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Public Housing Museum Plans To Break Ground in Former ABLA Building in 2016

By Stephanie Lulay | August 14, 2015 5:56am | Updated on August 14, 2015 8:22am
 Crystal Palmer, National Public Housing Museum board member, and Charles Leeks, museum executive director, discuss future plans for the site on the stoop of the last remaining Jane Addams Homes building in Little Italy.
Crystal Palmer, National Public Housing Museum board member, and Charles Leeks, museum executive director, discuss future plans for the site on the stoop of the last remaining Jane Addams Homes building in Little Italy.
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DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay

LITTLE ITALY — Plans to rehab the only remaining Jane Addams Homes building into a national museum are taking shape on Taylor Street.

In the works since 2006, officials now hope to break ground on the National Public Housing Museum project in early 2016 and open the museum in 2017. Charles Leeks, the museum's executive director, said he is working with Chicago Housing Authority officials to get the necessary approvals to move forward with the project.

"The plan is to get going as soon as possible," Leeks said at the Little Italy site this week.

Leeks plans to soon seek final approvals from the Chicago Housing Authority, the government agency that maintains ownership of the site, he said.

CHA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vacant since 2002, the only remaining Jane Addams Homes building in Little Italy will become the future home of the National Public Housing Museum. [National Public Housing Museum]

Built in 1938, the Jane Addams Homes building at 1322-24 W. Taylor St. — part of the larger ABLA Homes complex on the Near West Side, which stands for Jane Addams Homes, Robert Brooks Homes, Loomis Courts and Grace Abbott Homes — opened in 1938 as the first federal government housing project in Chicago. Hundreds of families lived in the three-story brick building over six decades, and the building has been vacant since 2002.

Named after the pioneer social worker, Nobel Prize-winner and Hull House founder Jane Addams, the homes were built under the Public Works Administration Act, created to provide jobs and help boost the country out of the Great Depression.

Today, Leeks hopes the building will honor the legacy of thousands of immigrants, migrants and families who relied on subsidized housing in the 20th century.

"The contribution that public housing has made — ... people minimize it but it is such a powerful American story," he said.

Stephanie Lulay discusses the museum plans:

A rendering shows what the interior of the National Public Housing Museum could look like. [National Public Housing Museum]

Despite the negative reputation of large urban public housing projects like Chicago's razed Cabrini-Green Homes on the Near North Side and the Robert Taylor Homes in South Side Bronzeville, the investment has paid off for society as a whole, Leeks said.

Some of America's best and brightest are products of public housing, including: Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO; Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO; celebrity Barbara Streisand, singer Diana Ross; and Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose.

To preserve that history, the National Public Housing Museum plans to restore four of the apartments in the buildings, giving visitors an idea of what it was like to live in the ABLA homes through different periods in history.

One of the apartments will represent a Jewish family living at the homes in the 1930s and 1940s, an Italian family from the same time period, and an African-American family during the 1960s and 1970s. Rev. Marshall Hatch, who grew up in one of the ABLA Homes, and museum board member Jack Medor, whose family also lived in the Homes building after emigrating from Russia, will both donate family heirlooms to the apartment exhibits.

Museum officials are still working on the concept for the fourth apartment, Leeks said.

Under current plans, the museum plans to occupy one-third of the Jane Addams Homes building and the Chicago Housing Authority would develop a compatible use, like a business incubator or library for current public housing residents, in the remaining space, Leeks said.

In addition to the apartment exhibits, the museum will have rotating exhibits focused on the history of public housing and a large collection of art connected with public housing in the United States. Artist Edgar Miller's "Animal Court" sculptures, once located in the Jane Addams Homes courtyard, will likely be restored and returned to their original location.

"The narrative of public housing in America has changed over time, but when we began this movement in the 1930s, African Americans were generally not living in public housing," Leeks said. "The first populations to live in this development were largely Jewish and Italian immigrants."

While the national museum was first planned in 2006, the path to preserving public housing's legacy in America has been in the works for decades. As Chicago began to tear down the massive public housing complexes across the city in the 1990s, residents, including Deverra Beverly, an activist and CHA commissioner, lobbied the agency to keep one of the ABLA Homes buildings intact. The space would serve as a way for future generations to learn about the history of public housing in the city, advocates argued, and housing authority officials agreed.

"The group of residents felt like they couldn't let all of this history be erased," Leeks said.

The interior of the last remaining Jane Addams Homes building today. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

Beverly, a lifelong resident of the ABLA Homes, died in 2013 at the age of 79. Her rocking chair sits in the Taylor Street building where it is likely to remain once the museum opens.

To date, the museum has raised $2.9 million through private foundations, donors and state funding, about half of the group's $6.3 million goal, according to Daniel Ronan, the museum's manager of public engagement.

The museum had been previously scheduled to break ground in 2013.

Daniel Ronan, the National Public Housing Museum's manager of public engagement, and Ty McCarthy, a museum volunteer, work to clean up the former public housing site on Monday. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

The museum, which currently operates out of offices in River North, will have a booth set up at Festa Italiana, which runs through Sunday, outside the Jane Addams Homes building on Taylor Street. Neighbors are encouraged to stop by and hear about the museum's future plans for the site.

The former Jane Addams Homes building today, 1322 W. Taylor St. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]

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