The story of development and architecture often juxtapose ideas of advancement and appreciating the past. When a storied landmark is at stake, the preservation battle become a bit easier, but what happens when the debate is over public housing? During a tour of Chicago's public housing sites during the Society of Architectural Historians conference this past weekend led by Alison Fisher (The Art Institute of Chicago) and Jonathan Mekinda (University of Illinois at Chicago), those contrasts and questions were made strikingly clear. The former Cabrini-Green site was humming with activity and development, while lots along the State Street corridor sat vacant. One of the more intriguing buildings on the tour, however, was the last remaining part of the Jane Adams Homes on Taylor Street. Part of the larger ABLA Homes complex on the near west side — the abbreviation stands for Jane Addams Homes, Robert Brooks Homes, Loomis Courts and Grace Abbott Homes — this lone remaining building from 1938, stands as a potent reminder of the optimism behind previous government-financed construction projects. Brad Hunt, an associate professor of social science and history at Roosevelt University, led a tour inside and atop the boarded-up building, and provided context for how the it fits into a larger narrative around public housing and Chicago.
The home derives its name from the social reform crusader who helped broker a deal for the land on Taylor Street. According to Hunt, the Jane Addams Homes were part of a larger effort started by the Roosevelt Administration in 1934 to experiment with the idea of government-funded housing. In the midst of the Depression, the Pubic Works Administration funded 51 projects across the country to provide low-cost housing while employing architects struggling for commissions during the downturn. Three were built in Chicago, the Trumbull, Lathrop and Addams homes. Addams sadly passed away in 1935, before the building was finished in 1938.
The single remaining home, a three-story building with nine units per floor, was part of larger complex of buildings and row homes that contained 1,027 units at its height. Built for $7.4 million, the Jane Addams Homes were designed by a cadre of 10 different architects including Melville Chatton, Ernest Grunsfeld Jr. and John Holabird (if you're trying to provide as much employment as possible, hire multiple designers). The complex also included iconic animal sculptures by Edgar Miller of a buffalo, lion and bear, among others. While the CHA removed them in 2000, the sculptures are set to be returned and reinstalled as part of the Roosevelt Square redevelopment project for the area.
The ABLA complex, which once held 17,000 residents, slowly began to fade away after the war due to maintenance issues and many of the other problems that plagued CHA developments. Recently, gentrification in the area, including University Village. The CHA's current plan for transformation is focused on the Roosevelt Square development. The homes were closed to residency in 2003, and the current remaining building just happened to have hung on before the city was able to demolish it. Hunt is working to help turn this home into the National Public Housing Museum, a "museum of conscience around the issue" that would do for housing what the tenement museum did for immigration.