Remembering Hull House

Hull House Museum in ChicagoThe Hull House Museum in Chicago, shown above, was not affected by the closure of the Hull House Association in January. The museum is located in two of the original Hull House settlement buildings founded by Jane Addams (below) in 1889.

The Hull House agency in Chicago made national headlines in January when it abruptly closed its doors after more than 120 years.

The social services organization, founded by social work pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, ran out of money after struggling to raise funds and reduce operating costs for several years in a down economy. About 300 employees lost their jobs and 60,000 people lost the services Hull House provided.

Although the agency’s closing is a significant loss, the services it offered and the legacy it leaves behind will always be remembered, said Jack Hansan, an NASW Social Work Pioneer® and developer of the Social Welfare History Project.

“Under the leadership of Jane Addams and a cadre of dedicated residents who lived and volunteered in Hull House, the agency became the fountainhead of social welfare reform in the U.S. during the Progressive Era,” Hansan said. “It is a significant loss. However, Hull House and Jane Addams will always be remembered for their contributions to American social welfare programs and policies.”

It seems fitting that an organization that originally offered so many firsts in public service was created by Addams, the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, Hansan said. The agency housed the first public baths, playground, kitchen, swimming pool and gymnasium in Chicago, and also offered college extension courses, he said. Some of the first residents included famous social welfare pioneers like Florence Kelley, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, Neva Boyd, Sophonisba Breckenridge and the Abbott sisters, Edith and Grace.

Hull House was also where Hansan’s sister met the man she would marry.

“In 1959, my younger sister, Jean, had expressed a desire to move to Chicago and look for a better job,” Hansan said. “To help her, I telephoned Russell Ballard, the head resident of Hull House (at the time, 1943-1962) and asked if my sister could stay at ‘Jane’s House’ a few days until she could locate an apartment of her own.”

Residents of settlement houses traditionally were required to volunteer some time in the agency, and his sister was assigned clerical work, Hansan said. Ferenc Farkas, a Hungarian refugee who also lived at Hull House during this period, was the telephone receptionist from 5 to 7 p.m. every evening, he said.

“Soon after they met, Jean was teaching Ferenc how to speak better English, and the rest is family history,” Hansan said.

Jane Addams in her youthHull House continued to provide services such as housing assistance and job training over the years, until the economy began to take its toll. The recent recession increased the need for its services, but also made it more difficult for the agency to raise funds, Hansan said.

Agency officials have said Hull House is in millions of dollars of debt, and the decision to close came after a two-year attempt to reduce operating costs. Original plans were to close the agency this spring.

The sudden closing in January came as a shock to many people closely involved with the agency.

“The close of the Hull House agency marks the end of an era,” said Harry Chaiklin, an NASW Social Work Pioneer® and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “It represented a style of social work and a way of getting things done — a way that we don’t really do anymore.”

The Hull House Museum, which is separate from the Hull House agency, remains open, said museum Director Lisa Lee. The museum is part of the College of Architecture and the Arts at University of Illinois at Chicago, she said, “and preserves and interprets the artifacts, memories and diverse, dynamic stories and histories associated with Hull House’s long history of reform and commitment to social justice.”

“We were shocked about the closing and heard at the same time as everyone else in the general public about the situation,” Lee said. “It was a moment of reflection about the success of such a long-lasting institution committed to the common good that provided critical services and a culture of care.”