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Taylor, Lea Demarest

in: People

Lea Demarest Taylor (June 4, 1883–December 3,1975) — Settlement House Director and Chairman of the Board of the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers


Early Years: Lea Taylor was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of Graham Taylor and Leah Demarest Taylor. Graham Taylor was a fifth-generation Dutch Reform church minister who, at the urging of the Chicago Theological Seminary, moved to Chicago in 1892 and founded the Chicago Commons, a secular settlement house.

Chicago Commons, founded in 1894, was located at first on Union Street in the lower northwest side, serving a neighborhood that was mostly Italian, Scandinavian, and Irish. Just after the turn of the century, the Commons moved to Morgan and Grand streets into a five-story building designed especially for the settlement by the architectural firm of Pond and Pond.

Lea Taylor grew up in the settlement house, along with her siblings. The settlement was a cooperative, with residents performing housekeeping tasks and settlement work alike. As a child, Lea attended Chicago schools, entering high school at the Lewis Institute in 1900. Even as a schoolgirl, her social life revolved around activities at the settlement house, and in 1899, when she was sixteen, she assumed the title, responsibilities, and salary of a full resident at Chicago Commons.

Career: After graduating from Vassar College in 1904, Lea Taylor returned to Chicago Commons as her father’s secretary and assistant. She was involved in editing the periodical The Commons and developed a lifelong interest in local and neighborhood issues, which she effectively combined with her activities in national and international organizations to forge a career in social welfare that lasted even beyond her official retirement in 1954.

Lea Taylor was active in the Chicago Federation of Settlements and attended meetings of the organization with Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, and other Chicago settlement pioneers. She was president of the Chicago Federation of Settlements from 1924-1937 and from 1939-1940. She was president of the National Federation of Settlements from 1930-1934 and 1950-1952. Her involvement with the National Federation of Settlements included work on “Young Working Girls,” a study published in 1913, and “Case Studies of Unemployment,” published in 1931.

Through her membership in the Women’s Trade Union League, Lea Taylor learned about labor organizing, unions and women’s working conditions. She was chairman of the Cotton Dress Industry Wage Board, which created legislation establishing a minimum wage for the industry’s mostly female workforce in Illinois.

In 1909, Lea Taylor became active in the Chicago Recreation Commission, and as chair of the Wider Use of the Schools Committee, succeeded in having city schools opened for recreational use by neighborhood residents after school hours.

In 1911, when Katherine Taylor won an academic fellowship to Europe, Lea Taylor accompanied her sister overseas and used the opportunity to visit Toynbee Hall and other international settlement houses. When she returned in 1912, her father had acquired a new secretary, and Lea Taylor assumed additional administrative responsibilities. In 1917, she became Assistant Head Resident of the settlement house, assuming new responsibilities for budget planning, fund raising and public speaking.

Also in 1917, as the U.S. entered the First World War, Chicago Commons operated draft board Local No. 39. Settlement residents were called upon to interview prospective inductees and to explain induction procedures and policies to neighborhood residents, many of who were recent immigrants.

In 1921, Lea Taylor became head resident of Chicago Commons. The 1920’s and 30’s saw the settlement increasingly occupied with analyzing and responding to the needs of the unemployed and those requiring public relief. The continuing influx of poor people and immigrants into city neighborhoods and the shortage of decent housing resulted in a number of house fires in the neighborhood. Lea Taylor was the first woman to becomes a member of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, and served on coroners’ juries investigating deaths caused by sub-standard housing.

During the 1940s, the neighborhood served by the Chicago Commons underwent racial change as African Americans moved into a previously all white neighborhood. The settlement’s residents responded firmly to white resistance, insisting that neighborhood and settlement resources be shared. Fires in neighborhood buildings persisted, with some of them intended to terrorize African Americans. Chicago Commons and Emerson House, a settlement eight blocks to the west, joined together to form the Chicago Commons Association. William H. Brueckner, head worker at Emerson House was named executive director and Lea Taylor was head resident.

As planning and construction began for developing the Kennedy expressway through their community, Commons neighborhood residents began to move away. The settlement house itself relocated to the former Bowman Dairy Company building in a Polish neighborhood north of Chicago Ave. and west of Ashland.

From 1950 to 1952, as president of the National Federation of Settlements, Lea Taylor focused her energies on housing, integration in cities, poverty programs, and international settlement work. In 1951, she traveled to Europe with Lillie Peck, secretary of the Federation, and visited European settlements. In 1952, in Germany, Lea Taylor participated in a series of institutes and workshops focusing on settlement and social work.

Lea Taylor retired in1954 to her family home in Highland Park, a north shore suburb of Chicago. Even in retirement she was active, remaining on the boards of Chicago Commons, the National Federation of Settlements, and the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council. She also joined the Highland Park League of Women Voters, and was a founder of the Highland Park Committee on Human Relations. In 1960, she traveled to Europe for a reunion of the Unitarian Service Committee. Lea Taylor died on December 3, 1975.

(Source: University of Illinois at Chicago, Special Collections, University Library)