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reuse | Rosenwald Film

New life for Rosenwald YMCAs

Celebration marking the laying of the cornerstone of the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City
Photo Credit: Unknown, published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914

Between 1911 and the time of his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald provided funding for the construction of African-American YMCAs in 24 cities. Although some have been lost, many have survived the better part of a century since the opening of Rosenwald’s challenge grant program.

The Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, in operation since 1920
Photo Credit: Rob Dunalewicz, 2012 (flickr)

While African-Americans are no longer restricted from staying in other hotels, the Rosenwald YMCAs can still serve a purpose in their communities. Some of these buildings remain in active use as YMCAs, such as the ones in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Harlem and Chicago. Others have been adapted over the years to meet the changing needs of their communities. Brooklyn’s has become a nursing home, while Toledo’s, Dayton’s and Washington’s have been repurposed as community centers.

The Paseo Boulevard YMCA building in Kansas City, pre-renovation
Photo Credit: Equina27, 2010 (flickr)

Several others have seen more creative reuse. In Kansas City, reuse of the long dormant and increasingly blighted Paseo Boulevard YMCA as an extension of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will be made possible through a remediation grant from the EPA, a federal grant and a massive fundraising drive in the community. The new facility, known as the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center, will house museum archives, exhibits, conference facilities and educational areas. The Paseo YMCA is an important historical site for the Negro Leagues, as it was the location in 1920 of the formation of the Negro National League, the first African-American professional baseball league.

Murals outside the new Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Paseo YMCA
Photo Credit: Pam Morris, 2011 (flickr)

In Los Angeles, the Paul Revere Williams-designed 28th Street YMCA is in the process of being rehabilitated and expanded to provide 50 units of affordable housing to the Central Avenue community. The new building, expected to open in June of 2012, will also provide social services to its tenants and community meeting space. While no longer a YMCA, the building has stayed true to its original goal of providing housing and services to a vulnerable population.

After the YMCA in Dallas closed its Rosenwald-funded building on Flora Street in 1970 to move into a new facility closer to the emerging African-American community in Oak Cliff, the building was intermittently vacant or used as office space until it was purchased in 2002 by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Thanks to small and large-scale fundraising in the community, the Theatre opened its new space in 2007 after a lengthy rehabilitation of the building.

Rosenwald would likely have approved of the reuse of these structures. Rosenwald’s philosophy of philanthropy, outlined in two popular articles he wrote in 1929 for the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly, stressed the importance of large, flexible gifts as opposed to specific, restricted ones. The YMCAs in their original state as multipurpose community centers and temporary residences epitomize this form of flexible, unconditional philanthropy.

The Rosenwald YMCA on 135th Street in Harlem
Photo Credit: Jeff Dobbins (http://nycxplorer.com/)

Likewise, the creatively repurposed YMCAs are an extension of Rosenwald’s philosophy. The fundraising drives that have made these creative reuse projects possible have come from the same communities Rosenwald’s challenge grants energized into building the YMCAs in the first place. Biographer Peter Ascoli points out that Rosenwald knew that “it was just as likely that the concerns of today would be completely superseded by other concerns in the far distant future,” so reuse of the YMCA buildings fits with his intentions. For example, the revitalization and repurposing of the Harlem YMCA honors Rosenwald’s legacy of philanthropic giving, as it “is known less for its history than for its effort to re-establish itself at the center of the neighborhood” (The New York Times, Oct 25, 2008).

By Michael Rose

Rosenwald instrumental in construction of famous 12th Street YMCA in Washington

Before philanthropist Julius Rosenwald provided funding for rural schools for African-Americans, he initiated an equally successful program designed to aid the nation’s growing urban population of African-Americans. In a time when many blacks were migrating to industrial centers, the Young Men’s Christian Association played a valuable role by providing both interim housing for the new population (who were barred from most residential hotels due to segregation) and a community center in which to practice religion and physical fitness.

The Washington D.C. YMCA, located at 1816 12th Street NW, played this role for the vibrant African-American community around nearby U Street. Funding for the 12th Street YMCA was an early model for the kind of “challenge” grants Rosenwald would use to encourage local investment and increase the funding power of his philanthropy. The $100,000 building was funded in four equal parts; a grant from Rosenwald, a grant from John D. Rockefeller Sr., the central YMCA administration and most importantly, a significant contribution of $27,000 from the Washington D.C. black community. Around Christmas of 1911, after President Taft called his attention to the cause, Rosenwald presented the Washington YMCA with a personal gift of $25,000 that allowed the building to be complete and operational by April of 1912.

The 12th Street YMCA, shortly after its opening
Photo credit: Published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914

Using the Washington YMCA as a model, Rosenwald pledged $25,000 for the construction of similar buildings in any African-American community that could raise the additional funds as Washington’s had. Although these were segregated facilities, the partnership between the black and white communities in building these structures created, for Rosenwald, a “foundation for a better understanding of each other, promising much for the future,” (The Chicago Defender, 1913) and provided much needed service to the communities that housed them.

African-American branches of the YMCA had existed since before the Civil War, but they were often itinerant associations, meeting in temporary locations such as residences or churches. Washington D.C. became the first city to establish a YMCA for African-Americans when Anthony Bowen established the “Colored Young Men’s Christian Association” in 1853. Bowen’s YMCA initially met in his home and later in donated or rented spaces around the city.

As a permanent replacement for these temporary spaces, the modern and well-equipped 12th Street YMCA represented a bold step forward for both the black YMCA and the black community at large. The large building contained dormitories, classrooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a barbershop, bowling alleys and a cafeteria. Its striking Renaissance Revival architecture stands out on 12th Street and the fact that it was designed by noted African-American architect and Tuskegee grad William Sidney Pittman made it an inspiring contribution to the community. Over the years, the 12th Street YMCA housed and hosted numerous famous visitors and residents of D.C., including Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, Charles Drew and Langston Hughes.

 The 12th Street YMCA was the first building to be completed under Rosenwald’s program, but over the next 20 years, Rosenwald would go on to fund 23 similar buildings in black communities around the U.S. (such as Chicago’s Wabash Y). These buildings were invariably spacious, well-built structures that provided an aesthetic and spiritual anchor for the communities that commissioned them. Although some have fallen victim to urban renewal over the years, at least 15 are still standing, some still in use as YMCAs, others restored as community centers, museums, performing arts centers and affordable housing. The 12th Street YMCA was renovated and reopened as the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in early 2000 and continues to serve as event space and a community center for the U Street area.

The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage
The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage
Photo credit: Michael Rose, March, 2012

By Michael Rose

The Rosenwald Apartments

The first few decades of the 20th century saw huge numbers of African Americans moved to the Midwest during a period that is now called “The Great Migration.” Midwestern cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis saw their black populations swell as more and more black people migrated to them from the South. These cities became the focal point of African American life and the most important of all these cities was Chicago.

Despite the fact that many business in Chicago benefitted from black labor the city was unprepared and in many cases unprepared to house this large population of southern blacks. Many white Chicagoans greeted the huge numbers of southern black people with contempt. Moreover, Chicago simply did not have the housing to accommodate this huge new population.  The overcrowding caused by the huge influx in the black population, many of whom were prevented from getting housing due to the fact Chicago was segregated, and the competition with other ethnic groups in Chicago—the Irish in particular, lead to significant racial tension.  This racial animosity eventually manifested itself in the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, in which nearly 50 people died, hundreds were injured, and perhaps as many as one thousand people were left homeless the vast majority of whom were black.

It was in the context of both the racial tension and the systemic housing crisis faced by the now large black Chicagoans that Julius Rosenwald came up with a plan to develop an apartment building for middle and working class black people. Rosenwald first publicized his idea to build an apartment building for black people in July of 1928. The complex, which was to be called the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, was located in the heart of South Side Chicago in a place known as the “Black Belt.”  The apartment building spanned from 47th to 46th street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues, and was located right in the middle of a vibrant black community.

Julius Rosenwald had his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld design the building. The inspiration for the design of the apartments may have come to Julius Rosenwald during a trip to Vienna inn 1926.  Like the apartments he saw on his trip he decided to build his apartment using the innovative idea of having shops on the first floor and the apartments above them.

The building is an enormous 465,544 square feet, 16,400 of which are commercial space. There were originally 421 apartments that ranged from 3 to 5 rooms. The Rosenwald had more than 1150 windows and more than a half dozen entrances.  There were no elevators (this would become a major problem for future renovations) so residents living at the top had to walk up all 5 floors. In the center of the complex is a large courtyard with garden and a fountain. The total cost of the apartments was 2.7 million dollars.

The decision to build this apartment building was far more than simple altruism. Rosenwald had a friend named Benjamin Rosenthal who was a real estate developer and in 1916 had tried to sell cheap housing to people of different ethnicities, European immigrants principally. Rosenthal had hoped to make a profit off of it despite the cheap rent, and ultimately Julius Rosenwald was convinced to get involved. While the project was a failure, Rosenwald did not abandon the idea that you could provide cheap housing that would be profitable. Rosenwald’s desire for the building to be profitable was not purely for personal gain. He hoped to show other whites that such ventures to help blacks could be provided by the private sector and still be profitable.

The Depression however may have cost Julius Rosenwald the financial side of this vision. Even though rents were already well below market rate they were still too expensive for residents.  Yet soon after the apartment complex opened the property managers were flooded with applicants hoping to move into the apartment complex.  Besides the fact that the apartments were cheap they were also safe. Children played in the courtyards while the parents could shop at the conveniently located storefronts.  The apartment complex was its own little community and became the backbone of the commercial sector on 47th street. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the apartment complex became a major nexus of black life and culture in Chicago. Jazz legend Nat King Cole, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the greatest boxers in history Joe Louis and 27time Grammy winner Quincy Jones.

Over the years however the apartment complex came to fall under hard times.  In 1956 the longtime manager Robert Taylor was unable to get enough support to transfer the complex into a cooperative. The fortunes of the building trended steadily southward after that. The building deteriorated and became increasingly dangerous in proceeding decades.  The Urban League, with the help of a developer, rehabilitated the apartments during the 1980s but safety hazards during the 1990s and early 2000s caused the Rosenwald to be vacated.

The building has been empty for over a decade now and the conditions of the dilapidated building have gotten even worse. The vacant Rosenwald apartments have become a hotspot for crime.  There are a number of groups currently trying to renovate the building but the costs of such repairs would be enormous. The cost of repairs might run as high as  $150,000,000. Many of the plans to rehabilitate the Rosenwald have failed because of the high costs and complex challenges of updating such an old building to meet modern disability and city codes.  Some want to demolish the building, but due to its rich history many believe that it would be a travesty to destroy the Rosenwald.

As government housing projects have fallen into disarray and their utility has drawn increasing skepticism and gentrification has forced many middle and working class black people out of their neighborhoods, the Rosenwald apartments take on new significance. The future of the building is unclear buts its legacy is not. For a time it was the heart of one of the most vibrant and talented black communities in world and a number its residents went on to become icons in American culture. The building stands as a testament to Julius Rosenwald’s ambitious altruism and entrepreneurial spirit.