the YMCA’s facilities as a young man and remains a passionate advocate for the building, spoke about the importance of passing that history on to the next generation.
When I played basketball at the 12th Street Y, I always recall having fun, making connections with people my age, learning to play fairly. But the one thing that was missing is that I was not told about the wonderful history of the building, that great basketball players played here: Elgin Baylor, John Thompson. In fact, John Thompson told us that he was discovered here. But I was never aware that John Thompson played here when I was playing. When I found that out, I was an adult. And I always thought that if I had known these guys played here, that I would have been a better basketball player, just because of that. I thought it was sad that so many kids in the neighborhood didn’t know that Dr. Drew and Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes and Montague Cobb and so many others who had international reputations, reputations that grew far beyond this community, all met here. If the kids of some generations had realized that, if that history had been taught to them, they would have been able to have confidence that they didn’t have and use that confidence to grow to higher levels. (Norris Dodson, Dec. 11, 2012)
Our cameraman, Michael Moser, getting some exterior shots of the YMCA
Lori Dodson, Norris’s daughter, added context to her father’s interview and also revealed a more recent connection between the 12th Street YMCA and Julius Rosenwald:
In 1982, due to the deterioration of this lovely building, it was forced to close its doors. It was a travesty because it was during a time when there were so many ills in the community, many problems among youth and drugs. It was a time, like during segregation, where this building and the type of character that it developed was sorely needed. And so a group of people came together, concerned citizens, and decided that they were going to protest the potential demolition of this building, […] a place like this that is so historically significant. […] Julius Rosenwald was key in making sure that this building was open and his family was also involved in making sure that it reopened once again. If this building were not open today then my family would have lost a lot of our personal history, and I know that that’s the case of many, many families. (Lori Dodson, Dec 11, 2012)
Lori Dodson on our set in one of the restored rooms of the YMCA
Artists of the Rosenwald Fund
Along with David Driskell, we interviewed another art history scholar, Dr. Richard Powell of Duke University. Powell is a wonderful storyteller and a fount of knowledge about Rosenwald fellows. He shared a series of backgrounds on notable beneficiaries of the Rosenwald Fund with us, including this story about sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage:
Augusta Savage is a legend in African American art history. I say that because so much of her life was filled with struggle, with perseverance and with creativity all mixed up. She comes from Florida, she settles in New York in the early 1920s. She’s working very hard to try to develop her skills as a visual artist and she’s lucky enough to win a prize that will allow her to go to France. The Fontainebleau School provides her with [this] opportunity, until they find out that [she] is African American. When word gets around through the Fontainebleau School that they are about to bring an African American to the school, they basically say, “No, we’re not going to give this award to you.” And it actually is a cause célèbre. [Later, in the early 1930s,] thanks to the Rosenwald Foundation, Augusta Savage has an opportunity to go to France. France, for artists, is like a dream come true: the opportunity to walk in the paths of other famous artists, to live a life that is liberating without people questioning or looking at you based on your race. She has a wonderful experience there. Interestingly, when she comes back to Harlem, she then shifts gears back into the community [and] puts all of her energy and effort into developing an art school, the Harlem Arts Center, as one of the places that young people like [Rosenwald fellow] Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and other artists will go to learn about art. I often describe Augusta Savage’s school as a kind of latchkey school for young aspiring artists. Her school ended up being not just a place to study art, but it became kind of a community center. (Richard Powell, Dec. 11, 2012)
Savage was not the only Rosenwald fellow that went on to become a teacher and mentor to younger artists (other examples include Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas and Charles White) and we’re excited to be able to tell her story and the stories of other Rosenwald fellows in The Rosenwald Schools, and grateful to those who have lent their voices to the film.
Dr. Richard Powell
By Michael Rose
Anthropologist, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham’s most notorious ballet, Southland, opened last weekend at The Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver. This is the first ever performance in the U.S., over sixty years after Dunham first produced it.
Southland debuted in Chile in 1951 and was immediately subjected to repression efforts by the U.S. State Department. The play dramatically stages the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman, and in the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s it was considered dangerously subversive by government officials in the U.S. Dunham took the ballet to Paris, where it was also met with U.S. suppression efforts and criticism from the American embassy.
Katherine Dunham, 1956
Photo credit: New York World Telegram / Library of Congress
Dunham is often remembered for her roles in Hollywood pictures, but she was a talented anthropologist as well, and she received consecutive Rosenwald grants for anthropological research in 1935 and 1936. Dunham used these grants to travel to Caribbean nations and study indigenous dance forms, research which informed both her choreography and her academic study of the cultural links between African nations and the diaspora. The peripatetic researcher and artist’s first trip abroad was under this Rosenwald fellowship, and she later compiled her research into a Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.
Constance Valis Hill argued in a 1994 article in Dance Research Journal that Dunham’s Southland was ahead of its time, a work of protest art that may have been received more favorably a decade later during the upheaval of the 1960s. Although the ballet was criticized publicly at the time and caused strife within Dunham’s dance troupe, her artistic and critical vision of the Jim Crow American south is finally getting the treatment it deserves.
Read more about this performance and the history of the ballet at the Denver Post.
By Michael Rose