Creature Comforts

Completed in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration, the Jane Addams Homes on the near west side were Chicago’s first experiment in public housing. Bordered by Racine to the east, Roosevelt to the south, Loomis to the west, and Cabrini to the north, the 880-unit low-rise development was built to house the working poor, yet more than half the total area was devoted to lawns, gardens, play spaces, and even public art. A few steps north of where Throop Street ran into Taylor lay a spacious plaza with a children’s wading pool and sprinklers, decorated by seven fanciful limestone sculptures that included a bear, an elephant, a bighorn sheep, a musk ox, and a larger work of fauna. The sculptor, Edgar Miller, was one of Chicago’s most versatile artists: an architect and designer, he also created murals, ceramics, mosaics, and stained glass. The Animal Court, as it came to be known, represented the noblest aspirations of public housing. “It showed that people didn’t just need housing and other practical things,” says John Lillig, who teaches English at Saint Ignatius College Prep just south of the Addams Homes. “They also needed public art in a public space to enhance their environment.”

Lillig remembers seeing the Animal Court back in the 1980s, when he was a student at Saint Ignatius. A few years ago he developed an interest in the artists of the New Deal era and went to investigate the plaza. By that time the Addams Homes were among five developments making up the ABLA Homes, a sprawling complex of 167 buildings, and the high ideals of public housing had been swallowed up by urban blight. The sprinklers and wading pool were long gone, the pavement was cracked and strewn with litter, and Miller’s sculptures were chipped, eroded, and covered with graffiti. Less than a fifth of the units at the Addams Homes were still occupied, and most of the apartments surrounding the plaza had been boarded up.

Early last year Lillig began reading news stories about the proposed redevelopment of ABLA. By summer the Chicago Housing Authority had approved plans by the Telesis Corporation in Washington, D.C., to transform the 100-acre complex–including the Robert Brooks Homes, Loomis Courts, the Grace Abbott Homes, and the Jones Apartments–into a mixed-income community of about 3,200 units, split between market-rate homes and public- and affordable-housing apartments. Tim Veenstra, development manager for ABLA, says it isn’t clear whether the Addams Homes will be rehabbed or demolished to make way for new construction. Lillig didn’t see anything about the Animal Court in the preliminary plans or any of the news stories. “I was alarmed by the coverage because it hadn’t even mentioned them,” he says. “I didn’t know if they were being irresponsibly dismissed, or if anyone even knew about them.”

Lillig believes the occupants of ABLA deserve better housing, but he also thinks they deserve public art, so when school let out in June he began a one-man crusade to save the Animal Court. He hooked up with the midwest chapter of the National New Deal Preservation Association and began doing research on Edgar Miller, who’d died eight years earlier at age 94. Heather Becker, president of the chapter, helped coordinate a letter-writing campaign urging CHA and city officials to keep the sculptures in their original location. Another member sent Lillig a detailed roster of about a dozen WPA stone carvers and stonecutters who’d labored on the project. Lillig contacted CHA representatives, got some press in Chicago Journal and the Sun-Times, and talked to sculpture conservator Andrzej Dajnowski, who said he’d be willing to restore the artworks.

The activism seems to have paid off. “We definitely want to keep the sculptures,” says Veenstra, “and the plans are definitely to have them restored so they can be enjoyed by the residents of the community.” Yet the housing authority still has to solicit work bids and find financing, he cautions, and even then the animals may have to be relocated to make way for parking or playgrounds. If that’s the case, the sculptures would be moved to a “prominent location,” like a community center or an existing structure that would be renovated into a public-housing museum. CHA spokesman Francisco Arcaute adds, “If we have to choose between art and housing, absolutely, residents come first.”

For his part, Lillig wants CHA to keep the sculptures where they are and restore the entire plaza, so Chicagoans will understand their original purpose. “If you look at the city landscape, it’s made up of relics from different parts of history,” he says. “And we are all products of that landscape–it helps to shape us. I think public housing needs to be redeveloped in some way, but that the new landscape should include those historical elements….If the sculptures were taken out of their original context, future Chicagoans wouldn’t understand they were part of an overall vision for public-housing residents to make their quality of life better.”

Open-Door Policy

In 1978, after the city council required municipal buildings to reserve a percentage of their construction budgets for public art, the Department of Cultural Affairs established the Chicago Public Art Program to determine how those funds would be spent. Its committee, composed of 13 city officials and four members of the local arts community, meets at least four times a year behind closed doors. But last summer, attorney Scott Hodes threatened to sue the city unless Cultural Affairs opened those doors and notified the public of meetings at least 48 hours in advance, in compliance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Two months ago the city caved: meetings of the public art committee and its project advisory panels (which advise the committee on artists for particular projects) will now be open to the public. Kimberly Costello, spokesperson for Cultural Affairs, says the department should have a schedule for quarterly committee meetings early this month, though meeting dates for the advisory panels are still tentative. Notices will be posted at 20 N. Michigan, where the program’s offices are located, and at the Chicago Cultural Center, where meetings are held. According to Hodes, state senator John Cullerton will introduce an amendment to the Open Meetings Act this month that will require public bodies to announce meetings at least 72 hours in advance and to post meeting times on the Internet.

“It’s a major breakthrough,” says Hodes of the new city policy. “Now any artist or member of the public will have the opportunity to go into a room and observe the process. It’s not going to be a mystery anymore.”

Deanna Isaacs is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.