Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Strange Origin of Hull House

You know those mystery stories that open with a crowd of strange people gathered to hear the contents of a mysterious will in a spooky old mansion? LIke, say, Clue?  This kind of "public reading of the will" is the sort of thing that never happens in real life these days - any lawyer will tell you that it's just a plot device, not something that really goes on. But perhaps it used to be more common - the reading of the will of Charles Hull, who built Chicago's infamous Hull House in 1856, was like that.

Mr. Hull had been an eccentric man. Rich, but a good friend of the newsies on the corner. He was frequently seen giving candy to neighborhood children. In 1881, he wrote a rambling book that was little more than a list of his opinions on every matter under the sun.

In 1889, Hull died in Houston. His family and friends gathered in his No. 31 Ashland Street residence (which seems to have been gone by 1909, but would have been where 230 North is now) to hear the reading of the will, which he wrote in 1881. He was in possession of between 1 and 2 million dollars worth of personal property and real estate. But the Ashland residence was no mansion - just a modest brick row house, decorated with a few photographs and a "heroic looking bust" of Mr. Hull that presided over the proceedings. I don't know that it was a dark and stormy night when the will was read (I assume it was probably done during the day), but I like to imagine it was.

His four nephews, niece, and cousin, Helen Culver, who was also his housekeeper, gathered around for the reading of the will. Most of the relatives believed that the estate would be shared equally among them. Only Miss Culver knew otherwise.

The lawyer opened the sealed envelope and read from the foolscap sheet inside. "I, Charles J. Hull, being of sound mind and body...etc...do give Helen Culver, my trusted friend and advisor for all these years, the whole of my estate."

The nephews turned pale and the niece wept. Their "great expectations" were over.

"There must be some mistake!" cried one of the nephews.

"No mistake," siad the lawyer. "It's a good will. A good will. Miss Culver, let me congratulate you."

Miss Culver, who had lived with Mr. Hull as his housekeeper for decades, smiled softly.

The very next day, the other relatives began to contest the will in court. But Culver, of course, granted a life-long, rent-free lease on Hull's 1856 Halsted Street mansion to Jane Addams, who expanded to the property into 13 buildings by 1908, where her social work won her a Nobel Peace Prize. The building was restored back to its original state (or close to it) in the 1960s; the only other building from the settlement still standing is the dining hall, which was moved to its present location when the building was being restored.

I'm doing research today on the history of the garden next door - my hunch is that it wasn't a garden at the time the "devil baby" rumor went around, and, hence, can't possibly be the burial place of the baby, as some claim (for the millionth time, it was just a rumor - there was no devil baby). But in 1961, when they started planning to restore the house, they also talked of restoring the Jane Addams Garden, which implies that it went up earlier than I thought - perhaps it was put in after Addams death? But Hull House was a big advocate of gardening - they spearheaded the "city garden" project which leased garden space on the south side to poor families. It's not impossible that there was a garden there early on, though I sort of doubt they had that kind of space available, since the facilities took up a whole block by 1908.

Update: no, the garden was not a garden in 1913; there was a building there at the time. When Jane Addams moved in, there was an undertaking parlor on the spot, and it was torn down to be replaced by the Hull House Children's Building, which was where they had a nursery/day care center, places for children's clubs to meet, etc.

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