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Rebecca Garnaat

Historic Preservation and Public Housing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

        Before, during and after World War I there was a large movement of people coming to Chicago hoping to find jobs in industry. This influx of population intensified an already severe housing shortage, especially among poor and low-income families. A solution had to be found.

The Ida B. Wells housing project was the fourth public housing works created by the Public Works Administration (PWA) in the Chicago area. Though planning phases for the Ida B. Wells homes began as early as 1934, construction was not completed until 1941. In the meantime, the PWA had been dismantled and the newly formed Chicago Housing Authority assumed control of the project in 1937.

Public housing before World War II was drastically different from public housing today. Housing projects were racially segregated, as dictated by federal mandate. The Ida B. Wells homes were no exception. In fact, they were the first low-income housing built exclusively for African-Americans in the city of Chicago. The Ida B. Wells homes were not poor housing, but rather housing for low-income families, a small but important distinction.

Preservationists find it relatively easy to garner support for preserving a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home or a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. But what about those buildings that don’t have such popular support but still carry great historical significance? Historic preservation should not be exclusively about the grand, the beautiful and the appealing, it should be about history: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Slowly, one by one, the projects are coming down, the people are being relocated, but the problems are not being solved. At one time public housing was considered a desirable place to live and raise a family, it was lauded as a giant step forward in social thought. Today our projects are centers for crime, drugs and poverty, hardly ideal places to raise children. Is architecture to blame? Is it the fault of the government? Is the solution to tear down the projects, relocate the inhabitants, and pretend the problems never existed?

This thesis will discuss the historical beginnings of the Ida B. Wells homes, their evolution and devolution, and the importance for preservation of at least a part of this social experiment so that past failures will not be repeated.



           Rebecca Garnaat received a Bachelor of Science in Historic Preservation in 2001 from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Rebecca has interned at the Chicago Historical Society and participated in an architectural field study of the church San Giovanni Battista in San Gemini, Italy. She is a member of several local historic preservation advocacy groups.


Thesis Advisor: Tim Wittman,  Adjunct Assistant Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Historic Preservation

Thesis Reader: Charlie Pipal, Instructor, Historic Preservation



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