Rich history of Jane Addams Homes as ‘hallowed ground’ is worth remembering

Its earliest days as a home for Black and white working class Chicagoans serves as an inspiration for a rebirth of the city for all its citizens.

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Two workers dismantle an old Chicago Housing Authority sign outside the sole remaining building from the Jane Addams Homes in the 1300 block of West Taylor Street on Aug. 21, 2019.

Two workers dismantle an old Chicago Housing Authority sign outside the sole remaining building from the Jane Addams Homes in the 1300 block of West Taylor Street on Aug. 21, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The site of the latest phase of the Roosevelt Square redevelopment at 925 S. Ada Street was recently described as “hallowed ground” by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, referring to the parcel’s previous use as public housing. This part of the mixed-income development includes the renovation, as the National Public Housing Museum, of the only extant building of the original 32 that comprised the Jane Addams Homes.

In calling this site “hallowed ground,” Lightfoot spoke more truth than perhaps she realized. For over 180 years, the property has been in the service of the neighborhood, with a rich history that is worth remembering. 

In 1860, the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus built the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Until 1903, the school educated thousands of young Chicago women before the order relocated to Lake Forest. Then, in 1903, the Hebrew Institute bought the property and operated a community center with a theater, gymnasium and natatorium. 

While it was built primarily to serve the Jewish working class of the neighborhood, the Hebrew Institute benefitted the whole community until it was moved to North Lawndale in 1927.

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Serving the working class

Jane Addams, who had labored in the neighborhood since 1889, arranged the next chapter of this “hallowed ground” during the Great Depression. At the time, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes wanted to launch a demonstration public housing project near Hull House, where he had first encountered the problems of the immigrant working class.

In late 1933, Ickes wrote Addams outlining their shared vision for Chicago’s Near West Side: “I would like to have a slum clearance project as near Hull House as possible because that would give fullest opportunity of cooperation between your institution and the Federal Government.”

A rendering of the National Public Housing Museum.

A rendering shows the National Public Housing Museum in the renovated 925 S. Ada St. building, part of the former Jane Addams complex.

HED and Landon Bone Baker

Just before her death in spring 1935, Addams negotiated the sale of the Hebrew Institute property, blocks from Hull House; 32 apartment buildings were arranged around courtyards with playgrounds for 1,000 working class families. The newly organized Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) established eligibility requirements aimed at the city’s working class, who did not have access in the private market to apartments with separate bath and toilet facilities, hot running water, central heat, gas stoves and electric refrigerators.

This was particularly true for Black families, whose housing choices were severely constricted. The CHA planned for separate projects for Black and white residents; in January 1938, only white families were selected as tenants for the Jane Addams Homes. The CHA did not even look at the hundreds of black applicants. 

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But Robert Weaver, in charge of race relations for the Unites States Housing Authority (USHA) worried about the precedent set by segregated public housing. If only white families became Jane Addams tenants, it would “create resistance to the introduction of Negro families at a later date.”

With pressure from the federal government, as well as the support of Mayor Ed Kelly and local Black politicians, the CHA began the racial integration of the Jane Addams Homes. 

An inspiration for rebirth

Over the course of 1938, nearly 1,000 working class families, Black and white, moved into the Jane Addams Homes not more than a half mile west of Hull-House. The new tenants were pleased to have modern apartments with a “tiled bathroom, the type of kitchen the average housewife dreams about with overhead cabinets, electric refrigerator, small cabinet with porcelain top, modern four-burner gas stove and a large white sink.” 

The tenants were overwhelmingly white, with only around 50 Black families at the end of 1938. Still, the Jane Addams Homes were an audacious exercise in social planning that built on years of effort by Hull-House residents and housing reformers from across the country. 

The Chicago Tribune, no fan then of public housing, admitted that “whatever else may be said of the projects — especially the Jane Addams homes — they are concentrated melting pots. Jewish, Italian and other races mingle. Along the streets and in the courtyards, white and Negro children play together.”  One of the first cohort of residents agreed, writing in June 1938, “We are all Americans: there is no strife between nationalities or races.” Her pride in her new community was palpable. 

Their pride was short-lived; within two years the CHA began evicting working class Black and white families in order that the poorest Chicagoans could live in the Jane Addams Homes. There followed the better-known history that led ultimately to the demolition of the Jane Addams Homes.

But its earliest days as a home for Black and white working class Chicagoans is worth remembering as a part of this “hallowed ground,” serving as an inspiration for a rebirth of the city for all its citizens. 

Rima Lunin Schultz and Ann Durkin Keating are historians at work on a book, “In the Shadow of Hull-House: Social Planning in a Working-Class Neighborhood from Jane Addams to Florence Scala.”

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