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Lack of Funding, Concern Halts Restoration of Historic Edgar Miller Sculptures

In the middle of an open field—the former site of the Jane Addams Homes housing development–white tents surrounded the cracked remains of seven crumbling limestone sculptures as guests snapped photos and discussed the future of the objects.

The 2007 ceremony was organized to celebrate the forthcoming restoration of the Edgar Miller“Animal Court” sculptures from the Jane Addams Homes, but so far only one of the sculptures has been restored.

2003/4: Arrigo Park & Jane Addams Homes ABLA (...
Jane Addams Homes, 2003; Image by fake is the new real via Flickr

The sculptures, owned by the Chicago Housing Authority, were moved to the restoration studio of Andrzej Dajnowski, who has estimated the cost of restoration at over $100,000.

“The sculptures are in pretty rough shape because most of the detail is gone,” Dajnowski said.

Only $10,000, enough to restore one of the smaller sculptures, has been provided for restoration efforts, according to Dajnowski. This money was provided by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, an organization that focuses on historical preservation and support of the visual and performing arts.

“We thought the $10,000 would spur others to join the effort to restore the sculptures, but so far, very few—if any—people have joined the effort,” Richard Cahan, program officer at the Driehaus Foundation said. “Economic times have changed dramatically since we gave that grant. We don’t have the money to spearhead this,” he said.

The sculptures have been sitting unfunded in Dajnowski’s studio for four years, and he says the CHA has still not paid the storage fees required to keep them there.

The sculptures are commissioned art from the Works Progress Administration, an agency created during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to provide the unemployed with jobs.

Nancy Flannery, treasurer for the Midwest Chapter of the National New Deal Preservation Association was involved in the preservation efforts leading up to the sculptures’ removal ceremony and helped the NNDPA make attempts at raising funds for the project.

“A campaign was started to raise funds to have the sculptures restored, but it fizzled out,” Flannery said.

But Flannery still believes the sculptures, originally part of a spray pool and playground for children living in the Jane Addams Homes, are worth restoring.

“These sculptures symbolize a time when government housing projects were intended to raise up the people living in them, not just warehouse them,” Flannery said. “These sculptures need to be restored and used for their original purpose.”

According to Jordan Glover, Programs and Communications spokesperson for the National Public Housing Museum, the sculptures will be restored—eventually.

“We still plan to restore the sculptures, but we do not have a schedule or time frame at this point,” Glover said.

The National Public Housing Museum is scheduled to open in 2012 in the last remaining building from the Jane Addams Homes, but even that is uncertain. Like the restoration effort for the sculptures, the museum itself lacks funding. If the museum opens its doors and raises the money to have the sculptures restored, the CHA is expected to place them at the museum, according to Glover.

However, John Lillig, a former student and English teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep, a school near the site of the Jane Addams Homes, thinks otherwise.

Lillig wants the sculptures to be restored on site in their original setting because he said they were a revolutionary part of public housing in Chicago.

“It seemed so contrary to the usual view of public housing as drab; it was this idealistic vision of how people should live,” Lillig said.

In Lillig’s opinion, the new housing development being built in the area, Roosevelt Square, has not continued this celebration of art.

“This was the original vision of a livable environment, and that’s not anywhere in the current plan,” he said.

Lillig became concerned about the fate of the sculptures when the demolition of the Jane Addams Homes was first discussed in 2002, so he took action.

“I tried to call and email any papers where anyone wrote anything about the Jane Addams Homes,” Lillig said. “Eventually someone from the NNDPA called me.”

The NNDPA, under the leadership of Heather Becker, the association’s vice president, began to spread the word about the sculptures, stressing their historical significance, Flannery said.

“We organized an email campaign to raise awareness, held a special lecture focusing on Edgar Miller and Heather arranged for the sculptures to be moved to the studio in 2007,” Flannery said.

“After that, things start to get mysterious,” Lillig said. Lillig said he heard very little about the sculptures after the move, even after making contact with the CHA.

“I don’t think anyone over there is engaged,” Lillig said.

Jeff Huebner, member of the Chicago Art Critics Association and co-author of “Urban Art: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures,” agrees.

Huebner said Chicago, as well as the CHA, does not realize what a treasure they have in these sculptures and often neglect historic art, favoring internationally known artists over locals.

“Almost anywhere else, Miller would be hailed as one of the great artistic visionaries of the 20thcentury. Here, hardly anybody knows who he is and cares. He’s virtually ignored,” Huebner said.

Similarly, Brad Hunt, an associate professor of social science and history at Roosevelt University, teaches a course on the history of city planning. He said the statues were not only innovative as art, but they also played a large role in the community around the Jane Addams Homes.

“The sculptures were important pieces of public art in a time when the concept of public art for the purpose of interactivity was quite new. Before this, public sculpture was monumental and not to be climbed on,” Hunt said. “Art is crucial in low-income communities because it gives residents a sense of being special. It says: ‘This community has special qualities, and public space matters,’” Hunt said.

Hunt is also the author of “Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing,” and said the CHA should show more concern in regard to the sculptures.

“For many, the animal sculptures are all that is left of their former homes, and I think it’s not too much to ask that some effort be made into their preservation,” Hunt said.

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