Reduce Reuse Recycle. The National Public Housing Museum gets some light from the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Reduce Reuse Recycle. The National Public Housing Museum gets some light from the Chicago Architecture Biennial

Part of what’s great about the Chicago Architecture Biennial is that on-going projects get fresh energy and new attention. An example of this is the project to create a National Public Housing Museum in the last remaining building of the former Jane Addams Public Housing project on Chicago's west side.


The Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938. Among the first public housing projects in the country, it had 32 buildings designed to house 987 families.

The buildings were made of bricks laid by the hands of people hired through the Federal Public Works Administration (PWA) headed by a former Chicagoan, Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who was a friend of Jane Addams.  The PWA was part of the Federal Government’s “New Deal” to help the economy recover from the Great Depression.


I first visited the Jane Addams homes in 2000. They were largely vacant at the time, and in disrepair, slated for demolition as part of a CHA plan to build new mixed-income housing in the area.


A distinctive feature of the site was the wonderful "Animal Court Playground”, with concrete animal sculptures, dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. These have been removed to storage and await restoration.

By 2007, all but one of this large complex of buildings was demolished. And that one building has been wending its way, since 2006, toward being the permanent home of the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM).

When I was at the Jane Addams homes in 2000, I was told that the buildings couldn’t be remodeled into apartments because the small size of the rooms wouldn’t meet code requirements. I remember thinking about all those bricks, and the hands that set each one of them in place. The foresight of the government program that created those jobs.




At the time, people weren’t talking about adaptive reuse the way they are now. If they had been, you have to wonder if someone might have come up with a better idea than sending all that material to a landfill.

But at least there's this one building.

'Adaptive Reuse' describes a process in which people re-conceive a building, remaking it to fit a new set of needs. The process keeps intact the building's basic structures, breathing new life into them and their surrounding communities. Adaptive Reuse is a rising trend these days.


As of now, the adaptation of this building to a new use is a plan; with an empty, run-down building, and lots of work to be done.

To give you an idea of the opportunity here, NPHM staff and volunteers have devised an ingenious set of exhibits within these walls.


The exhibits are effectively installed - haunting even. Texts are presented both in written form, and read aloud. While you look at exhibits, you listen to stories that resonate with them. Voices blending in the air. A variety of perspectives.


There is something a bit self-conscious about the presence here; museum exhibits juxtaposed with peeling walls, boarded windows, crumbling plaster. It feels designed to be slightly transgressive and exotic - dangerous in a safe way. It’s also a little discomfiting wondering about the air quality with all that peeling paint.


But at the same time, that air of mystique and drama is laden with potential.


The building houses two exhibits. “House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate” is part of a research project of the Buell Center at Columbia University. Find out more about the project here and here.

“We, Next Door” responds to the “House Housing” exhibits in an evolving project by members of NPHM’s ‘youth advisory council’. These young people are investigating, based on their own experience living in public housing, what their experience means. They are engaging with community, and with the history of public housing. They’re interested to hear what you have to say, too.


Go. The Museum is small, but deep, and well worth it. Also, don’t miss the donation box by the door, where you can lend your support to this worthy effort.

Open October 1 - November 15, 2015.

Museum Hours:

  • Thursdays: 3-7PM
  • Fridays: 3-6PM
  • Saturdays: 10am - 5pm
  • Sundays: 10am - 4pm

Related Architecture Biennial events:

Students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts are exploring the idea in an exhibition: "Old Building New Ideas: Site-specific Installations Throughout The Chicago Academy for the Arts".

Lee Bey will be giving a talk about Adaptive Reuse at the Auditorium Building on October 15th from noon to 1:30.

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