A Dance Legend Owned These Abandoned East St. Louis Homes. Local Group Now Wants To Save Them
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
EAST ST. LOUIS — Near the corner of College Avenue and Katherine Dunham Place in East St. Louis, there are three decrepit homes.
They’re Victorian style properties, which is characteristic of the homes in the Olivette Park neighborhood, but the beauty of their design can be easily overlooked because debris and shrubbery overcrowd them. They seem to be out of place. The homes are directly across the street from Vivian Adams Early Childhood Education Center and around the corner from East St. Louis School District 189’s administration building.
But the homes have deep historical significance: They were once the property of the late dance legend Katherine Dunham. Dunham lived in one of the homes and used the others for cultivating the next generation of dancers in the community and beyond.
The Katherine Dunham Museum board of directors is working to restore the homes for historical preservation. They want more people to know about Katherine Dunham.
“We have so many different cultural aspects, and we’re not taking care of them,” said Lorenzo Savage, president of the Katherine Dunham Museum board.
Savage is an architect and co-founder of I Am East St. Louis, the Magazine.
Savage started serving on the board this year. He said he wanted to make restoring the homes his first project when he was elected president in July. It’s why he, with the help of other East St. Louis residents, started weekly cleanups of the area this month. Cleaning the area was imperative, considering the homes were almost auctioned off.
The three homes were tax-delinquent properties, and Joseph E. Meyer & Associates, St. Clair County’s delinquent tax agent, acquired the home at 526 Katherine Dunham Place in 2019. The others, at 524 and 534 Katherine Dunham Place, were acquired as early as this summer.
“We’re talking about abandoned property,” Whitney Strohmey, president of Joseph E. Meyer & Associates, said. “People walked away and didn’t pay the taxes on them for about three years plus….the one at 526, we’ve had that for a couple of years. It was in an auction in October of 2019. It was removed at that time and it was placed temporarily on a demolition list because of the status of the property.”
That was until East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III reached out to the county board last month to take the homes off the auction list. Now, none of the homes are scheduled to be auctioned and are in the process of being back in the museum’s control.
The city also had the homes on its own demolition list, but they were taken off this year after hearing about efforts to restore the homes. Still, Eastern is concerned about plans for the homes, considering proximity to school buildings.
“The reason why the homes were on the list is because we want to ensure the safety of our students,” Eastern said. “When I first got into office, we issued an ordinance for creating a safe environment near our schools so that they aren’t near abandoned properties, and the homes were an eyesore. The safety of our children is a top priority.”
Vivian Adams Early Childhood Education Center, the preschool across the street from the homes, declined to comment for this story. However, Eastern hopes restoration plans for the homes will include children in the area, given Katherine Dunham’s significance to East St. Louis.
“My daughter was taught the Dunham technique (a dance style that marries traditional ballet with Afro-Caribbean dance movements) ,” Eastern said. “She’s as important as Miles Davis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and others are to us. We are the city of champions, and we have a rich history and she’s a part of that.”
Savage, 53, said he plans to use the homes for after-school programs and for a bed-and-breakfast for visiting artists. He said he hopes to have a plan finalized in the fall.
“We’re going to bring a project that we feel is worthy of that because this is human infrastructure and physical infrastructure, and it’s going to bring people to the city to visit the historic Katherine Dunham Museum,” Savage said. “This art that this woman collected over the years, priceless art, and the fact that she chose to leave those things here in East St. Louis, speaks to the love that she had for the people here, and I just want to see that flourish and grow.”
Katherine Dunham’s East St. Louis legacy
Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909. The world-renowned dancer, activist and anthropologist was known for incorporating movements of the Black diaspora into her choreography.
Dunham came to East St. Louis in the 1960s after being invited as an artist-in-residence for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. In 1967, she opened the Performing Arts Training Center, now known as SIUE’s East St. Louis Center for the Performing Arts, in East St. Louis for youth in the area. She opened The Katherine Dunham Museum and Children’s Workshop, which hosts several arts-related programs for children, in 1977.
Ruby Streate, 69, who lives in East St. Louis,was appointed by Dunham to serve on the museum’s board in 2003. As a teen in the 1960s, she was a dancer at Dunham’s Performing Arts Training Center. She’s a master instructor of the Dunham Technique.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Streate, who lives in East St. Louis, said about learning choreography from Dunham. “As a little girl, I always wanted to dance, but we never saw any dancers, Black dancers, and certainly no female (dancers). The only Black dancer that I encountered was Sammy Davis Jr. on the different shows that he would appear on, and so it fulfilled my goals to be a dancer. Even then.”
After Dunham died in 2006, the board couldn’t keep up with the taxes on the homes and eventually lost control over them. Streate mentioned that there was some tension within the board that prolonged efforts to regain control, but she said that everyone on the board is now on the same page regarding the restoration.
Streate is grateful that the homes aren’t being torn down because they’re representative of Dunham’s legacy in East St. Louis.
“Those homes were the places that, in addition to Ms. Dunham living there, she had them for certain reasons, like the house in the middle was the house where she held her artifacts before the museum came into existence, and the home on the end, the stone building, was where she housed people who wanted to come to East St. Louis and wanted to learn about her legacy.”
Donna Pollion lived in one of the homes, at 534 Katherine Dunham Place, with Katherine Dunham. In 1982, Pollion served as Dunham’s nurse.
“In the beginning, I started in 1982, they were just maintained as they were,” Pollion, 70, said about the homes. “Nothing (was) added...she stayed on the second floor and she was unable to walk, so it was kind of hard for her to get up and down the steps, so most of her life was maintained in her bedroom. So I made sure that everything was made how she wanted it for her company and for her health.”
Pollion, of Swansea, is a museum board member. She spent time as the executive director of the Children’s Workshop, and she was Dunham’s assistant. She said she wouldn’t trade the time spent working with Dunham for anything.
“She could see in you what you couldn’t see in yourself,” Pollion said . “Being with her from 1982 all the way until 2006, I had three daughters and two grandchildren that went through the Children’s Workshop. None of them are professional dancers, but the drive and the will to do better is what she instilled in them, so I have two nurse practitioners, a nurse, a pharmacist and all that came from Ms. Dunham.”
Savage estimates that it will take $600,000 to repair the homes. Donations can be made via the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts & Humanities website or by writing a check to the museum. Until that goal is reached, Savage said he’ll continue to host weekly cleanups at the homes. Dunham’s legacy depends on it.
“I told my late wife that I had a crush on her,” Savage said. “In the 30s and 40s, that woman was a boss. You’re talking about someone who had their own dance troupe and traveled around the world as a woman, and as a Black woman.”
DeAsia Paige is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.