Nesheba M. Kittling felt like she had stepped back in time.
Kittling, a partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP who handles employment law, was among a group invited to the DuSable Museum of African-American History in June for a breakfast and tour of the Roundhouse, a Daniel Burnham-designed structure built in 1880 that rests just south of the museum at 740 E. 56th Place.
“It’s history,” Kittling thought to herself, gazing at the Roundhouse. “I’m looking at history.”
It was a Burnham work, yes, but this was no Columbian Exposition at the World’s Fair. No Masonic Temple, either.
This was Burnham the utilitarian: a 65,000-square-foot horse stable and buggy repair shop.
The Roundhouse is shaped like an old-fashioned key hole, with the circular portion — the rotunda — originally serving as an exercise area for horses while the buggies were serviced.
The Chicago Park District eventually acquired the Roundhouse for storage space, the equivalent of a company turning a lesser-known Mozart symphony into a commercial jingle.
In 2004, the park district gave the space to the museum to use for its overflow of archives and collections. After cleaning out the items in storage, restoring the exterior and waiting out the recession, the museum in 2009 ramped up fundraising efforts to restore the interior.
Five years later, Kittling marveled at the 35,000-square-foot rotunda and imagined the horses circling the perimeter.
She looked at the wood beams high above. The original wood, she learned. More than 130 years old.
“Being someone who’s from Chicago, who lives here, I thought that I wanted to do what I could to help them with the expansion project,” Kittling said.
To that end, Kittling is teaming with the Cook County Bar Association to host a fundraiser at the museum Feb. 26.
The Roundhouse interior must be excavated — to install the mechanical, electrical and plumbing — but also must be preserved. The interior restoration of the rotunda is estimated at $27 million.
The city will then close the small stretch of 57th Street that winds between Cottage Grove Avenue and Payne Drive and currently divides the plots upon which the museum and Roundhouse sit. A pedestrian bridge will be built to connect the structures.
Upon completion, the DuSable Museum — at 134,000 square feet — will be among the largest African-American history museum campuses in the country.
“It provides a wonderful opportunity for the DuSable Museum to grow and share its collection with the public and finally allow researchers and scholars to have access to the museum’s collection,” said Jacqueline Williams, the museum’s director of development.
Named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable — the first permanent resident in the area eventually known as Chicago — the museum was founded in 1961 in the Bronzeville home of the late Margaret and Charles Burroughs. It moved to its current site in 1974.
The museum outgrew its space about 10 years ago. Since then, two off-site storage facilities have housed significant portions of the museum’s collection, such as former mayor Harold Washington’s car, journalist Vernon Jarrett’s desk and photographer John Tweedle’s collection of photographs of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think a lot of the attention has been on the fact that we may get President Obama’s library here, which is fantastic,” Kittling said. “But I also don’t want people to forget about the resources that we already have, like the DuSable Museum.”
All told, the museum’s storage space contains about 15,000 to 17,000 “3-D” items — such as paintings, sculptures and other art — along with about 2,500 books, magazines, photos, contracts and other documents.
Along with the collections the public hasn’t seen, there are also exhibits in the museum that are incomplete due to space. Marilyn Hunter, the museum’s administrative managing director, estimates that the DuSable exhibit on African-Americans in the military, for instance, is only one-third of its total collection.
Other exhibits planned for the Roundhouse will involve African-American athletes and entertainers; a sculpture of the four children aboard the Amistad slave ship; records from the Griffin Funeral Home; and original documents and belongings of Washington, Jarrett, “Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry and former Cook County Board president John Stroger.
The space will also have a food court, while the land around the Roundhouse will be developed for outdoor seating.
“This was made brick-by-brick, limestone-by-limestone,” Hunter said about the Roundhouse. “They didn’t have machinery back then to erect buildings. They didn’t make a wall and then bring it in and install it. All of this was done brick-by-brick, hand-by-hand.”
It’s estimated that the Roundhouse can open 18 months after the fundraising is complete, with exhibits taking another six to eight months to finish.
“DuSable Museum is the city of Chicago’s museum,” Williams said. “We really attempt to tell stories of Chicago and African-American history which is directly related to all the things that go on in this country.
“Barack Obama came from Chicago, and he has impacted the world. It’s American history we attempt to tell.”