Anthony Todd
University of Chicago


By the time Graham Taylor founded the Chicago Commons in 1894, the World’s Fair already seemed a distant memory. Not only had the White City burned to the ground in a series of fires after the Fair, but the extravaganza’s glory also became overshadowed by the onset of a massive economic depression that helped spark a strike of factory workers in the neighborhood of Pullman that would soon grow into a nationwide boycott that would end in violence. Sitting down to sketch the Common’s goals a few years later, Taylor hoped the settlement house could stem such violence by becoming “A place where the values of life could be shared, where man could meet with man on the basis of common humanity.” From this first outlining document sprang an organization that changed Chicago, and a man who helped mold the Progressive Era, found the profession of Social Work and shape the physical and moral environment of Chicago.

Taylor was born in 1851 in New York, the son of a Dutch Reformed minister. His family’s faith had a profound influence on Taylor, for after graduating from Rutgers University he attended the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This mixture of public and religious education proved influential in Taylor’s later work, though perhaps in an unexpectedly negative way. He complained that his secular schooling focused on the structures of government but ignored the “practice of citizenship,” while his religious education taught the gospel but did not discuss any obligation for clergy to be involved with the men and women of the “workaday world.” Though concerned with conversion and the spreading of the gospel early in his career, this recognition would rapidly lead Taylor in a different direction. By the late 1880s he became one of the earliest teachers of the Social Gospel, which argued that Christians should strive to save society as much as individuals souls.

Taylor soon moved from the pulpit to the classroom. In 1888 Taylor joined the faculty at Hartford Theological Seminary where he worked alongside seminarians at other institutions to give his theological vision pedagogical structure. He called it “Christian Sociology,” a phrase that evoked both his commitment to his faith as well as to the insights of academic knowledge.  The innovation soon brought him to Chicago, where in 1892 the Chicago Theological Seminary appointed him head of a brand new department of Christian Sociology. Taylor’s curriculum emphasized the importance of “Applied Christianity,” arguing that the best way enhance the spiritual conditions of the nation’s poor and oppressed was by addressing their material needs. His courses at Chicago Theological Seminary included not only ones on theology or evangelization, but also post-graduate courses in “Biblical Sociology” and “Social Economics” where he taught on “the function of the church in the industrial structure of modern society.”

Taylor rapidly moved his activities beyond the seminary walls. He spoke at the International Congress of Charities of the World’s Congress Auxiliary, taught at the University of Chicago and was a founding member of the Civic Federation of Chicago. At the same time, he worked with Hull House and watched other settlement houses begin to form around the city – most notably the University of Chicago Settlement, founded by Mary McDowell. He decided that he needed to found one for himself. In 1894, he found an old house near the corner of Union Avenue, Milwaukee Avenue, and Hubbard Street and used it as a headquarters for his students to practice their brand of Christian Sociology. The near northwest side neighborhood Taylor selected as a largely working class district, filled with tenement houses occupied by immigrants from all over Europe. To try and bring these groups together, Taylor named his new endeavor the Chicago Commons.

Like Hull House and other settlements, Chicago Commons was built around the idea of educated, middle-class reformers living among the laborers and immigrants they wanted to help. The Commons hosted clubs (including a women’s club, a “girls progressive club” and workingman’s’ associations), social services, a kindergarten, a day nursery, a picture gallery, music lessons and a branch of the Chicago Public Library (Taylor was a member of the board). In line with contemporary thinking about the importance of nature, fresh air, and physical exercise, the Commons also arranged a co-educational Summer Camp for children in Elgin, Illinois. Despite early neighborhood fears that, due to Taylor’s Protestant religious background, immigrants of different creeds would not be welcome at Chicago Commons, he rapidly established that settlement house programs were welcome to all. Indeed, before the century ended the association would prove such a success that Taylor planned for new, much larger building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Morgan Street. The Commons moved into the new edifice in 1901.

An important feature that set Chicago Commons apart from other similar organizations at the time were the famous “free floor” nights. Despite the reputation of the settlement house as a place of hierarchy and the transmission of middle class values, the “Tuesday Meeting” was a place where any comer, educated or not, was given twenty minutes to speak on the topic of the day – ranging from education to labor politics to theology. The only limit: advocating violence was not permitted. As Taylor later wrote of the “free floor” in one his books about the commons:  “It is the settlement’s deliberate proposition that all classes of men, all shades of thought, all degrees of prosperity and of culture, shall come face to face and ‘have it out.’… Assuming the good faith and good intentions of the average man, it offers one of the few cases of self-conscious democracy in the wilderness of social confusion and industrial chaos, where distinction of class and caste may be ignored, and mere human manhood may be the title to free speech and frank opinion.” Unfortunately, the formal “Free floor” nights were stopped after newspapers began attacking Chicago Commons as a hotbed of radicalism, but Taylor’s courage gained him friends and, more importantly, funding from wealthy donors.

Unlike Jane Addams, who increasingly appeared on the national stage and moved her activism outside of Chicago, Taylor stayed local. He wrote a column in the Chicago Daily News for more than 30 years, railing against injustice and calling for reforms in voting, immigration laws, garbage collection, prostitution and policing. The columns were so powerful and popular that the editor of the Daily News called Taylor “The Conscience of Chicago.” Starting in 1895, Taylor decided to move the social gospel outside of the seminary. He founded the first professional school of social work west of the Mississippi, The Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy in partnership with a number of other reformers throughout the city. The school trained hundreds of students in the techniques of social work, including charity visiting, collecting sociological data, navigating city bureaucracy and community organizing. In 1920, the school merged with the University of Chicago and became the School of Social Service Administration, which remains a leader in Social Work education today.

Taylor’s status as a theologian gave him opportunities denied to other Progressive reformers.  The city regularly called upon him to serve on a number of welfare or reform commission where he would bring not only his Christian commitment but also his belief in a data-driven, sociologically informed approach to Chicago’s problems. He was appointed to the Chicago Vice Commission, the Chicago Plan Commission, and helped to integrate public spaces (including parks and churches) into the overarching plan for the development of Chicago.

Ultimately, however, Taylor was a foot soldier in the Progressive battles of Chicago, not an innovator. That status may have contributed to his incredibly wide range of accomplishments, while at the same time assuring him a slightly less prominent spot in the history books. Reporter John Palmer Gavit put it best: Taylor had the “imagination and vision to find substance in the adventures of those more recklessly radial than he, together with a certain naïve courage to stand forth and fight.” Taylor died in his sleep at his home in Chicago in September of 1938. The Chicago Commons, however, remains active in the city today.

Further Reading
  • Graham Taylor, Pioneering on Social Frontiers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931).
  • Graham Taylor, Chicago Commons Through Forty Years (Chicago: Chicago Commons Association, 1936).
  • Judith Ann Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).
  • Louis Carroll Wade, Graham Taylor: Pioneer for Social Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).