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DuSable Museum Boss Wants Burnham's Roundhouse Open Before Obama Center

By Sam Cholke | September 5, 2017 5:00am | Updated on September 8, 2017 11:51am
 The DuSable Museum wants to get the Roundhouse building open to the public before the Obama Presidential Center opens in 2021.
The DuSable Museum wants to get the Roundhouse building open to the public before the Obama Presidential Center opens in 2021.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — The DuSable Museum of African American History wants to have its Roundhouse wing finished and open to the public before the Obama Presidential Center opens, the museum’s president said.

Perri Irmer, president of the museum at 740 E. 56th Place, said it is reworking its broad plans for the historic Roundhouse into something more modest that will get the building open to the public before the Obama Center opens in 2021.

Built in the 19th century by architect Daniel Burnham, the building originally was used as a horse stable, Made out of Joliet limestone and wood, it was later used to store theatrical costumes and sets in the 1930s.

“Instead of trying to concentrate on turning this beautiful 1880s building into something pristine with fancy finishes and white walls — that’s not what this building wants to be — it wants to be true to its nature and its history because we’re a history museum,” Irmer said.

She said she is pushing a plan that would move much of the museum’s exhibition space into the building, with the striking central rotunda acting as an event venue and traveling exhibition venue.

“We’re not even going to attempt to bring this up to an art exhibition hall standard climatewise because you would ruin the character of the room,” Irmer said. “The remainder of the building, where we would be able to quadruple our exhibition space size, that will be brought up to state-of-the-art museum standards.”

She said she expects that will cut the previous estimate of $35 million down to something doable for the museum.

The project would add 66,000 square feet to the 42,000-square-foot museum, with the current building shifting more of its focus to education, archives and other activities now constrained by the size of the museum.

But another big museum also is aggressively raising money to build space for exhibitions on the African-American history of Chicago and the country.

Irmer said she’s not worried about the Obama Center’s museum competing for money or visitors’ attention.

“We’re not retelling the same story. Together, we are the comprehensive story of black people in this nation and this nation’s history. It’s all the same story,” Irmer said. “My hope is that all the people from around the world who are coming for the Obama Center either start here or end here to get the full picture.”

She said DuSable is working closely with staff from the Obama Center to make sure the exhibitions are complementary.

Irmer said the museum will make a decision about the specific plan for the Roundhouse by the end of the year.

The Roundhouse will be open to the public for the first time in years from Sept. 12-Oct. 29 for Palais De Tokyo’s exhibitions for EXPO Chicago.

The central focus of the Roundhouse is its central rotunda, which will be an event venue and temporary exhibition venue. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

The Roundhouse will reopen to the public for a limited time in September for EXPO Chicago exhibitions.