One of my favorite series of exhibits here at the museum is called Architectural Encounters, where we use design features of the building to tell its story or the story of the reformers who lived and worked here.
We have five or six spread throughout the museum and are thinking about how we can expand – what new features can we interpret?
We’re also developing a companion booklet. Not a full-on book, but perhaps forty or fifty pages which further develop the information displayed on the wall labels as well as discussing other ways in which the building tells its story.
The architectural encounters have been up for nine months. I’m just now getting around to writing the book. What follows is a rough (extremely. Like a gravel road after weeks of summer rain.) draft of the introduction to the book. I like it, but will probably reread it later this week and hate every word. Self-loathing: it’s my process.
Let me know what you think. And enjoy!
Jane Addams was a builder.
Her life’s work was dedicated to constructing a framework of support for workers, immigrants, women, and all those who sought a just society. She forged ties between a rising middle class and individuals new to the American experience. Addams and other Hull House reformers would craft new ideas that influenced the ways America worked, and lived, and learned.
As the social and political activities of the Hull House Settlement grew, so did its built environment. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr moved into the second floor of the former country home of philanthropist Charles J. Hull in September of 1889. Within a year they had leased the entire house and built the first new building in what would become the Hull House Settlement complex. Thus began an ambitious construction campaign that would see over a dozen buildings built between 1890 and 1913.
Jane the Builder didn’t just engage in new construction. She also modified existing buildings, never being afraid to add a new level here, infill or open up a new doorway there; she required that the Settlement buildings grow, change, and adapt to meet the needs of the moment.
Under her eye, the buildings of the Hull House Settlement were in a constant state of growth and adaptation. While Hull House reformers were changing the face of American progressivism, the Hull House Settlement was changing the face of Chicago’s Near West Side.
However, the same adaptability and dynamics which characterized the creation and growth of the Hull House Settlement complex pose challenges when seeking to preserve and interpret the buildings related to that legacy. After all, why should we calcify our buildings at a single point in time when the significance of the Hull House Settlement is not associated with one specific historic date, but rather a continuum of social reform and advocacy which took place over decades? If character defining features are those physical attributes that make a building unique, what are those features at the Hull House Museum? Is it enough for us to consider a round-arched window opening, a Corinthian column, or a hipped roof without considering those who influenced them or were influenced by them? Is it enough to discuss the building’s architectural features divorced from their social connections?
It is not.
In its “This Place Matters” campaign, the National Trust for Historic Preservation seeks to start conversations within communities about what places are important and how best to preserve them. Here at the museum, we ask ourselves the same questions. Why does this place matter? Because, as they stand today, the museum buildings are a record of their time. They represent the buildup of over one hundred and twenty years of history and context. The accumulation and change over time of the building’s architectural features add texture and complexity to the story of Jane Addams and the Hull House reformers. As a museum, we’re faced with a unique convergence. If museums typically house artifacts that tell stories about the subject matter at hand, then in our case the buildings themselves are the largest artifacts in our collection. They can be researched, interpreted, and displayed just like any other exhibit. Like all the other things under plexiglas vitrines or stored away in cabinets, the museum buildings embody not only the history of Jane Addams and the Hull House settlement, but of those that designed and built these spaces.
Museum visitors are often ask what parts of the buildings are original and what parts are modern reproductions. More often than not, the modern pieces are appreciated for their aesthetics, but the original features are approached with reverence. When presented with the authentic, we feel a sense of connection, a sense of reality, which is sometimes lacking in our modern day to day experience. Buildings aren’t just four walls and a roof where stuff happens. They come to represent the collection of personalities, experience, and history of all those that live, learn, and work within. Jane Addams recognized something similar when she talked about the Settlement complex “cloth[ing] in bricks and mortar” the activities of the Hull House reformers.
This, then, is how we best preserve the legacy of Jane Addams and the Hull House Settlement. We interpret not just how the building looked but also how it was used, and how the use and change was reflected in the built environment. For Jane Addams, to remain effective the Hull House Settlement complex must change and adapt. The same is true of the Hull House Museum. But as we change and adapt, if we are able to conserve and interpret the building as a record of its time we can ensure that the works of Jane Addams the Builder continue to educate and influence future generations of reformers.