The players in Henry Darger's 15,145-page fantasy novel include Henry himself, as a manly hero.
The players in Henry Darger's 15,145-page fantasy novel include Henry himself, as a manly hero.

Henry Darger's Room

Field review by the editors.

Chicago, Illinois

It may be unfair, but listing the known facts of the life of Henry Joseph Darger (1892-1973) reads like a Hollywood script summary for "Creepy Guy." He had an appalling childhood. He spent his last 40 years living alone in a room in Chicago. He worked as a janitor. He rarely spoke to anyone, and had less than a handful of tenuous acquaintances. He went to Catholic Mass every day -- sometimes several times a day. And after he died, the debris in his room yielded several unexpected and lengthy manuscripts, including a 15,145-page* fantasy novel, and extravagant artwork of children in this imaginary world, some of it quite bloody.

Deb Kerr examines one of Henry's carefully labeled paint lids.
Deb Kerr examines one of Henry's carefully labeled paint lids.

*(For comparison, the average Bible has around 1,200 pages, and Webster's dictionary has around 2,300.)

Henry Darger's creative output is now seen in museums and galleries across the USA. Scholars debate him; authors write entire books about him. His artworks, when available, can sell for six figures, a fact that would flabbergast the impoverished, lonely janitor.

Some of Henry's illustrations are 12 feet long. They come and go; many museums want to display them.
Some of Henry's illustrations are 12 feet long. They come and go to other museums, and may not be here when you are.

Since 2008, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago has hosted a permanent exhibition about Henry Darger, including permutations of his room, showcasing Henry's battered furniture, reference scrapbooks, ancient typewriter, and art supplies in their natural environment.

Henry's Roman Catholicism was notable influence on his art.
Henry's Roman Catholicism was notable influence on his art.

"People come here to get a sense of Henry," said Deb Kerr, Intuit's president. "When you can step into a place, it helps shed light on another world, and certainly the Henry Darger room is like that." It's a world with badly browned wallpaper illuminated by a ragged chandelier, and clutter that can only hint at what once was; the original room, said Deb, "was a scary, hoarder-y place." Gazing at its mantelpiece sculpture of a dog with a Jesus head between its front paws, or its laundry hamper filled with twine balls, may bring us closer to this enigmatic man, although Deb acknowledged that we will never really know what was going on in his head.

What's in this box? Oh. Hundreds of rubber bands.
What's in this box? Oh. Hundreds of rubber bands.

Henry's longest written work, an epic saga known as, "In the Realms of the Unreal," tells the story of the seven heroic Vivian Girls and their no-holds-barred battles to free the child slaves of the evil Glandelinians. Even Deb, who admits to having gone "way down the Henry Darger rabbit hole," has never read it all. "It is not written very linearly," she said.

Henry's art supplies and reference scrapbooks were left in his room when he died.
Henry's art supplies and reference scrapbooks were left in his room when he died.

If all that Henry did was write, he would have remained forgotten. But at some point during his years of solitude he decided that his ideas needed to be illustrated. So he created paintings, some of them twelve feet long. According to one old story, the only safe place to store them in Henry's overstuffed room was on his bed, so he slept at his desk chair. And while many of these artworks are benign, others show scenes of horrific carnage, featuring little girls who are fluid in gender and species, with horns, tails, and other unexpected body parts.

Henry's blood-soaked imagery, said Deb, was heavily influenced by Roman Catholic martyr art, and his intersex children suggest the female saints who "became men" through leadership and bravery. "He wrote that he thought that girls were tougher than boys anyway," said Deb. "I think a new generation embraces that part of his work with a more open mind."

Henry Darger's posthumous home in Chicago.
Henry Darger's posthumous home in Chicago.

Henry Darger's art is in such demand by various institutions that Intuit can never display any of it permanently. Like his writing, it represented decades of effort for an audience of one; there's no evidence that Henry ever showed it to another human being while he was alive. "On his deathbed he said to throw it all away," said Deb. "But I think he would be happy to know that now his work is recognized" -- even if that recognition is mixed with a degree of apprehension and bewilderment.

"It's still pretty mysterious," said Deb -- but she feels that the room helps. "If the spirit of Henry is anywhere, it's here."

Also see: Closet of the Spiderweb Lady

Henry Darger's Room

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

Address:
756 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL
Directions:
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. West of midtown, on the south side of N. Milwaukee Ave., just east of its intersection with N. Ogden Ave.
Hours:
Tu-Su 11-6 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
312-624-9487
Admission:
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Ghost Rider - Skeleton on MotorcycleGhost Rider - Skeleton on Motorcycle, Chicago, IL - < 1 mi.
Sculpture of a Dirty Pile of SnowSculpture of a Dirty Pile of Snow, Chicago, IL - < 1 mi.
Big Monster DoorBig Monster Door, Chicago, IL - 1 mi.
In the region:
Hala-Kahiki Tiki Bar, River Grove, IL - 10 mi.

More Quirky Attractions in Illinois

Stories, reports and tips on tourist attractions and odd sights in Illinois.

Explore Thousands of Unique Roadside Landmarks!

Strange and amusing destinations in the US and Canada are our specialty. Start here.
Use RoadsideAmerica.com's Attraction Maps to plan your next road trip.

My Sights

My Sights on Roadside America

Create Your Own Bizarre Road Trips! ...Try My Sights

Mobile Apps

Roadside America app: iPhone, iPad Roadside America app for iPhone, iPad. On-route maps, 1,000s of photos, special research targets! ...More

Roadside Presidents app: iPhone, iPad Roadside Presidents app for iPhone, iPad. POTUS landmarks, oddities. ...More

Illinois Latest Tips and Stories

Latest Visitor Tips

Sight of the Week

Sight of the Week

Big Jim: Giant Gunslinger, Bentleyville, Pennsylvania (Nov 29-Dec 5, 2021)

SotW Archive

USA and Canada Tips and Stories

More Sightings

RoadsideAmerica.com Hotel & Motel Finder

Special rates for hotels.

Book Now