Endangered Species: Chicago's Animal Court Playground Looks to Rebound

Posted on: September 3rd, 2013 by David Robert Weible 4 Comments

The concrete sculptures were designed for children to climb and play on. The largest of the Animal Court sculptures consists of a bison, and what appears to be a mountain lion and her cub. Credit: National Public Housing Museum, Chicago, IL.
The concrete sculptures were designed for children to climb and play on. The largest of the Animal Court sculptures consists of a bison, and what appears to be a mountain lion and her cub.

For decades, the concrete statues of the Animal Court Playground on Chicago’s near west side stood as icons of the local landscape. And though they were removed in the early 2000s as part of a massive development overhaul by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), a new project is hoping to bring them back home.

Designed by Edgar Miller and erected in the 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project that also built the nearby Jane Addams Homes, the figurines included the shapes of a buffalo, a lion, and a bear, among others, and served as a play place for local children who lived in the surrounding public housing projects.

“[The statues] were a signature piece of the community. People remember them very well, and they became very dear to the people who were raised in the Jane Addams Homes,” says Will Tippens, vice president of the development firm Related Midwest and the current vice chair of Landmarks Illinois.

All but one building of the Jane Addams Homes were demolished in the early 2000s. The remaining building is now the National Public Housing Museum. Credit: National Public Housing Museum, Chicago, IL.
All but one building of the Jane Addams Homes were demolished in the early 2000s. The remaining building is now the National Public Housing Museum.

Tippens’ firm is currently working as the managing partner for Roosevelt Square LLC., a development conglomerate that, along with the CHA, is rethinking the site that is known as the ABLA Homes: a roughly 37-square-block area of public housing projects that included the Jane Addams Homes and the Animal Court Playground. The project is part of a larger initiative to reduce “islands of poverty” within the city of Chicago and replace them with mixed-income and mixed-use housing.

“Part of our charge with [the Roosevelt Square project] is assisting the CHA in the conservation of the [animal] sculptures and their reinstallation in the new Roosevelt Square,” says Tippens. “The most important thing to state is that [the statues] are safe, and they are still an integral part of the plan to be restored and reinstalled [in a public park] near their original site.”

The sculptures of the Animal Court Playground in 2003 shortly after the Jane Addams Homes were closed to residential occupancy the previous year. Credit: National Public Housing Museum, Chicago, IL.
The sculptures of the Animal Court Playground in 2003 shortly after the Jane Addams Homes were closed to residential occupancy the previous year.

But just like so many other preservation and restoration projects, the economic downturn of 2008 slowed the work on the statues. Though they received a generous donation from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, much work remains and Related Midwest is still searching for the funds to complete the project.

“It’s hoped that we’ll be able to use public funds for the completion of the restoration, or we might be able to push for a greater level of foundation or individual giving for the restoration of the sculptures,” says Tippins.

The sculptures have suffered from the elements, particularly Chicago’s harsh winters, since the Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938. Credit: National Public Housing Museum, Chicago, IL.
The sculptures have suffered from the elements, particularly Chicago’s harsh winters, since the Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938.

The entire housing development project itself was recently endorsed by the city’s legislature, giving the project the green light for its next step. Now Tippens’ organization is looking to break ground at the site, which sits near the city’s Little Italy neighborhood. What happens next is still being considered. Although a formal timetable is still unavailable, Tippens is confident that the development of the new park and the placement of the restored animal sculptures will occur early in the process.

“Hopefully we’ll have some building taking pace out on the site next year,” says Tippens.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is a content specialist for the National Trust, previously with Preservation magazine. He came to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Civic, Revitalization

4 Responses

  1. robert burczy

    September 5, 2013

    wonderful,……the concept is a masterpiece.

  2. Edgar Miller Animal Court Update! | Playscapes

    September 19, 2013

    […] to David at the Preservation Nation blog for the update!  The NTHP seems to have developed a sudden interest in historic playgrounds, which […]

  3. Keisha

    September 19, 2013

    Build more affordable housing.

  4. Michael

    September 19, 2013

    What CHA needs to do is build more low income housing and stop gentrifying the neighborhoods. The Chicago Housing Authority needs to do a better job housing people.