DOUGLAS — A team of student archaeologists is digging to tell the long-buried stories of a grassy South Side site which once housed meatpacking officials, a church congregation and academics at a predecessor to the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Students and professors at north suburban Lake Forest College and Morton College in Cicero began excavating the former Armour Mission and Armour Flats, 35 W. 33rd St. in Bronzeville on May 22.
The Armour Mission, built in 1886, was a Christian congregation and quasi-settlement house. Its classes and programs were the foundation for the Armour Institute of Technology, which in 1940 merged with the Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology.
The Armour Flats were 194 apartments built in 1888 to house executives and other upper-level employees of the Armour meatpacking company. The building later housed Armour Institute faculty.
The structures were demolished between 1961 and 1962 as part of Illinois Tech’s urban renewal project, making way for the continuation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s master plan for the main campus.
Since starting the excavation, students have uncovered the buildings’ foundations and numerous bricks along with a porcelain doll’s feet, animal bones, buttons, glass artifacts and other items that give a glimpse into the lives of the site’s varied residents over eight decades. They’re scheduled to continue digging through Friday.
“We thought we’d have to dig a lot deeper before we hit the structure, and instead it’s pretty close to the surface, which was really exciting,” said Rebecca Graff, a Lake Forest College anthropology professor.
The Armour Mission and Flats dig has been a fun change of pace for Morton College professor Shannon Martino, whose specialty is in prehistoric archaeology, she said.
Martino partnered with Graff to teach the dig as a course through Morton College, which runs parallel to Lake Forest College’s summer field school for undergraduates.
“My students can’t really go with me very easily from Morton College to [prehistoric sites in] Turkey or Iraq,” Martino said. “I wanted there to be an opportunity for them to get the skills they would need to use in other excavations or even for engineering careers.”
Martino was “shocked at how quickly we started finding things” that date back to the Armour site’s construction, she said. Excavating a site less than 150 years old also makes it easier to identify who made the items compared to prehistoric digs, she said.
Graff has led digs at Chicago’s last standing Phyllis Wheatley Home at 5128 S. Michigan Ave., the 1893 World’s Fair site in Jackson Park and a mid-19th century home in Old Irving Park which may have ties to the Underground Railroad, among others.
In 2018, she also helped unearth remnants of the Mecca Flats apartments at 34th and State streets, which Illinois Tech demolished in 1951 to make way for Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall.
“My career is doing archaeology in Chicago, and [the Armour excavation] is springboarded from the work we did at the Mecca Flats,” she said. “I’m hoping this is just a continuation, and this is all helping to put a bigger picture of Chicago together by using archaeological resources.”
The archaeological dig has helped first-year transfer student Kris Bostick connect with the history of his family, who moved to Bronzeville during the Great Migration, Bostick said. It’s a not-so-distant history he still feels today, he said.
“We had the Bronzeville Historical Society out here” on Tuesday, Bostick said. “We found these pieces of tile, and we didn’t know what they were at first. But they were the ones who were able to tell us, ‘Oh yeah, these are pieces of commercial tile. I remember when they used to be in my house.’
“There’s people nowadays who can probably remember when these flats were still standing, who had family members who attended the Armour Institute,” he said. “… It makes me sad when people view history as this dull, dry thing. It’s such a vibrant thing.”
Senior Mia Lee and junior Theresa Wilhite were a part of the first team to hit the mission and flats’ foundation. They were surprised at their quick work to reach the foundation, which they expected to be more hidden 60 years after demolition, they said.
“I’ve always been interested in the history surrounding the South Side,” said Lee, a south suburban native. “… I heard about this class, and I like to dig in dirt, I like looking at cool rocks — this kind of worked out.”
Students will clean and analyze the items unearthed during the dig as part of a historic artifact analysis lab later this year.
“We’ll be learning a lot more of how to identify this kind of glass versus this kind, and what brick is important and which is not,” said Wilhite, who also researched the area for a class last fall.
Some items could go to Illinois Tech for the school’s planned exhibit about the history of the area, while others could be reused for other commemorative events or reburied, Graff said. Information from the dig will also be included in a site report for the state’s Historic Preservation Office, she said.
Senior Joey Ridarelli, an English major with minors in sociology and anthropology, appreciates the opportunity to perform “a bit of a community service” with the dig by contributing “to [Illinois Tech’s] understanding of their history,” he said.
“This is one of the coolest hands-on experiences that [Lake Forest] College offers,” Ridarelli said. “… Archaeology in particular is really dependent on having hands-on fieldwork experience, and so even more than research projects or internships, this — I’m hoping — will propel a lot of us into the field of anthropology.”
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