Building Stories

Bonnie Fan

If Chicago were a jungle, along the lines of the urban cliché, then “The Poorhouse” would make for a stellar field manual. Our guide is the former housing attorney and current architectural preservationist Devereux Bowly, who details every painful stage in the evolution of subsidized housing from its nascent days, born of the pockets of philanthropists, to today’s predominant reliance on Section 8 vouchers. The book provides a thorough account of Chicago’s attempts at providing subsidized housing since 1895–most of the structures are now nothing more than rubble, either by policy or neglect. But, whether we recognize them or not, there are also some which our neighbors still call home.

Bowly grew up on East 55th Street, before the Hyde Park urban renewal projects of the 1960s. As a boy he knew that wanted to go into law. His inspiration came in part from a role model who lived down the block–Leon Despres, who, like him, had gone to the University of Chicago Lab Schools back in the early part of the century, and who would go on to win an alderman position in the 5th Ward in 1955. Schooling wasn’t the only parallel between the two: Despres’ tireless efforts to save the Robie House as newly elected councilman echoes many of Bowly’s numerous conservation efforts years later.

Upon entering law school in Wisconsin, Bowly’s first encounters with the writings of Carl W. Condit, professor and urban architectural historian (to whom he dedicated his first edition of “The Poorhouse”) cemented his since unabated love of architecture. After law school–the only few years he spent outside of Chicago–Bowly returned without hesitation to Hyde Park. “There was no question about it,” he said. Ironically, the small-town vibe drew him back, the kind that meant he could run into an old classmate from his days at the lab school and talk like nothing had changed.

Bowly’s architectural interests soon led him to write a weekly Sunday column for the Chicago Sun-Times with articles on buildings of interest in the city. His first article centered on a curious Michigan Avenue structure: a downtown athletic club that had snuck in additional squash courts using special bricks for the court, almost imperceptible from the outside. It was a fitting start to many years of continued investigation into the disguised inner lives of buildings.

His architectural columns also gave rise to another project–“The Poorhouse,” first published in 1978. As a part of the Legal Assistance Foundation in Lawndale, Bowly says, “I was a lawyer working on legal assistance working on housing matters and my interest in architecture and urban history were both there. I thought I would make use of both of them–I didn’t think they would bring about any great new ideas.”

In “The Poorhouse,” Bowly explores the contradictory turns in the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) history. For example, social reformers early on looked to transitionary housing for the poor as a way to help those down on their luck. Later, these same actors viewed that same housing as detrimental to the inhabitants’ future prospects. Bowly pinpointed the firing of CHA Executive Director Elizabeth Wood for her integration efforts in 1954 as “not only the change in power of the CHA from liberals to conservatives but the end of an almost twenty-year period where public housing was viewed as a vehicle for social change.” However, his honest appraisal lent no slack to Wood, either, as he points out that own her viewpoints led later to a series of disastrous high rise developments.

His professional expertise comes through in the discussion of famous trials, in particular the 1966 Gautreaux Case, and their impact on shaping the course of later means of subsidizing housing. In the first edition of the book, he tied it off with an accurate forecast predicting the further use of Section 8 vouchers as things stood from 1976. His architectural background allowed Bowly to give a textured treatment to subsidized housing as well, via brick-by-brick descriptions of each individual building project.

Descriptions of buildings take form as they would from a real-estate ad, with street-view imagery, number of floors, bedroom unit sizes, accessories, and scenic (or not-so-scenic) views–all accompanied by detailed photographs. Bowly then goes farther than any real-estate agent would by including the details of each building project’s development, which give a more concrete picture of the effects of larger trends in subsidized housing. For example, in the construction of the Robert Taylor homes, Bowly describes the tight institutional pressures on architects to keep building design bland, uniform, and devoid entirely of any individuality.

“The Poorhouse” isn’t Bowly’s only claim to Chicago history fame. His Sun-Times column sparked a series of conversations with an old friend, Clyde Watkins, that morphed into the idea for an “organization of people interested in seeking out the histories of their houses.” This became the Hyde Park Historical Society, founded in 1977. With the help of architect John Vinci, he rehabilitated a Hyde Park memento of the World’s Fair (an old cable car station) for the group to hold meetings in, and served as the association’s president for six years.

Many Hyde Park Historical Society members sat in the audience for his author’s talk at 57th Street Books on October 10 of last year, commemorating the book’s newly printed second addition. It was a familiar setting not only because he is a long-time attendee of these events, but also because he grew up with the building–it was his grandfather’s at one point.

When Seminary Co-Op manager Jack Cella came looking for a literary outlet catered to local residents and families beyond the academic bubble, Bowly gave him free reign to knock down walls in the basement, creating 57th Street Books. Bowly is therefore landlord of the bookstore as well–and unexaggeratedly, introduced as “one of the most important people in this store’s existence.”

The book had run in print for thirty-six years, been used in classrooms, and cited by researchers and reporters. When asked about penning an update, Bowly’s first reply had been “No, I kept telling people I wasn’t going to write another sequel.” Then in 2010, by that point retired, Bowly was approached by the publishers “for one more chapter, a few pictures,” Bowly said. “I didn’t know if I could do it. Five additional chapters, fifty more photos [from sociologist David Schalliol] and a year later, here we are.”

One of the trends brought up by Bowly was that of “housing of last resort for problem-plagued families and individuals, such as those who cannot pass screening requirements or cannot deal with a complex bureaucracy.” Bowly found that despite massive re-hauls, including the CHA’s wide scale demolitions, the city now faces more questions in regard to housing than ever before. If the house is unstable, the foundations are a good place to start.