“I love history,” said Crystal Bowyer, 32, sitting on a plush sofa, a few paces from the heady gaze of Julius Rosenwald, once-upon-a-time president of Sears, Roebuck and Company and the man whose personal wealth built the Museum of Science and Industry.
Bowyer, an Oak Park resident, recently appointed director of external affairs for the museum, was sitting in a classically posh conference room where major donors and museum administrators often meet. The room affords an unparalleled view of the imposing Beaux-Arts caryatids, or stone-faced maidens, that are visible from Lake Shore Drive. Several hundred feet away, hovering over the museum’s main level, is the popular United Airlines Boeing 727. It all makes for a rather weighty workday experience, noted Bowyer.
“There’s an enormous amount of responsibility in being a steward of this history and this institution,” she said. “I’m struck every day when I turn the corner on Lake Shore Drive and see the building and how large it is. I think it’s absolutely stunning and such a wonderful treasure for the city, but at the same time you feel that weight of making sure it stays in this wonderful home of innovation for the next generation.”
The museum’s Greek-inspired structure is the former Palace of Fine Arts, the most enduring building in the famous White City from the 1893 World’s Fair, aka the Columbian Exposition.
“In order to get other countries and artists to loan artwork to the fair, we needed to build a structure that was less flammable,” she said. “This was the most permanent structure they built for the exposition, which is why, when the fair was over, they decided to turn it into a museum. It was the Field Museum for a time before the museum decided to move downtown and when they left, they just kind of left it and went. So it really became what Hyde Parkers know as ‘the ruins.’ It actually looked like ancient ruins for a while.”
In her new position, Bowyer is responsible for expanding the museum’s already hefty donor base and tending to the institution’s nearly 32,000 members, many of whom are Oak Park residents. It’s a revenue stream that, in addition to government funds, accounts for nearly one-third of the museum’s funding — money that’s vital to building on the institution’s storied history.
“Right now, I’m rereading Devil in the White City,” said Bowyer. “I read it years ago, but not when I worked here. I went through the chapters describing the building of the Columbian Exposition pretty quickly; I wasn’t very interested [then]. But now when I read it, I feel this sense of pride and this romance that went into building this institution and building the fair, and knowing how that affected city planning from here on out,” she said.
“We built this institution to put Chicago on the map both around the country and around the world,” she added. “It was supposed to stand up against the World Expo in Paris. And there was so much pride that went into building this museum. I feel like a lot of people have that same pride in Chicago about Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture and Ernest Hemingway and this being his home.”
Bowyer noted that there is overlap between the pride she feels for her workplace and for her adopted hometown of Oak Park. She moved into the village several years ago because of its proximity to the city and the historical gems it offered in its own right.
“Oak Park has such historical significance for Chicago,” she said. “A lot of what makes Oak Park special came around the turn of the century, when this museum was also being built and redefined as a museum.”
Bowyer lived in Wicker Park for five years while working for the Chicago Children’s Choir before she and her husband decided to make the move to Oak Park. They found an old brick home on East Avenue, which they recently renovated — exposing some the home’s original brick and wood features.
It’s not far from the Hills-DeCaro House, 313 N. Forest Avenue, the home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which features a former ticket booth from the 1893 World Fair.