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  • Writer's pictureLillian Bui

Reformer’s Vision: Association House’s Founding Story

“A busy life it is in this house, with hundreds crossing its threshold every week--indeed every day. Through it all our increasing purpose runs, to so touch by deed or words the life of everyone who enters its doorway, each shall feel the power of a higher life."

--Ellen Holt, Founder, Association House (1911)

Association House has always been a refuge for women and children.

As Association House embarks on our 125th year, we’re reflecting

on our history, its ties to the reform movement, and the women that made it happen.

Our founder, Ellen Holt, was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago businessman. Rejecting the life of her parents, she began working alongside Jane Addams at Hull House, Chicago’s earliest Settlement House. Soon, she became involved in the formation of Association House.

Established in June 1899 to train women for the work of the Young Women's Christian Association, the effort quickly grew to the more expansive vision Holt held. Holt and Association House’s first head resident, Carrie Wilson, understood the need for a single place to meet many community needs: a place where community voice led decision making, and staff lived in community.

Early life at Association House was lively: children ran through hallways to music, and residents shared meals and healthy debate. Hundreds of clubs were established over the years where participants learned to cook, read, play sports, and sew. Most importantly, Association House became a gathering place for all: a place where commonalities outweighed differences.

What began as a GED assistance program has evolved over 125 years into an accredited Level 1+ onsite high school. Half of the student body are women.

Association House began as a radical rejection of exclusion and of gaps that leave individuals struggling. Here, we created a place of inclusion where individuals find the tools and resources they need to lead a more full and complete life. Whether that was a shower, a new skill, or simply a friend, Association House was here. That work continues today and is as innovative and important as it was at our founding in 1899.

Follow along for more stories this Women’s History Month and throughout our 125th anniversary year!

Have your own Association House history story? We’d love to hear it! You can reach our Development and Marketing team at


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