Pop quiz: What do jazz musician Benny Goodman, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir all have in common?
They all, at one point, called the North Lawndale community home. They are also spotlighted in a new exhibit focusing on the glorious but often overlooked history of the West Side community titled, “Learning from North Lawndale: Past, Present and Future.”
The exhibit will be on display free of charge in the Atrium Gallery of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), located at 224 S. Michigan Ave. (Santa Fe building) through Nov. 18.
“When researching the exhibit, I realized North Lawndale’s story is one of notable historic depth and national significance,” said David P. Brown, guest curator of the exhibit and associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The exhibit seeks to build broad public awareness and appreciation of its rich architectural, social, and cultural legacy.”
More than 200 images illustrate multiple perspectives of the North Lawndale community and chronicle relationships of people and places over time. The exhibit is organized around 10 central themes: social movements, industry, housing, religion, civic institutions, parks and gardens, transportation, lost Lawndale, and notable residents.
Among the gallery highlights encompassing these 10 themes: The history of Sears and Roebuck’s flagship headquarters, located in Lawndale in the 1920s; the founding of Cobra Records, which was key to bringing the unique sound of the blues’ West Side Sound to music fans; an overview on the history of the Central Park Theater, one of the nation’s first luxury palaces; the block musicians that inspired Benny Goodman to play the clarinet; the influx of Greystone houses between 1890 and 1920, which North Lawndale still has the highest concentration of in the city; and the efforts by the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative to both celebrate and preserve North Lawndale’s treasured Greystone homes.
The project was nearly two years in the making. It began as a project sponsored by the CAF to look at Greystone properties in the North Lawndale community and became an elaborate fleshing out of a neighborhood that, through its various generational social, ethnic and economic changes became more a microcosm for contemporary society.
“The process of documenting the neighborhood’s history and culture helps to celebrate North Lawndale’s story, encouraging community reflection and reinforcing pride of place among today’s residents,” said Charles Leeks of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago and a North Lawndale resident. “Numerous community residents participated in the development of the exhibition and are looking forward to leading neighborhood tours and public workshops, which will complement the exhibit’s key themes.”
Along with a thorough overview of the past and present of North Lawndale, there is also a look at its potential future as a sort of exhibit within the exhibit called “Defining the Urban Neighborhood in the 21st Century.” In this exhibit, architectural models from the four finalists in the Chicago Architectural Club’s bi-yearly Burnham Prize competition to create a new design on a Chicago-area community are on display.
This includes the 2006 contest winner Kim Nigro, who has proposed building new housing for residents in North Lawndale using community residents having taken up construction trade programs located within the community. She believes this would bring jobs, businesses and renewed spirit throughout North Lawndale. The prize, a three-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, has been awarded to Ms. Nigro who recently received her master’s degree in architecture from UIC. She is currently a project manager at the Chicago-based architectural firm, Wilkinson-Blender Architects.
“This is the first year that we have worked with the CAF,” said Helen Slade, president of the Chicago Architecture Club. “We both were interested in Greystone preservation and both happened to be looking at the North Lawndale community as well, so we decided to combine our efforts into one exhibit and we are truly pleased with the results.”
The jury reviewing the finalists’ work included Velma Johnson and Kim Jackson, resident-activists from North Lawndale, andlocal architects Jim Nagle, Sarah Dunn, and Susan King from the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development.
Among the financial supporters of the exhibit: University of Illinois at Chicago, Steans Foundation and DePaul University.
The exhibit is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.