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Chicago Commons

Chicago Commons Memorial Clock Dedication, 1912
Chicago Commons Memorial Clock Dedication, 1912

Chicago Commons

Introduction: Chicago Commons was established in the fall of 1894 and modeled on Hull House. Founder Graham Taylor had come to Chicago Theological Seminary to teach applied Christianity and wanted to live in an immigrant, working-class area. With his wife and four children, he moved to an Irish, German, and Scandinavian neighborhood in the northwest part of the city. As other residents joined them, this settlement house started a kindergarten, clubs and classes, and a civic forum for the discussion of current events. In 1901, it constructed a five-story building on Grand Avenue with a gymnasium, auditorium, activities rooms, and living quarters for two dozen residents.

Lea Taylor succeeded her father as director in 1922 and remained in that post until 1954. She adjusted the settlement program to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking neighbors in the 1930s and African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. Chicago Commons took the lead among Chicago settlements in fighting for adequate relief stipends and job programs during the Great Depression and in promoting racial integration in its neighborhood. But in 1947 the city of Chicago announced plans to build a freeway through that neighborhood, and the settlement merged with Emerson House to become Chicago Commons Association in 1948. The Grand Avenue building was sold and the proceeds used to establish other community centers which sponsored activities but no longer housed residents. The Chicago Commons Association was administering six such centers and three summer camps at the time of Lea Taylor’s death in 1975. Since then, Chicago Commons has continued to provide a variety of social services in neighborhoods with few resources.

(Source: Encyclopedia of Chicago.

NoteFor users interested in a view of Chicago Commons, staff, number of volunteers, projects and programs in the year 1910, below is a description of the organization published in the HANDBOOK OF SETTLEMENTS and written by two settlement pioneers, Robert Archey Woods and Albert J. Kennedy. and published by The Russell Sage Foundation of New York in 1911.

Chicago Commons 955 Grand Avenue, corner Morgan Street (19oo-). Summer Camp, Camp Commons, Elgin, Ill.

Establ1shed: May 1, 1894, by Graham Taylor, with three students, Herman F. Hegner, Otis H. Holmes and E. L. Reed, in the rented rooms of a private family at 124 West Erie Street. October 1, 1894, Mr. Taylor personally leased the stranded old family residence at 140 N. Union Street, and eight men and four women established residence. In June, 1895, Professor Taylor and his family entered upon residence. The settlement was early defined as “the home of a group of persons blessed with more or less of the privileges which the world calls culture, who choose to live where they seem to be most needed.” Chicago Commons Association was organized and incorporated in 1895, “to provide a center for a higher civic and social life, to initiate and maintain religious, educational, and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”

Maintained by individual contributions, by the co-operation of the neighbors using the house (averages $1,4oo a year), and by the income from a small endowment fund.

Neighborhood. “The racial transformation from the northern to the southern Europeans, which has been steadily progressing for several years, so suddenly increased in pace and volume within the past four years as to bring an acute crisis to the work. Families which had always been stand-bys in the neighborhood and at the house, moved away by the score. Members who had been the main dependence in our clubs and in neighborhood organizations centering at the house or elsewhere, scattered so widely that they could no longer attend, although many struggled long and hard to do so. Whole clubs were obliged to transfer their meeting place to centers nearer their new homes far to the west. Their space was taken by societies of immigrants, all of whose members in some instances had emigrated from some one town in their fatherland across the seas. Thus a neighborhood fellowship of Italians transplanted itself from Brindisi in Italy to the 17th Ward of Chicago and under the roof of Chicago Commons. But these transplanted village or town neighborships cannot long survive the irresistible tendency of casual employment to scatter such groups. In the place of every German, Scandinavian and Irish family removing, immigrant families still stranger to our American life and conditions arrive. Like the surf upon the sand, each new wave of immigration from southern Italy, Sicily, Poland, Armenia and Greece, breaks over us here, where twenty-four or more nationalities meet and try to live and work together.”—Chicago Commons, 1894-191o.

Activities. I. Efforts To Better Distr1ct Conditions, (1) Housing.—Efforts to promote better housing conditions by personal influence with neighbors and landlords in their homes and in club or public meetings; by publishing articles in the settlement literature and the city press; and chiefly by cooperation with the city health department, the City Homes Association, and with the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, which is now (1910) conducting an investigation of housing conditions at the request of the commissioner of health, and under the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation.

(2) Streets and Refuse.—Co-operation with the street cleaning department and the ward superintendent was begun by having a resident serve as inspector under commission from the city. Efforts to secure better paving, lighting and sanitary service in co-operation with the aldermen of the ward and through committees of the Woman’s Club and the Chicago Commons Council.

(3) Health.—One of the principal centers used by the Visiting Nurse Association, the Tuberculosis Institute, the milk commission, the commissioner of health, and various medical charities. In the summer of 1910, the entire third floor of the Chicago Commons building was placed at the disposal of the Infant Welfare committee, in which the commissioner of health joined with the United Charities to reduce the excessive infant death rate by maintaining a Fresh Air station for sick babies, with nurses and physicians in attendance.

(4) Baths.—The few shower baths and tubs which for years were the only bathing facilities open to the public, are now superseded by bath rooms in public schools, a municipal bath house, and the showers and swimming pool at West Park, Number One.

(5) Play Spaces.—Opened the first and for many years the only playground in its ward, on two building lots rented for the purpose, which helped lead the way to Chicago’s unparalleled playground development. A playground of nine acres with one of the best field houses in the city is now located in the ward, but nearly a mile from the settlement. Half the block on which the Commons’ little playground was located is now occupied by a public playground maintained by the special park commission of the city of Chicag0, on which the warden served for three years. The secretary of the Playground Association of Chicago is a resident.

(6) Public Schools.—Worked to secure better school buildings and facilities for the neighborhood. The fine new Washington School building opposite the settlement is one of the best in the city, providing not only modern equipment for school purposes, and for the large adult night school, but also fine facilities for neighborhood center work, which has recently been authorized by the board of education. The settlement conducts a study hour for school children and pays especial attention to such as are backward. The Pestalozzi-Froebel Kindergarten and Training School at Chicago Commons demonstrated the need of kindergartens in the public schools of the district, where it was the only one for years. It still thrives after every school building has a kindergarten holding two sessions daily.

(7) Public Library.—For several years the only center for library extension in its part of the city. Since 1906, Professor Taylor has been on the board of directors of the Chicago Public Library, and as chairman of the Committee on Branches has promoted library extension throughout the city in opening reading rooms and circulating branches in field houses at the public playgrounds and recreation centers, and in public school buildings. A delivery station is located at the house.

(8) Labor.—Chicago Commons has always stood openly for industrial justice both to employers and employes; has sought by conferences and individual effort to improve the relations between them; and has endeavored to better industrial conditions through organization, agitation, education, publication and legislation. Liberty of thought and freedom of speech have steadily been maintained, not only on the Commons “free floor” (1896-1903) but also in articles contributed from the settlement to The Commons, Charities and the Commons, The Survey, and to labor papers, employers’ periodicals, the religious press and the Chicago daily papers. The warden has many times acted on boards of arbitration for the settlement of industrial differences, but always as third arbitrator and only at the invitation of both parties to the dispute. He took part in the settlement of the building trades lockout of 19oo and the teamsters’ strike of 1905. By appointment of the governor he served on two commissions authorized by the legislature, one to draft the present law for protection from dangerous machinery, enacted in 1907, and the other, the Mining Investigating Commission, to protect life and conserve the coal deposits in the mining industry of Illinois. This commission’s bill for protection from f1re in mines was enacted after the great disaster at the St. Paul Coal Mine in Cherry, Illinois, where Mr. Taylor served with the commission in investigating and relieving the conditions at the time of the catastrophe.

(9) Politics.—After two years of acquaintanceship with political conditions and those responsible for them, a non-partisan political club was organized at Chicago Commons, called at first the 17th Ward Civic Federation, and latterly the 17th Ward Community Club. In co-operation with, but independent of, the Municipal Voters League, on the executive committee of which Mr. Taylor has served for fifteen years, this independent ward club has helped swing the balance of power between parties, and chiefly within party lines; and has been able to elect a reputable and capable alderman in eleven of the past twelve aldermanic elections. In 1902 an independent was elected to the legislature in a notoriously corrupt senatorial district. The house is still a center for the desperate effort to rescue legislative politics from the shame to which it has subjected the state for many years. The county judge connected with the election commissioners’ off1ce publicly gave credit to the Chicago Commons ward as one in which the election laws were known and obeyed better than almost anywhere else in the city. This may be due in part to the sentence of two clerks of election to a term in state prison for altering a precinct vote. The wrong was righted by seating the independent who thus had been counted out. Since that time fraud and violence have been banished from the polling places, and the “solid” voting by nationalities has been split up between the parties by the assurance of safety at the polls. The corruption and inefficiency of the police department was vigorously and publicly attacked from Chicago Commons for several years, until the discipline and law enforcement under the present superintendency radically changed for the better. The warden is now serving on the vice commission authorized by the city council and appointed by the mayor, to advise the administration as to a public policy relative to the social evil.

(10) Public Service.—Herman F. Hegner: ward inspector of streets and alleys (1895-1897). Robert E. Todd: ward inspector of streets and alleys (1897-1899). Ida E. Hegner, Marian Cookingham, and Helen D. Taylor: public school teachers (1894-1903). John Palmer Gavit: organizer of public playground work in school yards; chairman of volunteer committee in co-operation with board of education (1898). Raymond Robins: first superintendent of municipal lodging house (1901-1904). Henry F. Burt: probation officer, juvenile court (1903-1906). Charles Burt: probation off1cer, juvenile court (1904-1905). James Mullenbach: superintendent of municipal lodging house (1903-1909). Allen F. Burns: city council’s commission on building code, tenement house division (1908-1909); advisory board of Municipal Voters League, member of committee on industrial exhibit. Graham Romeyn Taylor: special agent, United States Census Bureau, acting as chief of inspectors under the supervisor for Chicago and vicinity (1910). J. DuBois Hunder: precinct judge of the election (1908); census inspector (1910). Graham Taylor: special park commission (1903-1906); director Chicago Public Library (1906 ff.); Chicago Plan Commission (1909ff.); Illinois Industrial Commission to protect the health, safety and comfort of employes (1908-1909); advisory committee to the Cook County board of commissioners (1909 ff.); Illinois Mining Investigating Commission (1909 ff.); Chicago Vice Commission (1910 ff.); precinct judge of election (1911).

II. General Propaganda.—Chicago Commons has most effectively promoted public education. For several years (1896-1903) it maintained a “free floor” discussion, at a time when there was little opportunity or toleration for free speech in Chicag0, which was discontinued only after it had completed its mission, and when it had opened the way to organize for constructive work in politics and civic betterment. Training for citizenship, both indirectly and by direct educational effort, is recognized to be the most imperative obligation and opportunity of Chicago Commons. The ministry of interpretation thus begun, was more widely continued by The Commons, a monthly magazine, founded and edited by John Palmer Gavit, 1897-1899, and continued by Graham Taylor, Graham Romeyn Taylor and Edwin Balmcr, 1899-1905. Since The Commons was combined with Charities, under the titles Charities and The Commons, 19051909, and The Survey, 1909 ff., Professor Taylor has served as Associate Editor and Graham Romeyn Taylor as a member of the staff with headquarters in Chicago. Professor Taylor has also contributed a weekly editorial under his own name in the Saturday evening Chicago Daily News since 1902, devoted to interpreting industrial, civic, social, economic and political conditions and movements from the settlement point of view. For four years (1896-19oo) economic conferences were conducted at Chicago Commons and also in co-operation with Hull-House.

Chicago Commons has maintained close relations with universities and professional schools. Chicago Theological Seminary, in the faculty of .which the warden has served as professor of social economics since 1892, has utilized the settlement in the training of its students for the ministry. The University of Michigan for eight years (1897-1905) was represented in the summer work of the settlement by a Fellow appointed by the department of sociology. Auburn Theological Seminary has for six years (1905 ff.) maintained a summer fellowship. Classes from the University of Wisconsin, the Lutheran Evangelical Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago, Beloit College, and lay training schools located in Chicago, frequently visit the house to inspect the work and to receive its interpretation of life.

A principal outgrowth of the Commons is the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, founded (1903) by Professor Taylor who has continued to be its president. For four years the school was conducted by the settlement with the co-operation of President Harper and some of the professors of the extension division of the University of Chicago. In 1908 it was incorporated as an independent school. In the founding and development of the school Chicago Commons and Hull-House have taken the initiative, Julia C. Lathrop acting as vice president, Jane Addams as associate director of research work, Sophonisba P. Breckinridge and Edith Abbott as directors, Grace Abbott and Victor von Borosini serving on the staff of lecturers. Other Chicago settlements furnish special lecturers. During seven years the school has enrolled for one or more terms of training in civic, social and philanthropic work, 929 students. The Commons furnishes temporary residence to many students of the school.

Maintains day nursery; kindergarten; milk station; penny savings bank; clubs for children beginning with kindergarten age, for boys, for girls, for young people, men and women, with social, civic, political, domestic, musical, athletic, dramatic, and co-operative interests; department of household arts, with classes for children and adults in cooking, housekeeping, laundry, sewing, embroidery, dressmaking, millinery, home nursing, home sanitation, and household furnishings; manual training and arts and crafts; classes in woodwork, reed, bent iron, hammered copper and brass, etching, clay, leather, printing, bookbinding, drawing, sketching, photography, painting, rugweaving, stencilling; gymnasium work for boys, girls, young men and women in physical culture, apparatus work, folk-dancing, gymnastic dancing, games and athletic events; music lessons in voice, pian0, violin, mandolin, musical history club; girls’ glee club; choruses for boys and for girls; study hour for school children; lessons in English and citizenship for foreigners; pleasant Sunday afternoon gathering; concerts; stereopticon lectures, entertainments, plays; council of delegates from clubs. Besides these activities, Chicago Commons is the meeting place of the Pestalozzi-Froebel Kindergarten Training School; the Tabernacle Congregational Church; a Greek Protestant Church; Greek orthodox church service; the Armenian Religious Society; Armenian political and educational societies; the Catholic Order of Foresters; La Giovane Puglia; Arts and Professions Society (Italian); the Carbonieri (Italian); and occasional meetings of many other societies. Summer Work.—Day picnics and excursions; sending children and mothers for two weeks’ country outings; babysaving work and home visiting and instruction; camp for boys, girls and young people.

Former Locat1ons. 124 West Erie St., May 1-October 1, 1894; 140 North Union St., 1894-19oo.

Res1dents. Men 8, women 15. Volunteers. Women 85, men 8. Warden. Graham Taylor, May, 1894-.


12 Replies to “Chicago Commons”

  1. I lived in the Talcott School district from 1957 to 1969. I went to Emerson House as a child for after school activities then worked in the office about 1966 to 1968.


    • Thank you for the question about Emerson House. You are correct that it was a “child care place.” Historically, the relationship with Chicago Commons was the result of a merger in 1948. You can find considerably more information if you Google either Chicago Commons or Emerson House. Best Wishes, JEH

    • Dear Pam Brueckner Tannura: Thank you for writing. I had the pleasure of meeting your father when I was directing a settlement house in Cincinnati and met him at functions organized by the National Federation of Settlements. Best wishes, Jack Hansan

  3. I attended the Chicago Commons Kindergarten at the age of four, about 1934. Both my parents worked at the time and were Italian immigrants. Am now a registered Architect and look back at how my parents through the kindness of the staff helped them and their children improve their lives. I do remember a name that has stayed with me all these years her name, I believe was Ms Ingrim. I would be interested in knowing more about her.

  4. I enjoyed your introduction to the Chicago Commons and Hull House. I am researching
    adoption, which will be on Kindle soon. I’ve been looking everywhere for a picture of
    Victor von Borosini. Do you have one available that I might use or know where one
    might be found? Thank you very much for you time and consideration. Mary Payne

    • Ms. Payne: I am sorry to say I don’t have any suggestion other than Google Images or Harvard University as potential sources of an image of Baron von Borosini. Regards, Jack Hansan

    • Dear Ms. Payne: My best suggest is to search with Google to find sources. My next suggestion is to contact the University of Chicago and their archives. Regards, Jack Hansan

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