Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.
The museum will tell the history of American public housing in a remnant of a 1930s public housing complex on Chicago’s Near West Side.
When you’re working to establish a museum with such contested subject matter as the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), it pays to have a few shorthand expressions within easy reach, lest anyone get confused about creating a curatorial platform for an institution many associate with failure.
Crystal Palmer, a former public housing resident and vice chair of the museum’s board, says the museum will tell “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of public housing. Lisa Lee, the museum’s executive director, says (quoting another board member) that it will “tell the stories of our in-laws and our outlaws.”
Lee is attempting to encapsulate this complicated legacy on the Near West Side of Chicago, inside the only remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1930s. It took 10 years of administrative wrangling to get the building from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the museum hopes to open in 2021. Since 2010, however, it has been mounting exhibitions at a variety of other venues.
It’s unabashedly an “activist museum,” says Lee, and will be full of revisionist histories. The museum’s stance is that housing is a human right—75 years after FDR asserted the right “of every family to a decent home” in his Second Bill of Rights. To make its case, the NPHM will look to everyday resident histories and apply them to today’s housing crisis.
“This methodology believes that in order to preserve history, you have to make it relevant to contemporary social justice struggles, and in order to solve social justice struggles of today, you have to look back in time,” says Lee. “Housing insecurity is one of the most critical issues today, and I don’t think you can solve it without becoming a student of history.”
The museum will tell this intimate and domestic story with intimate, domestic-scaled architecture. “When people close their eyes and imagine public housing, they imagine a scary high-rise,” says Lee. But the building on Taylor Street, built by the Public Works Administration and designed by Holabird & Root, is positively neighborly at three-and-a-half stories, and scaled to the commercial strip that surrounds it.*
It will undergo a light-touch adaptive reuse by one of Chicago’s most talented architects of subsidized housing, the firm Landon Bone Baker Architects. Even before construction, the ceiling heights, corridor widths, and basic proportions of the Jane Addams Homes are reminders that this was where people once lived. “It’s a much more intimate space than a typical museum might be,” says architect Peter Landon, and “amazingly well built.” It had to be strong to survive: It’s been vacant since 2002. Workers have done lead-paint and asbestos abatement on the site. The museum has saved artifacts from the building’s former life, and some original walls will be incorporated in the new design.
Landon’s design begins with a new glass-pavilion entry lobby. In addition to standard gallery space, the 47,000-square-foot museum will contain three model apartments, furnished and decorated to represent different communities that lived in the Addams Homes and in American public housing (including Jewish, Puerto Rican, Polish, and African-American families).
There will be spaces for public programming, performances, and oral history. An entrepreneurship hub will work with nonprofits to develop cooperative models of what Lee calls a “solidarity economy.” There, a focus on the informal economies that thrived in public housing will include ad hoc barbershops and nail salons, but also the drug trade and prostitution. The museum is considering an interdisciplinary center where former and current residents of public housing come together with artists, scholars, designers, planners, and advocates to envision the future of housing.
The rear of the building will have a courtyard featuring several 1930s animal sculptures by Chicago artist Edgar Miller, which will be reinstalled after the restoration. This courtyard recently hosted a 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial installation that focused on oral histories and storytelling, and the museum site has already been the venue for a series of exhibitions. The near-constant stream of activity, for a museum so far without a permanent home, has helped along a capital campaign that has garnered about $6 million toward a $15.7 million goal.
This remnant of the Jane Addams Homes is one of only a handful original CHA properties still intact. Widespread dereliction, violence, and concentrations of extreme poverty plagued many high-rises. Palmer, who lived for decades in the West Side’s Henry Horner Homes, recalls how she couldn’t get basic services like garbage, fire, police, and mail. “It’s like you’re a refugee in the city you were born in,” she says. And yet, “I could stick my hand out from where I lived and touch downtown.”
Early on, the CHA was run by progressive social reformers like Elizabeth Wood, who fought relentlessly to racially integrate developments. But Wood’s successors gave way to policies that created a death spiral of social segregation and infrastructural breakdown. In 1999, the CHA launched the Plan for Transformation, which would tear down 18,500 subsidized homes and build 25,000 new units, many of which would be in mixed-income developments. CHA became a facilitator, guiding investments from affordable housing developers; funding for a given project might come from a dozen different sources, many of them private.
This year, 10 years behind schedule, CHA is set to reach its goal of replacing 25,000 units. But given the level of housing need and the delay, communities were dispersed.
The NPHM is both a product of this dispersal and a corrective to it, and the Plan for Transformation will be a curatorial focus at the museum. Deverra Beverly, who lived in the complex that contained the Addams Homes, is credited with originating the idea of the museum in the midst of demolitions. Beverly (who died in 2013) used the Local Advisory Council structure to build up a power base and advocate for the museum. Even amid dysfunction, Chicago public housing residents formed grassroots leadership and governance structures “that all movements can and should be looking to,” says Lee.
That history is one reason why Chicago is an ideal place for the National Public Housing Museum. Lee has another: “There’s nowhere in the country where the aspirations for public housing were as big, and also the failures and dreams deferred were as major.”
*CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that the Jane Addams Homes were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA); in fact, they were built by the Public Works Administration (PWA), another New Deal government agency.