Chicago, IL – With grants of $1 million from the Builders Initiative and Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundations, and a Community Development Grant through the Chicago Recovery Plan, the National Public Housing Museum has reached its $14.5 million Power of Place Campaign goal. It will be able to break ground on its long-anticipated physical home, an adaptive reuse of the last remaining building of the former Jane Addams Homes at 1322-24 W. Taylor St., this fall.
Dedicated to the belief that all people have the right to a home, NPHM is the nation's first cultural institution founded to preserve and interpret the role of public housing in advancing this essential yet unfulfilled aspiration. Using oral histories, art and material culture, the museum will archive and share stories of hope, achievement, struggle, resistance, resilience and entrepreneurship from a diverse group of former and current public housing residents. By doing so, knowledge gained from the public housing experience can be used to shape and inform innovative public policy reform to reimagine our future communities and society, and the places we call home.
"Housing insecurity is one of the preeminent issues of our time. When people lose their homes, their lives, families, health and finances are disrupted. This cuts across class, race and location. And while public housing has had an enormous and often controversial impact on our nation's history, it has also shaped the way we look at what's essential for the public good," NPHM Executive Director Lisa Yun Lee, Ph.D., explained.
"The Museum draws on the power of place and memory to preserve, promote and propel the right of all people to have a place where they can live and prosper—a place to call home. This mission is grounded in social justice and human rights, and we are tackling it with a multifaceted approach that encompasses culture, activism and entrepreneurship. It's a groundbreaking undertaking, and we wouldn't be here or able to undertake it without our visionary founders and funders."
In the late 1990s, a group of public housing residents dreamt of creating a museum that preserved the collective voices, experiences and histories of public housing residents nationwide. In 2006, Chicago Housing Authority Commissioner Deverra Beverly, also chair of the CHA's Central Advisory Council for all public housing developments, a CHA resident and a local historian, and community activist Peter Pero, connected with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation's Executive Director Sunny Fischer, who was also a former public housing resident, for potential funding.
Recognizing the potential of the public housing residents' dreams, and its potential to reframe the public housing narrative, Fischer joined their effort to create NPHM. With the Chicago Community Trust as fiscal sponsor, the Driehaus Foundation provided seed money, staffing and continued funding. This allowed the museum to incorporate in 2007 and continue its fundraising efforts. Additional grants came from the Ford and Alphawood Foundations. Civic and cultural leaders, scholars, preservationists, city planners and housing advocates joined public housing residents and activists as board members and advisors.
Since its inception, the museum has also received substantial capital donations from the Alvin H. Baum and Lehman Stamm Family Funds; the Conant Family Foundation: the Boeing, Joyce, Pierce Family, Lohengrin and B&D Foundations; the Terra Foundation for American Art; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Lucia Woods Lindley. Generous program funders have included the Kresge, Mellon, Field and Laudau Family Foundations; the Illinois Arts Council and Illinois Humanities; the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at Prince; a City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events City Arts Grant; and Leonard C. Goodman.
Today, NPHM is also proud to note that many housing authorities nationwide have supported this effort. They are driven by the belief that the story of public housing in America, which encompasses residents of every race, ethnicity, age and creed, can have a positive and formative influence on our nation's future.
Former residents, grateful for their experiences in public housing, are among NPHM's most committed supporters. Thoughtfully built projects such as the Jane Addams Homes, designed by acclaimed Chicago architect John Holabird, offered them stable, nurturing and inclusive communities and fulfilling family homes.
"Our family of 10 lived in the Jane Addams Homes from 1960 to 1974. Most of the residents there were Black, and it was a wonderful, economically integrated neighborhood where everybody knew each other. Our lives would have been very different without it," Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of Chicago's New Mount Pilgrim Church and adjunct professor at the McCormick Theological Seminary, recalled.
"Whenever we came in on a cold day, my mother would always say 'it's so nice to come back to a nice, warm home.' Those were her exact words the night she had a heart attack in 1967 at just 44 years old, right after a record-breaking snowstorm. No one could get through the snowdrifts to help her, and she passed. But the community really pulled together to help my father as my youngest sister was just two at the time," he said.
When Ned Lufrano's family of five lived in the Jane Addams Homes from 1938 to 1952, "almost everyone was Jewish or Italian and we were all very poor. But none of us thought there was anything wrong with being poor. I always considered living there an asset, not a hindrance. Life was good. It was a wonderful, family-oriented place," said Lufrano.
"You learned early on that no one was going to give you anything and if you wanted to make something out of yourself you had to get to work." A basketball star at Marshall High School and Ripon College, Lufrano left public housing when he was a sophomore in college. Years later, he sought out a similar environment to the one he experienced in public housing for his own family. He found that kind of community in Chicago's Lakeview, where he raised two sons and still lives today.
Pamela J. Phillips' 21 years in two New York City public housing projects, accrued during stints as a child growing up with her mother and three siblings and as an adult raising her own two children, taught her the meaning of community. "I learned about sharing and caring in a 'village' to create a safe, healthy environment where we all looked out for one another, including each other's kids," she said.
"We kept each other safe, provided each other with essentials when needed and the younger ones ran errands for the elders while they looked after us. It was our 'village.' Many of the moms worked and those who didn't made sure kids got to and from school or got snacks. We very much minded each other's business," Phillips said. "It also provided my mom and me with opportunities for upward mobility—opportunities we may not have had without being in a place where the rents were affordable."
Stories of nurturing communities and successfully launched lives are a major part of public housing's legacy, and the preservation of these stories is critical to the future of housing in America. "For so many people like myself, who lived there for many years, it offered us a true home and gave us a rich history. It's important to preserve those memories, build on the legacy public housing has given our nation and explore what it can offer future generations," Hatch said.
Though NPHM has lacked an official physical home since its inception, it has cultivated and engaged a robust and inclusive community committed to its mission. This diverse group of artists, historians, activists and museum staffers have developed and presented constructive and often transformative educational programs and exhibitions to help visitors connect public housing's multifaceted and historically significant past with the social justice and human rights issues America faces today.
Chief among these programs have been the NPHM Oral History Archives and Corps, which features a recording studio named in honor of revered activist, historian and scholar Dr. Timuel Black, an annual Artist as Instigator residency, an Entrepreneurship Hub and Cooperative Museum Store run by national group of current and former public housing residents and and a series of events and exhibits focusing on issues related to the museum's mission. All have been designed to help visitors understand housing inequities and inspire engagement in innovative public policy reform by reimagining the future of U.S. communities, society and the places Americans call home.
"For the past 14 years, we have been a vibrant museum with award-winning, mission-driven programs despite the lack a permanent home. Our building is designed to teach people about housing and social justice issues in equally innovative ways. As an inventive fusion of didactic and experiential features, it will always be the jewel of our collection when it opens next year," NPHM Board Chair and Cofounder Sunny Fischer said.
"One of its most compelling aspects is that it was once vibrant public housing designed by a world class architect, John Holabird. It is being impeccably restored, complete with its Animal Court, a sculpture garden created by Chicago artist Edgar Miller, and enhanced with new features by equally inspiring artists. The building serves as a reminder not only of the significant architecture and community many public housing residents enjoyed but also of the thousands of public housing units across the U.S. that have been demolished and never replaced," Fischer added.
The last standing structure from the Jane Addams Homes, transferred to NPHM in 2018 by the Chicago Housing Authority, will undergo extensive rehabilitation to become the museum's physical home. It will include the addition of 15 mixed income apartments in the back of the building in a unique partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority and Related Midwest.
Once completed, NPHM will offer engaging programs and exhibits that feature historically significant objects and art. These offerings will present provocative ideas from internationally renowned contemporary thought leaders ranging from academics to artists. The museum's mission will continue to be presenting inclusive, diverse and balanced portrayals of the public housing experience on America and addressing its past, present and future. The Museum will also be an African American Historic Site.
Among the museum's permanent exhibitions will be the Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation Storytelling and Everyday Objects Gallery featuring a rotating collection of objects from public housing residents nationwide; the Public Art Entrance designed by internationally acclaimed artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous; a music room to showcase the many significant works created by public housing residents; and three apartments, restored with historic artifacts, to portray period life for a Jewish family during the birth of public housing, an Italian family adapting to a changing neighborhood and a Black family during the civil rights era. After NPHM's physical home is built, public housing entrepreneurs will also collectively own and operate a retail space onsite.
Over the past century, more than 10 million people across the nation, from all races, ethnicities and creeds, have called public housing home. The breadth and depth of public housing's impact on our nation and to the public good has gone unrecognized. For example, former Americans whose lives were shaped by public housing include public officials such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and President Jimmy Carter; corporate leaders such as former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns; performers like Barbra Streisand, Lily Tomlin, Diana Ross, Elvis Presley, Angela Bassett, Thelonius Monk, Ramsey Lewis, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Jay-Z and Chaka Khan; and sports stars like the NBA's Tony Allen and baseball star Kirby Puckett.
The museum's new home is being designed to encourage the public to discover, learn and build a more just nation through a robust civic life. Ultimately, the exhibitions and programs in NPHM's new home add to the ongoing struggle to achieve social justice. It invites those who believe in the human right to housing to join in preserving history, fostering dialogue and creating change.