By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The room was full of excitement. In the wood-paneled room where Gwendolyn Brooks once gave poetry readings stood a group of people who have the traveled the country saving some of most significant landmarks in Black America. They were there to add the house that Dr. Margaret Burroughs built to their list.
The South Side Community Art Center—a Chicago landmark that has stood for 76 years in the Bronzeville neighborhood—launched the careers of many nationally-known artists when many galleries wouldn’t showcase their work. On Nov. 7, it was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Financially struggling for years, officials at the Center now hope to find lots of gold with their treasure.
While its status as a national treasure may raise the profile of the South Side Community Art Center, the real prize may be the fresh support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the organization that is helping raise millions of dollars to save forgotten Black historical landmarks that were crumbling or on the verge of being demolished across the country.
Established in 1949 after Congress passed a law granting its charter, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private, nonprofit organization with branches in Chicago and other major cities, designating 93 sites as national treasures; 21 of which have historical significance to Black America.
Located at 3831 S. Michigan across the street from the mansion where Burroughs lived out her final years before her death in 2010, the South Side Community Art Center is a masterpiece in the eyes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The South Side Community Art Center and the historic Pullman Administration Building on the far South Side are the only two landmarks in Chicago deemed a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The designation is different from the more widely known National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks, both of which are bestowed by the National Park Service. Though many Black sites in America are on both lists, many more are left out. In Chicago, only four landmarks have made both lists.
Locally, the city of Chicago designates sites as Chicago landmarks, which protects properties from demolition and alterations that diminish their historical value or integrity. In addition to being a national treasure, the South Side Community Art Center was designated a Chicago landmark in 1994.
While these historic designations are coveted, many times the organizations or building owners benefit because federal or special funding for these historic properties is low and extremely limited, considering there are thousands of structures that are in need of repair and/or restoration.
For Black historic properties on the South Side and America, the problem is even worse. Properties, like the Swift Mansion, languish in disrepair for years or even decades. Many owners of these historic buildings do not know where to turn for funding or help. That’s where the National Trust of Historic Preservation comes in.
The organization not only makes designations, but it also uses its resources and prominence to connect to organizations that have the interests and funds to restore and polish relics that were once gems in the community. The National Trust of Historic Preservation also has links on its website where corporations and donors can make donations. Based on a survey by the Crusader, the National Trust of Historic Preservation has a game plan in place for properties that have been designated a national treasure.
“One source of money for a few projects is the federal government funding for sites associated with underrepresented communities,” said Virgil McDill, a spokesperson for the National Trust of Historic Properties. “We played a role in advocating for this money and have seen some of it awarded to our portfolio of African-American sites, including Clayborn Temple and Rosenwald Schools.”
In Boston, the organization has a campaign goal of helping the city’s preservation agency and the Deen Intensive Foundation to raise $1.4 million to restore Malcolm X’s boyhood home in the predominantly Black Roxbury neighborhood.
In Philadelphia, the National Trust of Historic Preservation is helping local organizations develop a preservation plan and find a buyer to purchase boxing legend Joe Frazier’s gym, which is now a discount furniture store. There are also plans to save the decaying A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, AL, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed during trips to the city. In Richmond, VA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is also helping to create a memorial park in Shockoe Bottom, once the center of a bustling slave trade and where the author of “12 Years a Slave,” Solomon Northup, was held in a jail in 1841.
Now, the South Side Community Art Center joins the list of beneficiaries of the organization’s involvement. With support from the National Trust of Historic Preservation, the Center may finally get the help it needs to connect to a treasure trove of untapped resources, accessing some badly needed funds.
The Center’s executive director, Masequa Myers, said the Center struggled with making payroll when she took the helm in 2013. The building, built in 1892 as a three-story, Georgian-Revival style mansion, was converted in 1940 when it became the South Side Community Art Center, one of 100 such institutions established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt attended the Center’s dedication. Reportedly, the last working WPA, the facility hasn’t been remodeled in decades. Water damage still stains its ceilings, and its aged heating/cooling system prevents some artists from exhibiting their work. Still, over the past 75 years, the center nurtured the careers of Brooks, Burroughs, William Carter, Charles White, and Archibald Motley, Jr.
“The South Side Community Art Center helps to tell an important story about African-American artists at a time when segregation and racism prevented them from more fully contributing to the cultural life of the United States,” said Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The Center has long been a beacon of tolerance and understanding, using art to enrich the community while serving as a welcoming place for people from all walks of life.”