National Public Housing Museum construction set to begin in early 2013
10/31/2012 10:00 PM
The National Public Housing Museum, the long-delayed project that would commemorate Chicago and the nation’s storied history with subsidized housing, is moving forward, and could start construction as soon as next year.
On August 14, 2008, the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to donate the only remaining Jane Addams Homes building to the National Public Housing Museum. The donation would allow the nonprofit organization to do something it has been hoping to accomplish since it was founded — create a permanent, physical museum dedicated to the history of public housing.
Since then, the museum has been working behind the scenes to gather funds and raise awareness about its mission. Meanwhile, the building itself remained virtually untouched. To a casual observer, it looks the same way as it did four years ago — boarded-up, fenced off and quiet.
But that may change in a few months. According to president and CEO Keith Magee, the museum is currently on track to secure the funds necessary to begin construction. If everything goes according to plan, the construction could begin as early as the beginning of next year. The museum would be open to the public sometime in 2014.
Since the museum took possession of the building, it has been working to raise funds necessary to convert the former residential public housing building into a museum. It wasn’t simply the matter of tinkering with the existing space. Because CHA’s hasn’t consistently maintained the building, any renovations would require the rehabilitation of the existing structure. That added to the costs, intimately requiring the museum to come up with $5 million in funds.
The museum hired the Chicago-based Landon Bone Baker Architects to handle the design. The preliminary designs depicted the original building with a transparent shell wrapped around the north and east sides. The shell was designed to add extra space.
The finalized designs stick closer to the building’s origins. Aside from a few decorative touches, it keeps most of the exteriors intact. The interiors would be partially remodeled. A research space would be built on the third floor, and the first floor would have exhibit space, small bookstore and a coffee shop.
According to Magee, three of the residential apartments would be restored to their original condition. They would be used to show the histories of the families that once lived in the building.
“We are opening three apartments that will tell stories of three families,” he said. “All of [them] lived in Jane Addams Homes. We have Jewish, Italian and African-American families.”
Each family represents a different period in the Addams Homes’ history, and, by extension, the history of Chicago public housing developments in general.
“We’ll start with the Jewish family that moved in on moving day, May 1, 1938, and end with the African American family that left in 1974,” explained Magee. “Of course, the Italian family is in the middle. [The Italian family] is vital to the museum, because we rest in the heart of Little Italy.”
The museum was able to find the families thanks to extensive research.
“The families were chosen through an oral interview process based on research that we’ve done under the leadership of Matthew Leo,” said Magee.
Magee indicated that design for the apartment exhibits hasn’t been finalized yet. The museum is currently in the process of talking to the families and securing all the necessary artifacts.
With the designs largely finalized, the construction funds couldn’t come soon enough. On October 19, the museum announced that it secured $1 million in capital funding. That included a $500,000 gift from Lucia Woods Lindley, $250,000 from the State of Illinois, $100,000 from the Pierce Family Foundation and over $300,000 from the museum’s board of directors.
In addition, Magee indicated that the museum will soon receive an addition $3 million in “capital gifts” to cover the remainder of the costs, though he told Chicago Journal that he wasn’t at liberty to reveal any details until the donors are ready to unveil their gifts officially.
The construction is expected start “around New Year’s,” he said, and should last between 12 and 18 months.
In the meantime, the museum has debuted a virtual tour of the building in its current condition. Posted on the front page of the museum’s official website, this five-minute YouTube video takes the viewers through a computer-generated model of the building.
The model was created though the collaboration between the museum and the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. Do.collaboration [sic], the university’s initiative that deals in cutting-edge data collection and visualization, used lasers to create highly accurate three-dimensional scans of the building.
In theory, this allowed the museum to have the best record of the building in its original state, before it starts making alterations. Magee told Chicago Journal that, once the construction starts, the tour will be adjusted to reflect the additions, and it will keep getting altered as exhibits are added and removed.
To Magee, the model offers the best way to show off the building to the largest possible audience.
“We create the model to offer an opportunity to see how building has been preserved,” he said. “We believe that building is a crown jewel of our collection. It’s the most precious object.”
As the lone remnant of a one of the city’s oldest housing projects, the building is already a historic artifact. But it may soon become even more of a relic. On October 16, the CHA authorized another round of demolitions in housing projects built not long after Jane Addams Homes. That includes Altgeld Gardens, the Lathrop Homes and Francis Cabrini Rowhouses, the only remaining section of the once-notorious Cabrini-Green.
When asked about his position on the changes, Magee was philosophical.
“I will say this to you,” he offered. “The birth of the NPHM [came from] the desire for a place that would hold the memories and the stories of [public housing], even as the cities across the nation are embarking upon varying ways to provide safe and affordable housing for its citizens. That is why the laser scan of the building is so important.”