Linda Rosenwald Levy used to visit her grandfather Lessing Rosenwald’s big house in Jenkintown all the time, but it wasn’t until years later that she fully comprehended the place’s history and meaning.
That’s because Lessing Rosenwald, the oldest son of noted Jewish philanthropist and education proponent Julius Rosenwald, had in his possession what many believed to be the finest collection of art, rare books, prints and manuscripts around.
“We knew a little about it, but we were just kids with our grandparents,” said Levy, one of Lessing and Edith Rosenwald’s 19 grandchildren. “They were wonderful, and we loved to be with them.”
Soon after moving from Chicago to the Philadelphia area to open a branch of Sears, Roebuck, the company his father owned, Lessing Rosenwald realized it was impossible to make his collection both available to the public and safe. He decided to donate it to the Library of Congress (LOC) and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Over the years, more than 25,000 items — including the 500-year-old Giant Bible of Mainz, paintings by Rembrandt and William Blake, and prints — were sent to the LOC and the National Gallery of Art. Following Lessing Rosenwald’s death in 1979, an LOC historian called them “the great jewel in the Library of Congress collection.”
Now, nearly 40 years since his passing, that collection and the story behind it will be coming “home.” On Oct. 12, the Abington Art Center, site of the former Rosenwald estate, will host the Rosenwald Gala.
Not only will they celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Rosenwald Fund, the philanthropic trust established by Julius Rosenwald, but they’ll introduce a digital history on the Lessing Rosenwald collection. And there will be a screening of the documentary, Rosenwald, directed by Aviva Kempner, best known for her Peabody Award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
For Art Center Executive/Artistic Director Hana Iverson, who’s worked on the project for more than a year, it’s a momentous occasion.
“This is enormous for Abington to have it back,” said Iverson, who worked in conjunction with the LOC and other museum curators to develop the presentation. “It restores the history and throws the building into a new context. The property actually goes back to the Quakers. When Lessing was here, this was really a phenomenal estate.”
She took the initiative to contact the LOC to gauge its interest in celebrating the Rosenwalds. It didn’t take long to convince LOC Curator Stephanie Stillo.
“I did not know much about Abington before Hana contacted me,” said Stillo, who will speak at the gala. “After I met with Hana she invited me to visit. I went up there the next week and have been there several times since. When you go to the Rosenwald home, you really see a house that was built for his collection. Even though they donated everything, the books all stayed with him until his death.
“Seeing his home I was able to learn a lot. It really connected me with the man in an intimate way. Not just his collection, but his entire story, his vision and his gift to the American people.”
Those who attend the gala won’t actually see any of the collection because museum rules prohibit the loaning of items. But the digital history and the documentary should provide a sense of what the house was like when Lessing and Edith and their five children lived there.
“The wife of Julius Rosenwald’s last grandchild just died at 101,” Iverson said. “The others scattered and never came back as a group. Not many know of the lineage of Julius Rosenwald, who took on racism during Jim Crow America. He saved 300 people out of Germany and was very much Jewish. And Lessing was the founder of the 1956 Print Council of America.”
Linda Rosenwald Levy, now 76, can’t wait.
“I was part of the making of the film,” Levy said. “It’s a fascinating thing. I hope what will come out of this is people will not only understand the legacy of Julius Rosenwald, but will follow his lead. He was just the most compassionate man and a great humanitarian years ahead of his time.
“He had an understanding that all people deserve the same chance, so I hope that part of his legacy will continue. Because right now, when you look around, it’s not happening.”