Open for an evening
Museum organizers must raise $13 million
04/22/2009 12:00 PM
The last of the Jane Addams Homes – an empty three-story red-brick structure at the corner of Taylor and Loomis – has some specific connotations for Donald McGrew.
While many people walking by the building might not take notice of the faded traces of white on its façade, McGrew knows they are from water condensation. He started work in 1987 as an engineer at the power plant serving the 3,400 units of public housing between Cabrini Street, 15th Street, Blue Island and Ashland, including the Addams Homes.
The structure served, he explained, as the main pressure station supplying heat for development, the very first public housing built in Chicago, and escaping steam stained the front. The heat at the building was good, he said, if not occasionally erratic.
“I spent a lot of nights here when people didn’t have heat, and it was one of my things: I would never leave if someone didn’t have heat, domestic hot water or electricity, anything like that,” he said.
McGrew wasn’t the only person who carried personal memories of the Addams Homes – or public housing in Chicago more broadly – to the remaining Addams building last Friday evening.
Former and current public housing residents, researchers, students and others arrived at 1322-24 W. Taylor to walk through the long-closed structure, which organizers want to convert into a National Public Housing Museum.
“The power of place is important here. The original occupants here were Italian Americans. The last occupants here were African Americans, and think of every possible American immigrant or migrant group that lives in this country. At some point they lived in this building,” said Keith Magee, who started as the museum’s executive director in February. “That’s why it’s so powerful to be here.”
Inside the old structure, paint flecked from the ceilings but otherwise the floors, some of them tiled, were swept clean for Friday’s event. Parts of some exterior walls had chipped off, exposing brick, and in the small bathrooms, tubs remained sealed into the ground. Here and there on the walls graffiti was still visible. Visitors watched photographic slide shows paired with resident testimony about life in Chicago’s now-demolished public housing and viewed renderings of how the restored Addams building might someday look. The exhibit was called “Inside Out.”
Magee, who came to Chicago after stints at the Museum of African American History in Boston and after working on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, said the public housing museum is organizing a traveling exhibit, collecting oral histories and seeking money for capital improvements to the building.
“The museum of course organized in the fall of 2006, and so we’re two and a half years in. We’re in a $13.2 million capital campaign because it will take $13 million to completely restore [the building],” Magee said.
While the museum has site control of the final Addams building from the housing authority, Magee said the group must meet fundraising benchmarks over the next three years to own the structure and build it out.
The hoped-for opening date is 2012.
The first benchmark – of $3.2 million – is set for May 31. “We’re not quite there but we’re aggressively fundraising,” Magee said. “But no one has made a commitment yet as far as capital.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities is supporting the group’s oral histories work.
“For the NEH to say what you’re doing is important goes a long way. So we’re hopeful,” Magee said.
While the museum staff works to meet its deadlines, some museum board members are looking forward to the day the institution opens. Francine Washington, the longtime tenant council president at the former Stateway Gardens development, said the museum will preserve an important part of Chicago’s history.
“We are going to show the good and the bad. Nothing is perfect. And you cannot show all the good things about public housing – you have to show the good and the bad,” said Washington, whose children grew up in ABLA. “This museum will be a lie if it showed only good things. And I wouldn’t be a part of it. We’re going to tell it like it is.”
McGrew, the engineer, thinks the museum concept is a “beautiful” one. He likes the central Taylor Street location.
Asked if walking through the building evoked any memories, McGrew referred his profession once again.
“I didn’t smell any steam,” he said with a laugh. But he remembered the families and kids he saw grow up in the Addams Homes. “When you walk through the building you still feel it.”