You are here
Julia C. Lathrop Homes
Opened in 1938, Julia C. Lathrop Homes is one of the first three public housing projects built in Chicago, and among the earliest built in the United States. Federally funded public housing in the United States began during the New Deal. Administered by the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration, this early program was intended to stimulate the moribund construction industry by clearing poorly built and ill-maintained dwellings and replacing them with improved housing. The Housing Division established planning guidelines based on the tenets of Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, collaborators who designed Sunnyside Gardens in New York and the Radburn community in New Jersey. Projects in this initial phase of public housing were row houses or low-rise apartment buildings under five stories in height. They were generally arranged along streets and walkways to create broad rear yards and gardens containing traffic-free play space for children and adults. For most tenants, the dwelling units were their first opportunity to live in new houses equipped with purpose-built and fully-equipped kitchens and bathrooms.
In 1935, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration purchased an unused industrial site just east of the Chicago River, about six miles north of the Loop. Rather than hiring a single firm to design the site, the Housing Division assembled a team intended to spread work as widely as possible. Robert DeGoyler, known primarily as a designer of luxury apartments (such as 1430 North Lake Shore Drive, the Powhatan, and the Marlborough), headed the team, with Everett Quinn, Thomas Tallmadge, and Charles White as senior principals. Hubert Burnham, Roy Christiansen, Edwin H. Clark, Hugh M.G. Garden, Israel S. Lowenberg, Max L. Lowenberg, Ernest Mayo, Peter Mayo, E.E. Roberts, Elmer C. Roberts, Vernon Watson, and Bertram Weber rounded out the team. Landscape architect Jens Jensen collaborated on the street layout and building siting, and he was responsible for the original landscape design, which provided kitchen gardens for many units.
As a relief program, there was considerable pressure to expend public housing funds quickly, and the team designed the project in two phases, allowing foundation construction to begin while architectural design was ongoing. The Housing Division approved the design team in July 1935. Construction began in March 1936, and was completed by March 1938. Composed of 925 units in twenty-nine residential buildings, along with a one-story administration building and a powerhouse, Lathrop Homes was the Housing Division’s fourth largest project.
Diversey Parkway divides Lathrop Homes into north and south sections, which operate largely independently. On both sides, two- to four-story apartment buildings line the streets, with deep courtyards and brick arcades beckoning passersby into the generous open play spaces at the center of each block. The central heating plant stands at the southern point of the project, jutting into the bend of the Chicago River. Two buildings were added to the complex in 1955–1960, a one-story recreation center on the north, and an eight-story senior apartment tower on the south.
Nationally, the projects built by the Housing Division were frequently masonry structures, designed in the restrained revival styles popular during the New Deal— thoughtful simplifications of the Colonial or Spanish Colonial styles, reduced to a handful of simplified, significant elements. Lathrop Homes stands in contrast with the number and depth of its decorative elements. From wide stone arches to delicately striated rectangular frames, door treatments are varied throughout the project to distinguish individual entries. Elsewhere, throughout the project, stringcourses, cornices, and a range of cast stone finials help to individualize each building.
The Housing Division carefully controlled floor plans and apartment layouts to maximize efficiency, in units ranging from one to three bedrooms. Units are entered directly from the stair, minimizing corridor space and allowing for through-building units to improve light penetration and air circulation. Entry doors lead into a short vestibule and the living room, with an adjacent dine-in kitchen. A short hall leads to bedrooms and the bathroom and throughout finishes were typically durable: wood and tile floors, plaster walls, and ceilings. Kitchens were initially equipped with sinks, gas stoves, electric refrigerators, and open cabinetry, while bathrooms had tile floors and walls, sinks, toilets, and a bathtub.
Built at a time of de jure residential segregation throughout the United States, the Lathrop Homes and other early projects served to formalize the practice in northern states. In the case of the Lathrop Homes, the site was acquired explicitly to house white families. Following World War II, however, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) began integrating its projects. The supposed threat of integration drove many white residents from the city’s housing projects and, by the 1960s, the vast majority of projects were overwhelmingly African American. Lathrop Homes remained an anomaly among CHA projects: well into the twenty-first century, it maintained a mixed population of African Americans, Latinos, and whites.
Beginning in 2000, supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, the Authority demolished all high-rise public housing in Chicago, and partnered with private developers to build new communities of mixed-income units on properties in newly desirable areas. This drastically diminished the city’s overall supply of affordable housing. In 2006, the CHA announced its intention to demolish Lathrop Homes but the effort has been strongly opposed by current residents, project alumni, preservation advocates, and neighborhood leaders. Lathrop Homes was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, and was amongst the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in 2007. In 2011, contentious redevelopment schemes sponsored by the CHA preserved little historic fabric and provided few affordable housing units, and were rejected by community and preservation representatives. A plan to repurpose the site into a mixed-use, mixed-income campus was initiated in 2017.
Bowly, Deveraux. The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago 1895–1976. Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Hunt, D. Bradford. Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public
Housing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Milnarik, Elizabeth. “The Federally Funded American Dream: Public Housing as an
Engine for Social Improvement, 1933-1937.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2009.
Milnarik, Elizabeth, “Julia C. Lathrop Homes,” Cook County, Illinois. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 2011. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Pommer, Richard. “The Architecture of Urban Housing in the United States during
the Early 1930’s.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians37/4 (December 1978): 235-264.
Radford, Gail. Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.