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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

131-Year-Old West Side Women’s Shelter Building Gets Early Landmark Approval

Historic preservationists lobbied to landmark the Victorian property, citing its importance as a safe haven for single women of color for its time.

The Wolfson Building, 2678 W. Washington Blvd., is slated for demolition.
Preservation Chicago
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GARFIELD PARK — Demolition of a former woman’s shelter in Garfield Park could be averted after a city panel approved the first step toward landmarking the building.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted Thursday to grant preliminary landmark status for part of The Wolfson Building, 2678 W. Washington Blvd.

The landmarking would apply to the main house and dormitory building, while the “coach house” facing east did not qualify for protections after more modern alterations were found on the building, according to the commission.

The approval kicks off a lengthy set of to-do items, including a report from the city’s Department of Planning and Development to further study the building, a public hearing and a final vote before the commission.

The landmark proposal then would go before the City Council’s zoning committee and then to the full council to become a designated Chicago Landmark.

The ruling also means the demolition application was rejected, and the landmark commission must conduct a public hearing within 90 days on both the proposed landmark designation and the application for a demolition permit.

Preservationists intervened to try to save the building earlier this summer.

The Wolfson building was sold by members of its namesake family last year to Landmark Living LLC, a property investment firm, property records show. It was bought for $299,000.

Owner Guillermo Meza Ortega, who applied for a demolition permit in May, could not be reached for comment.

Because the building is listed in the city’s historical survey as “potentially significant,” a demolition permit for the structure automatically triggers a 90-day review period by the city to determine if demolition is prudent.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said he was thrilled to see the building possibly become a landmark due to the history of the former women’s shelter.

“All of us working in the community helped to get this done,” Miller said. “I’m so elated that the history of the building is being honored and decorated.” 

The former maternal health center on the West Side has a history of providing critical services to single mothers and sex workers in the early 20th century, when help was scarcely given to them. The site also includes a former dormitory for single mothers and a coach house facing west.

Max Chavez, director of research and special projects at Preservation Chicago, said demolition on the West Side has erased the city’s history and the building’s significance for women of color should be honored.

“This is an opportunity to reverse that course, keeping standing a building that tells a story of how, in their moment of need, women in Chicago, particularly women of color, were able to find a place of support and aid, of life-saving healthcare, and of safety,” Chavez said in a statement to the landmark commission. “Women’s history, especially that of healthcare or reproductive care, is very much an underrepresented narrative.”

The age of the building and a sculpture dubbed “Passage” outside of the coach house were reasons listed by the committee to give it preliminary landmark status. The sculpture, installed in 2011, encapsulated the history of the home and its work for single unwed mothers of color.

Jenny Spinner, whose mother stayed at 2678 W. Washington in 1970 awaiting the birth of her and her twin sister, gave testimony as well regarding the property’s history. She said it should be honored with the same historic distinction of the Hull House on the Near West Side, which was a hub for the poor, sex workers and Eastern European immigrant families.

The Hull House, like the Wolfson Building, was also operated by a prominent woman — Jane Addams — who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Washington is not only part of my personal history but also all of the women who sheltered there for decades during a time in our country’s history when out-of-wedlock births were considered so shameful that women were often hidden away,” Spinner said in her testimony.

Credit: Courtesy Preservation Chicago
A coach house on the Wolfson Building property once served as a women’s dormitory.

The Washington Boulevard building was constructed in 1892 as a single-family home for Fred W. Morgan, a manufacturer of bicycle tires, according to Preservation Chicago.

In 1886, Frances Willard and members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union created the Chicago Home for Convalescent Women and Children where single “friendless women” could rest and pray. A 1946 Chicago Tribune article lists the original center at 1516 W. Adams Street.

New York merchant and philanthropist Charles Crittenton saved the institution during a period of financial uncertainty. It was renamed the Florence Crittenton Anchorage in 1893, in memory of Crittenton’s deceased 4-year-old daughter, Florence.

The center closed in 1943 after the Adams Street building was condemned, but reopened in 1949 at 2678 W. Washington. The anchorage remained there until closing permanently in 1973, according to a Chicago Tribune article from that year. At the time of its closure, the facility was the only state-licensed maternity home in the city that served girls 18 and under.

Florence Crittenton Anchorage’s then-president Kate Waller Barrett said she sought to help and redeem single mothers who she believed were victims of poor circumstances, vicious men and a troubling double standard of sexual behavior, according to the Student Journal of Historical Studies at Illinois State University. Waller Barrett was a pioneering physician and charter member of the League of Women Voters.

According to a presentation by the landmark’s committee, it was then turned into the Living Center for Girls and ran from 1977 until 1998.

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