Posts Tagged ‘Hull House’

Hull House Reopens!

September 8, 2010

Hull House Museum reopened September 9 with a day-long celebration that started at Noon in Daley Plaza, celebrating the 150th birthday of Nobel-prize winning social activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.

Come see what Lisa Lee and Mike Plummer (and my good friend Bob Johnson, who redid the interior) have done with the interpretation, which I reviewed last night:

IT’S GREAT! There is an openness to the overall design that is inviting and a contrast to the ancient stereotype of the house museum. It also more realistically conveys the use of the house, which was full of people and activities, and not a traditional Victorian house.

The interpretation is complex but crisp, innovative in its use of technology without being smitten with technology. In fact, it uses pretty much every kind of interpretation there is, from wall text and vitrines for objects to cell phone audio tours and interactive “find this thing” worksheets.

These are in the rear parlor, which served as a dining room early on, and has old historic books you can look at (and some you can’t, but they are both there) and art from Hull House residents.

I can remember being at a building conservation conference in Sweden three years ago and hearing about cell phone audio tours – Hull House used them even before this reinterpretation – and they are sagely used not to talk about the past alone but link the social justice mission of 19th century Hull House with similar (and sometimes identical) missions today.

I learned a lot in the front parlor, which focuses on key women reformers, Florence Kelley, who fled an abusive husband in the 1890s and helped eliminate child labor; Ida B. Wells, who fought lynching, Julia Lathrop, Ellen Gates Starr and more. Their stories are in circular vitrines that combine objects and text, while the wall mailbox used by residents is repurposed to link to present day issues.

One of the most innovative rooms is the octagonal bay, where there is a sound installation that combines audio files from Hull House residents and commentators with period sounds like streetcars, typewriters, sewing machines and more. Sound history is a relatively new field, and it is exciting to hear it in this context.

The thing that really got me excited when I walked in was the new model of the Hull House complex, lovingly rendered by John Peplinski, who dug even deeper for photos and images than I did when I first traced the history of the buildings back in 2003. The level of detail in the model is amazing, and it is set in front of the famous – but flawed – painting of the 1856 Hull House that was used for the 1960s restoration.

The model is fantastic – you can see the diamond-paned windows and diaper brick patterns so indicative of Pond & Pond’s work, you can see the bridges and balconies and even the TB tent on top of the Crane Nursery. It was very exciting to see it in such detail.

And just next to it, projected on the window – the wonderful 1930s film of Halsted Street by Conrad Friberg, a social documentary of the time that I always show my students (along with the 1997 Halsted Street film by David Simpson). And there it is facing Halsted Street…

Now one of the very exciting things about this reinterpretation is that the second floor is now open to the public. Jane Addams’ bedroom is well rendered with more decidedly Victorian wallpaper (a Morris pint), the famous painting of her longtime companion Mary Rozet Smith, a desk with significant correspondence, childhood memories and family items, her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize and a wall of press clippings that illustrate both her fame and the vitriol directed against “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Another room details the influential pioneering sociological study Hull House Maps and Papers, and another focuses on the Juvenile Justice System pioneered at Hull House.

It is mind boggling to think of all the reforms that came out of this place. Child labor laws. Juvenile justice courts. Housing and income surveys. Hazardous chemical controls in workplaces. Playgrounds. Kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten – they found and reinstalled this century-old plaque commemorating Jenny Dow’s innovation.

At the National Trust we have spent a decade trying to move house museums “beyond the velvet ropes” and this reinterpretation does just that. But the house speaks too, in new ways. A series of “Architectural encounters” demystify everything from wallpaper and paint to the original purplish bricks of the Hull House, buried under a new brick skin in the curious 1960s restoration.

We learn about the meaning of interior finishes and we see that it is BOTH a Victorian house like so many we have seen before but it is also something else.

One of the most felicitous moments for me was reading Jane Addams’ account of how nice and comfortable the dining room was, a typical bourgeoise appreciation of fine accoutrements, and then reading upstairs about her early encounter with poverty as a child seeing the crowded houses of Freeport, Illinois and declaring that she would live in a big nice house but that that house would be in the crowded poor district. Which is exactly what she did with her life. This is not pure benevolence or guilt nor is it some sort of sacrificial asceticism – she wasn’t slumming it, she was bringing her world to theirs and trying to understand both worlds and trying to figure out how to ameliorate the painful parts of society. But she didn’t walk in with the solution, only the desire to build a bridge – Hull House – between the haves and have-nots.

I have said it before and I will say it again, what is fantastic about the history interpreted here is that it is not interpreted as something removed in time or place, but something that happened in this place and is still happening and is still relevant. In the Juvenile Justice room you are invited to write a poem and send it to a prisoner. Because they asked for poems. You are invited to look at Jane’s books and to see the ceramics made by 1930s Mexican immigrant Jesus Torres in the Hull House kilns and you and I and everyone else are invited every Tuesday to Rethinking Soup for free soup and a chance to talk about current issues like food sourcing, nutrition, sustainability. They grow much of the food they serve across the street and they strive to engage all of the issues that the original residents engaged as they sought to understand the entirety of the society and city they lived in and to do something about it.

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House. Museum.

July 10, 2009

The news officially broke yesterday that Landmarks Illinois would cease to be the operating partner for the Farnsworth House, a National Trust Historic Site and one of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most significant buildings. Landmarks Illinois joined John Bryan and the National Trust in buying the Farnsworth House at Sotheby’s auction house in December, 2003, thus saving it from a potentially devastating move away from its riverine location in Plano, Illinois.
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In 2003, the National Trust was already well aware of the problems associated with operating house museums, having held a conference entitled “Are There Too Many House Museums” 18 months earlier. The historic significance of this conference has only swelled in the ensuing seven years, although arguably the Fox River has swelled even more, coming within inches of the house in 2007 and inundating it in 2008, a mere 12 years after the last 100-year flood. Here’s the wardrobe, where you can see the flood damage – and this is only a 12-year old replacement from 1996.
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The added hassle and expense of major repairs occasioned by the floods and by ongoing issues stemming from its age and design led Landmarks Illinois to cut ties after having set up a solid operating procedure and staff, while still losing money. The National Trust, created by Congress in the 1940s for the express purpose of operating house museums, is the acknowledged leader on the issue. Which is why it was the first to ask that key question “Are There Too Many House Museums” and why it has a broad base (some 30 sites) for understanding the issues involved. (Full disclosure – I have been on the boards of both organizations for the last few years.)
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Make no mistake: The Farnsworth House is fantastic. There are many buildings in this world I knew first through photographs and then was disappointed when I saw them live. Farnsworth is not one of them – seeing it for real was a revelation, as all great art is when you encounter it. Many more eloquent people have written about it so suffice to say it is a perfect Greek temple. I will take 100 people there next week on two tours and it is definitely worth the hour’s drive from Chicago and more.
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But the Farnsworth House – like most National Trust sites – is an exception. The United States is full of house museums, most of them run by local historical societies, most of which were formed for the express initial purpose of saving the house of a community founder or other early architectural and historical landmark.
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These are noble goals, and part of the goal is to insure that the entire public can visit and appreciate these sites. We were at one such last week, a 1783 Dutch colonial farmhouse built by the earliest settlers that was saved and preserved by descendants of those settlers way back in 1916. And visited by descendants of those settlers last week, namely my wife and daughters.
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I like these places. I like to visit them and I have also been impressed with how so many of them have done more creative interpretation in recent years. One of our favorite phrases at the National Trust is “beyond the velvet ropes,” which is to say house museums need to break out of the old museum box, take some curatorial risks and become more interactive and dynamic. The reason is obvious. If the velvet ropes stay where they are, you visit the house with your fourth-grade class and then YOU NEVER GO BACK AGAIN because you have already seen it.
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The problem is a basic economic one. To run a museum – especially a house museum – you need some source to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. When the National Trust did a survey several years ago they found that the average house museum took in $8 per visitor and spent nearly $40 per visitor. That means that admissions covered about 20 percent of costs. I have done a little research on this issue and guess what – it was always like that. It was like that in the 1910s when William Sumner Appleton preserved houses for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and funded 80 percent of operations himself. It was like that in 1920s Charleston when a similar society purchased the Manigault House in order to save it – and had to buy it again, twice, within ten years until a major benefactor was found. It was like that when the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation bought the Glessner House in 1966 and basically leased office space in the building and started a docent tour program to subsidize the costs.
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Most historic house museums are a fiscal nightmare. Which ones do well, or at least survive? There are several models. One is to have an endowment which can cover a certain percentage of annual operating costs, and many sites have this. Another is to have an income-producing property, which we have at the Gaylord Building. Another is to raise the volume of tourism to such a high level that it can provide more than 20 percent of operating, which they do at Fallingwater. Another is to raise the admission prices high enough to cover the costs. This can work at world famous sites, but it patently won’t work at local historical societies whose purpose is to save the building for the people. Another is to have a successful gift shop, a source of income the Frank Lloyd Wright sites have had good fortune with, and of course this is also the model many traditional museums use to make ends meet.
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Another model is the one no one wants to talk about but is becoming increasingly necessary in order to preserve these buildings: put them back in private hands. The fact of the matter is that the economics of a home and economics of a public facility are completely different – people make economically unjustifiable decisions about spending money on their homes all the time – just look out of the airplane window at all of the swimming pools. Private owners also mean less wear and tear on historic fabric. Fallingwater spent many millions correcting deflection of its slabs and acknowledges it will need to do so again before long due to the volume of tourists.
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I was an early advocate of a private owner saving the River Forest Women’s Club because it was clear no public owner had the money to restore it after many years of deferred maintenance. The problem with private ownership is that it defeats the basic impulse of having everyone appreciate the house, although in many cases the properties are made available to the public on a limited or annual basis, in events like Oak Park’s Wright Plus every May. Most properties covered by preservation easements are private, but the easements require some sort of token annual opening to the public, which is common on community and neighborhood house and garden walks. I remember being in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the 1990s and having the good fortune of being there the only day of the year the Hermitage was open, so we were able to descend this 60-foot spiral staircase into the earth and see it. Public ownership is also of course subject to public monies – witness the indefinite closing of a dozen Illinois historic sites last year, or the drastic reduction in opening hours that has affected other sites. Sometimes once a year is a lot.
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By far the most exciting model for making a house museum economically viable is the one that Hull House in Chicago and Brucemore in Cedar Rapids have used: become the center of the community, a place where things are always changing, always interesting, and always interactive. To do this requires discarding curatorial imperatives or at least finding space for dynamic interaction with the public. It also requires an uncommon leadership ability and uncommon creativity.
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At the National Trust, we will continue to work on these sticky issues and come up with new models, just as we will continue to work on the Farnsworth House, raising an endowment so it can maintain public access as much as possible.

Hull House Again

March 10, 2009

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Well, I took my grad students to the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and Director Lisa Lee did it again – wowed everyone with her enthusiasm and creativity in reimagining what a house museum is. Not that Jane Addams’ Hull House was ever a typical house museum – preserved under duress during the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the house was sort of a shrine to Addams herself and the institution she created, which still exists elsewhere. It was also subject to an absolutely bizarre restoration – you can see my 2003 research on the subject at http://tigger.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/urbanexp/main.cgi?file=new/show_doc.ptt&doc=834&chap=32.
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Addams was all about the radical democracy of speech and free interchange of ideas, and solidarity much more than service. The “residents” of Hull House were people who could live elsewhere but chose to live among working class immigrants, not simply to “help” them but to be with them and learn from them. It was a melding of public and private space and it was an extension of the ideals of a nurturing family to the entire city. I learn something new everytime I go there. They have even started the cell phone tours that will soon be EVERYWHERE
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Anyway, Lisa reported that they recently received an NEH grant to put into practice her radical reimagining of this historic site. They are going to restore Jane Addams’s bedroom while they continue to make the main floor of the house a hybrid interactive museum space that interprets the many stories of Hull House, of the women (and some men) who gave us public health, public schools, playgrounds, parks, child labor laws, universal suffrage and a whole lot of art. Lisa talked about art today and it was a taut reminder that art must be in the everyday because it acculturates the other things we do. I suppose many schools will cut art in the name of the current economic conditions, as they often do, but it is no more separable from the body politic than your left arm. Yes, you can cut it off, but the rest won’t function nearly as well. Lisa also repeated the things she learned about TRUTH in South Africa. There are four kinds of truth: Forensic truth – the provable, scientific kind; narrative truth, which is what each of us tells ourselves about ourselves and our experiences; dialogic truth, which is the truth we share with others and thus not identical to our personal narrative truth; and finally restorative truth, which is the hardest of all because…I think because it requires a reckoning of all three other truths. This is what they were doing at Hull House HISTORICALLY and what they are doing there NOW.
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I have blogged before about the “Rethinking Soup” they do at Hull House every Tuesday that carries not just the MESSAGE of the building but its historic PRACTICE into the present day, fomenting modern conversations about things like food and health and sustainability just as the Hull House residents debated these subjects for generations in the same space.
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This is how historic interpretation should be done; a combination of third person, second person and first person, not one or the other, but all of them. That is the beauty of Jane Addams’ original Hull House – it was experimental and open, it evolved constantly, and it was constantly reinvented and reinvigorated by new blood. Which is what every museum – every institution really – needs to be to be relevant and worth preserving.
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Hull House was saved at a time when house museums were shrines, when they told singular, uninflected and generally SAFE stories. Jane Addams’ Hull House museum is one of the best in the world right now because it is always experimenting, never safe and fueled by the energy of people like Lisa Lee. Half of my students wanted to BE her after the visit. Her energy is that infectious. How do you bottle that? That is the great challenge of interpretation, which if it works, is a constant reinterpretation, and like Einsteinian physics, that interpretation understands that the interpretation itself is affected not only by the interpreters but by the viewers. Hence, it is best if they are both, which they are at Hull House. Go. See for yourself. Better yet, see, hear, touch, taste and feel for yourself. Better yet again, do for yourself. It is the story of transformation, of immigration, of a constant arriving and redefining, of the formation and reformation of self and society.

2010 UPDATE: See my posting on the brand new reinterpretation of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum HERE!

Hull House Revisited

October 3, 2008

So I took my First Year Program Residential College Research Studio I class to Hull House on Tuesday. I blogged about Hull House in Spring 2007, gushing about how they were reinventing what it meant to be a house museum. Well, it is all true, thanks to Director Lisa Lee and her able staff, now including SAIC HPRES alum Weston Davey. We were there for “Rethinking Soup,” a weekly free soup kitchen-and-discussion session that fills the historic Dining Hall. Two programs on nutrition and food stimulated a participant discussion on everything from vegetarianism to sustainability. Books on the topic and crayons were in easy reach along with whole wheat rolls on the butcher-paper-covered tables. Several of my students spoke up during the discussion, which was excellent of them.

Our class also had another discussion on immigration, which the Hull House people set up via a visual language game – about 40 photos on the wall meant to start a discussion on immigration. Our group got into it well, and the students have a lot of such experiences, since many of their parents and even some of them were, in fact, recent immigrants. We of course toured the house, saw the latest in interpretation, which still includes the excellent public-participation component where visitors are asked to choose which of three captions should adorn the portrait of Jane Addams’ longtime companion Mary Rozet Smith.

They also have a very good film about the legacy of Hull House, as well as displays on many of its missions, ranging from day care and education to peace activism, crafts (the Hull House kilns) and their pioneering sociological study. Oh, there is also nutrition and public health and labor reform and all sorts of other mischief cooked up in the block of buildings once there. They even have a model of that block, now two false shells (with real interiors) of the old mansion and Dining Hall.

We come here as part of a class that is looking at different ways of interpreting history and I was struck again by how Lisa Lee has interpreted history in the most effective way possible: by continuing it. In our immigration discussion, in our nutrition discussion over squash soup, we were doing what Jane Addams and the Women of Hull House did in 1890 and 1910 and 1940 – discussing issues of the day in a free and open forum. You don’t have to tell people what happened there, because what the visitors are doing IS what happened there. And it is still happening there. There is no plaque, no sculpture, no display case, no film, no living history reenactment that can exceed that. Not only is the visitor interpreting the site by participating in the type of forum engendered in that Dining Hall, they are extending and expanding that history. I don’t know that I have ever found a better example of how history is interpreted and I don’t know if I have ever experienced more clearly the reality that history is a thing that began in the past and is not over yet. It doesn’t matter that the architecture was so badly restored in 1965, because the historic significance of this building is powerfully alive.