I was up at the Civil Rights Heritage Center in South Bend a few weeks ago on business, but having had the opportunity to work with the staff on the permanent exhibit that now hangs on the walls, I’m always glad to have an excuse to stop by and visit.
The exhibit, titled “Making Waves: Civil Rights and the South Bend Natatorium,” was nothing short of a designer’s dream. The opportunity to embed myself in regional history and use my design skills to help bring more visibility to such a powerful, local story proved both rewarding and humbling.
Beyond the opportunity this presented for me personally, however, the transformation of the space itself, most of which was completed before I ever arrived on the scene, is the larger and more important takeaway. Discovering narratives that are hidden beneath infrastructure presents a different challenge compared with the task of completely changing the spirit of a place and what it represents -- especially, in this case, when the building in question was once a segregated swimming pool. What a daring act it is to take a space that once embodied the worst kind of behavior human beings are capable of inflicting on one another and turn it into a cultural center that demonstrates the best of humanity, pushing us to do better and be better.
Yes, a challenge. And yet, the transformation of the natatorium becomes a powerful story in and of itself. When we have the freedom to go about our business without interruption, we often take our ability to do so for granted. I have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to be turned away from one of the many establishments I frequent, let alone how that experience would continue affecting my feelings about that place. Taking such a building with all of its baggage and turning it into a space that is welcoming and thoughtfully restored, consequently, is no small feat.
Design is often relegated to window-dressing status -- that is, making cool posters and creating websites, churning out fliers and brochures when needed. For my students, my colleagues and me, however, problem solving is really at the heart of what we do. The visible results of creative output sometimes belie the process involved in developing work that is appropriate, imaginative and nuanced. So, the fact that architecture, exhibit design and interior design have been a vital part of the transformation of the South Bend Natatorium is a reminder of why I value design and what it can do.
We are fortunate to have places like the Civil Rights Heritage Center to preserve pieces of shared history that might otherwise go unacknowledged or, worse, become lost, buried under brick and mortar. I’m grateful to have been able to make a small contribution toward efforts ensuring that the stories of our very own civil rights pioneers live on.
The Civil Rights Heritage Center at the Natatorium is located at 1040 W. Washington St., South Bend, IN 46601. Visit www.thenatatorium.org or call (574) 307-6135 for more information.