Hull-House of Possibilities

Children Practicing at the Hull-House Music School. (Photo courtesy: Jane Addams Memorial Collection, Special Collections, University Library, University of Illinois Chicago).

On February 21, 1901, little Blanche Ebert performed big musical compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven and Stephen Heller on the piano at a concert at Hull-House. She was a student of the Hull-House Music School and one of four gifted pupils who performed that day. Blanche was nine years old, and her passion for music just blossoming, but her education at Hull-House, a settlement dedicated to expanding the definition of the possible for young people, must have given her early confidence, both as a pianist and as a girl.

Hull-House Music School offered “serious musical training to talented children,” admitting them based upon aptitude tests; and Blanche was no doubt gifted from the start. But as she hailed from a poor immigrant family in the 18th Ward, just north of Hull-House, Blanche was also at least a little bit lucky, too. Most poor children did not have access to the musical instruments, private lessons, and concerts, like those offered at the Hull-House Music School.

Blanche Ebert Seaver, 1916. (Photo courtesy David Stoddard Atwood Collection, California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, CA).

In a brochure circulated to raise funds for the Hull-House Music School in the late 1890s, Jane Addams said: “We realize afresh that it is the business of youth to reaffirm the beauty and joy in the world.” In order to succeed in that business, girls and boys deserved cultural nourishment, Addams believed. Much of the focus of the activities at Hull-House revolved around children, each one an effort to expose young people to a world beyond the tenements and dirty streets of urban Chicago, to organize activities to bring art and music and beauty to people in the settlement’s neighborhood. At Hull-House, children were deemed worthy of attention and nurturing in the arts, and activities like private piano lessons , gave them remarkable opportunities to redefine their futures.

Blanche Ella Theodora Ebert was born on Sep. 15, 1891, in Chicago, the tenth child of Norwegian immigrant parents. Her father supported his large family as a painter, and in 1901 Blanche was one of seven children still living at home. We cannot know how Blanche felt as she took the stage to perform the opening piece of music by Beethoven for the Hull-House concert in 1901, but we can imagine something of what the opportunity to play a piano and perform for an audience meant to an underprivileged kid on a cold Chicago day in the early twentieth century. And we do know that Blanche Ebert took full advantage of the opportunity, charting for herself an unlikely and brave career as a pianist and composer.

Until about 1906, Blanche was a piano student and assistant music teacher at Hull-House. Her natural talent and her education at Hull-House afforded her entry into the Chicago Musical College from which she graduated in 1911. In 1912, she felt bold and moved west to Los Angeles, where she became a music teacher at the Egan School of Music and Drama. She also performed as a pianist in a variety of venues in southern California and became a “noted” accompanist. By late 1914, she was teaching at Blanchard Music School in Los Angeles and playing piano for silent films shown at the Majestic Theatre.

One day while riding the streetcar downtown, Blanche met Frank R. Seaver, an attorney eight years her senior. The couple married in Chicago on Sep. 16, 1916. They lived in California for a while before moving to New York, where Frank was stationed during WWI. In New York during that time, Blanche became a successful musical arranger and composer, writing and selling dozens of songs, many to popular artists of the day like the Irish singer John McCormack. Her most famous songs were “Calling Me Back to You,” composed during the war, and “Just for Today.”

In the 1920s, the Seavers lived in Mexico City, and it was there where Blanche discovered a second passion, philanthropy. She established a society to help homeless Mexican children, and that was the start of seventy-years of generous living. The Seavers moved back to the United States in 1928, settling  permanently in Los Angeles. Frank Seaver made a fortune in the oil business, and Blanche became a well-known philanthropist.

Inspired and grateful for the education she received in Chicago, Blanche focused her giving on educational institutions. She and her husband donated money to the Harvard Boys School in L.A., the University of Southern California, Loyola Marymount University, Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, Rockford College in Illinois, and Pepperdine University. After Frank’s death in 1964, Blanche continued her giving, helping Pepperdine establish its Malibu campus and dedicating the Frank R. Seaver College there in 1975.

Throughout her life, Blanche, who never had children, continued to share her love of music and was an active patron of the arts and a supporter of children’s charities. She supported the Los Angeles Music Center, the Los Angeles Symphony, the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra, and the famous Hollywood Bowl. She also founded the Los Angeles Orphanage Guild and served as a member of the Board of Directors of Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. In 1963, the Los Angeles Times named her “Woman of the Year;” and MacMurray College in Illinois and Pepperdine University awarded her honorary doctorate degrees in 1973 and 1980, respectively.

Blanche Ebert Seaver died on April 14, 1994, ninety-three years after playing Beethoven at Hull-House. Her story is a second-generation American story. Her hard-working immigrant parents could only have dreamed of such a robust life for their children. But Seaver’s story is also a story of what Hull-House could offer little girls and little boys with talents and courage and dreams. Jane Addams could not write such a story as Blanche’s for every child who took advantage of the programs at Hull-House. But every single day, through its programs and activities, the settlement exposed young people to the arts and made a difference in the lives of the children in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Blanche’s story is one shining musical example of how Hull-House was a house of possibilities.

Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor

Sources:  Los Angeles City Directory (1915), 757; Blanche Ebert and Frank R. Seaver Papers, Finding Aid, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA; 1900 U.S. Federal Census; 1910 U.S. Federal Census; Blanche Ebert Baptismal Record, U.S. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Church Records, 1781-1969; Ebert and Seaver Marriage Record, Cook County, Illinois, U.S., Marriage Index, 1871-1920; “Chicago at a Glance,” Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1900, p. 50; “Reception to Pianist,” Los Angeles Express, Oct. 19, 1912; “Egan Recital Will Be Given Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Express, Jan. 8, 1913, p. 7; “The Festival Choir,” Los Angeles Express, Mar. 21, 1913, p. 10; “Whittier Choral Society,” The Whittier (CA) News, Mar. 24, 1914, p. 3; “Coronation of Queen Thelma Chamber Music Featured,” The Daily Telegram (Long Beach, CA), June 6, 1914, p. 5; “Important Musical,” Hollywood (CA) Citizen, July 3, 1914, p. 5; “Lost and Found,” Los Angeles Express, Nov. 27, 1914, p. 17; “Brahms Quintet Will Give Concert,” Los Angeles Express, Feb. 25, 1915, p. 6; “Majestic,” The Los Angeles Times, Mar. 31, 1916, p. 16; “Seaver-Ebert Nuptials, Chicago Event,” The Bulletin (Pomona, CA), Sep. 17, 1916, p. 9; “Mac to Confer Five Honorary Degrees at Commencement,” The Jacksonville (IL) Journal Courier, May 20, 1973, p. 36; “Blanche E. Seaver, Major Donor to Colleges, Dies,” The Los Angeles Times, Apr. 13, 1994, p. 206; “Seaver, Blanche Ebert,” The Los Angeles Times, Apr. 17, 1994, p. 164; Hull-House Music School,” pamphlet, c. 1935, Jane Addams Papers, Microfilm Edition (JAPM), 36:78-81; Hull-House Bulletin, 4 (January 1-May 1, 1901), 4-5, JAPM, 53:1123-24; Hull-House Bulletin, 5 (Semi-Annual, 1902, no. 1), 5, JAPM, 53:1141; Hull-House Bulletin, 6 (Autumn, 1904, no. 2), 4, JAPM, 53:1193; Hull-House Bulletin, 7 (1906-1906, no. 1), 6, 53:1219; Selected Papers of Jane Addams, 3:421, 473n3; Jane Addams’ Own Story of Her Work: How the Work at Hull-House Has Grown (Third of Three Installments), May 1906; Hull-House Year Book 1906-1907; Hull-House 1889-1909, 1909, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.

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