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rosenwald apartments | Rosenwald Film

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools filmed in Chicago

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.


Manford Byrd

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.

Rosenwald’s Philanthropy

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

Interview with David Roos, developer of the new Rosenwald Apartments

Chicago Real Estate Daily published a short interview with David Roos of Landwhite Developers LLC, in which he discusses the financial plan for redeveloping the historic Rosenwald Apartments. As the project has progressed through its planning stages, the number of residential units has dwindled from 331 to just 235 (originally, the building held 421 units). The article also includes a preliminary rendering of the rehabilitated building.

Read more…

Plans altered slightly for rehabilitation of historic Rosenwald Apartments

David Roeder, of The Chicago Sun-Times‘ business section, reported recently that Landwhite Developers have changed up the retail and housing breakdown in their plan to restore the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments (more commonly known as the Rosenwald Apartments). In community forums, residents called for less housing and more commercial space, citing the danger in adding more residents to a neighborhood that currently lacks social services and commercial amenities. With ample modern commercial space, the building may attract the kind of useful businesses current and future Bronzeville residents need.

When the Rosenwald Apartments opened in 1929, it had 421 apartments and 16,400 square feet of commercial space. When first unveiled, Landwhite’s plan had called for 331 apartments and 21,000 square feet of commercial space – a lower number of apartments than the original because the old floor plans are small by today’s standards. Now Landwhite is looking at 235 apartments and 75,000 square feet of commercial space, the latter of which, by my quick calculations, would account for most of the first floor of the huge building.

Roeder notes that Rosenwald’s original plan for the building was “idealistic,” and he’s right. However it was also practical, and Rosenwald had every reason to believe that he could get a solid 6% return on his investment on a new building intended to be occupied by middle-class African Americans (a notion that was less than universally agreed upon at the time). He would have, too, but the building was completed just as the Great Depression hit, and it struggled to remain fiscally sound in its initial years.

Prosperity is on the horizon for the derelict Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments
Photo credit: SilverRaven7 (flickr)

This new iteration of the Rosenwald Apartments (which is being referred to as “Rosenwald Courts”) will be occupied largely by low income renters, so Roeder’s point about the difficulty in making the numbers work is well taken. On the other hand, the project will be funded by a prodigious collection of grants and subsidies from the city. It seemed for many years that the Rosenwald was just too big to rehab, but the plan put together by Landwhite and the contributing community organizations seems like it has a good chance of success. 3rd Ward Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell is optimistic that a rehabilitated Rosenwald could be a driver for positive change in the neighborhood, and on her website she’s released a document with answers to frequently asked questions about the project.

We will be following the progress closely, so check back here for updates.

By Michael Rose

Works by Charles White, Rosenwald fellow, on display at North Carolina Central University Art Museum

A couple weeks ago, a new exhibit featuring 47 works by the great painter and print-maker Charles White went on display at the Art Museum on North Carolina Central University campus.

White was a native Chicagoan who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, he joined the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration, and produced one of the WPA’s best known murals entitled “Five Great American Negroes.” The mural, which features Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson was originally installed in the George Cleveland Hall Library on Michigan Boulevard in Chicago. This historic library is located just one block from the Rosenwald Apartments and was built on land donated by Julius Rosenwald to the Chicago Public Library. Today, the mural resides in the Law Library at Howard University.

“Five Great American Negroes,” by Charles White
Photo credit: Federal Arts Project of Works Progress Administration

Shortly after completing “Five Great American Negroes,” in 1942 and 1943, White received consecutive Rosenwald grants that allowed him to travel the south and study art. Around the same time, White married another Rosenwald fellow Elizabeth Catlett.

Admission to the museum is free and the exhibit will be on display until December 21st.

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.