While the 1909 Plan of Chicago argued for rebuilding the city in order to create a healthier environment for citizens, it said conspicuously little about the issue of what to do about the worn-out, unsanitary, and dangerous housing stock that plagued large swaths of the city. The Plan asked only for “the enforcement of simple principles of sanitation” (page 108) to improve housing conditions. This theme was consistent with decades of efforts by progressive reformers to enact and enforce housing codes to regulate private landlords. However, by the 1920s, reformers increasingly viewed regulation as inadequate to the problems of the slums. During the New Deal progressives successfully encouraged the Public Works Administration to experiment with government planned, built, and managed housing. The PWA efforts eventually became a permanent national public housing program, authorized by the 1937 U.S. Housing Act, a key legislative achievement of the New Deal.
The Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938 on Chicago’s near west side as the city’s first PWA housing project. Far from a beaux-arts design, the Jane Addams Homes adopted elements of European modernist thinking with its streamlined aesthetics and communal courtyards. Unlike later public housing projects designed in a stripped-down post-war modernism that rejected nearly all ornamentation, the Jane Addams Homes included public space and public art in prominent forms.
The Treasury Relief Art Project, a wing of the New Deal’s arts initiatives, commissioned Chicago artist Edgar Miller to design a series of carved-stone animal figures to decorate the grounds of the Jane Addams Homes. The resulting Animal Court proved an attractive gathering spot for children and families. The abstract quality of the sculptures, as well as the early modernist design of the Homes themselves, reflected a shift away from beaux-arts and neoclassical European forms, a turn made in art and architecture following the devastation of World War I.
Bowly, Devereux Jr. The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Cahan, Richard et al. Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2009.
Fuerst, J. S. When Public Housing Was Paradise: Building Community in Chicago. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003.
David Weible, “Endangered Species: Chicago’s Animal Court Playground Looks to Rebound,” Preservation Blog, National Trust for Historical Preservation. http://blog.preservationnation.org/2013/09/03/endangered-species-chicago...
Mildred Mead, “Children playing in front of the Jane Addams Homes, 1324 South Loomis,” 1951. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-27260