That ugly green house on the corner never seemed like much more than
an eyesore until the author discovered it’s one of the five oldest
houses in Chicago. It survived the Great Chicago Fire, but can it
survive the local developer who wants to tear it down to build
condominiums on the site?
By David Murray
It was drizzling on November 1 as I wandered through the Loop in a
northwesterly direction. I couldn’t decide how to get home. Should I
take the train, catch a bus, grab a cab?
My suit was wet; my head was swimming. I’d just come from a hearing at
33 N. LaSalle, the office of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, where
I’d argued-with more passion than composure-that a 19th-century house
in my neighborhood should be named a landmark. The hearing had pitted
me and two dozen supporters against the city’s notoriously tough
landmark criteria, a landmarks committee predisposed to shoot down as
many cases as possible, and the developers who owned the property and
intended to raze the house to make way for a seven-unit condo complex.
Moments after the meeting ended, someone urged me to chase the
developers and their attorney down the hall and ask for a meeting. I
reached them just as the elevator doors closed in front of their
"It’s not over yet," a neighborhood activist assured me. Others
promised to call me later to discuss next steps. One man who’d come to
the meeting on his own said he had a few ideas about how to save the
house. He said he knew the mayor and that "Richie" appreciated
"vernacular neighborhood architecture."
A Sun-Times reporter wanted to know whether I thought we still had a
chance to save the house. In the story that ran the next day I was
quoted saying, "This house means a lot to this neighborhood, and if
we’re going to discount the fact that the house is important to a
neighborhood, then we discount the fact that Chicago is a city of
Who the hell did I think I was, talking like John Callaway?
For most of the three years my wife and I have lived in Chicago, we
ignored the old house next door or disparaged it while giving out
directions. "When you get to Pearson and Paulina," we told friends,
"you’ll see this hideous green house on the corner."
I hardly reacted in the fall of 2000 when I was approached by Stanley,
an old Polish widower who rented a room there. "You know the lady who
owns this house?" he said. "She died last week."
I knew that would be the end of the house. The estate of the woman,
Jean Ziegler, would sell the big corner lot to a developer, and the
developer would tear the house down to build condos. New condo
buildings were sprouting up at an impressive rate and, in the summer
construction season, a deafening volume.
The house really is ugly. Green shingles serve as siding, and the roof
isn’t shingled at all-it’s covered with gray sheets of tar paper. The
window frames are rotting, and the front porch looks like it’s about to
Stanley and a pair of widows were forced to move out in the spring, and
by the middle of the summer the house sat vacant with the yard growing
Then late last July someone put out a crude flyer that announced: "The
old green farmhouse at 836 N. Paulina (corner of Pearson) is scheduled
to be demolished at the end of the summer." I was intrigued by the
flyer’s claim that the house dated all the way back to 1853.
My wife, Cristie, and I visited our alderman, Jesse Granato. We handed
him the flyer and asked whether he might persuade the developer to hold
off demolishing the house while we did a little historical research.
Surprisingly, Granato said, "No problem," as if we were complaining
about a pothole in our alley. If I wrote a formal request, he said, he
would ask the city’s Building Department to put a hold on the
A couple of weeks later, on September 7, I was in Granato’s office,
facing the developer, Bob Ranquist, and his father. Barely civil, the
Ranquists stared holes in my forehead as I asked for an extended hold
on the demolition permit so I could make sure they weren’t tearing down
a building of historical importance.
Granato didn’t refuse the Ranquists their permit. He merely reminded
them that they’d been doing a lot of building in the neighborhood-right
across the alley from the green house they’d demolished another old
home to put up three condos priced between $309,000 and $490,000. He
implied that a temporary stop on this permit was a small price to pay
for the community’s goodwill.
As we filed out of Granato’s office, Bob Ranquist acknowledged that
construction of the condos wasn’t set to begin until 2002 but that he
wanted to do the demolition as soon as possible. "I’ll be perfectly
honest with you," said the thirtysomething developer with a smirk.
"This is why we wanted to knock down the building right away."
I went directly from the meeting to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds
to dig up the original paperwork. I was now determined to make a case
that the house was historically important and should be made a landmark
and saved from the wrecking ball. I hoped to have enough time to do the
research before City Hall shut down at 5 PM.
Two months later-after two trips to City Hall, three to the Newberry
Library, two to the Chicago Historical Society, one to Chicago Title
and Trust, one to the UIC library, one to the Harold Washington
Library, one to the Eckhart Park branch library, and two to the Polish
Museum, not to mention countless hours on the Internet-I’d become
convinced that the house was a crucial link in the history of West Town.
From big dusty ledgers and microfilm I’d learned that the house was
built in 1859 by an east-coast architect and master carpenter named
Nathan Huntley. He’d moved here from New York with his wife in 1853,
and after securing a job on the railroad, he’d bought the property. At
the time, West Town was farmland just beginning to be sold off in
parcels to make what appears to have been intended as a suburban-style
neighborhood. A horse-drawn streetcar line started running northwest on
Milwaukee Avenue from Halsted in 1859.
Huntley went on to become an alderman and a state representative during
the Civil War. He sold the house in 1866 and moved to Wisconsin after
the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
As far as the landmarks commission was concerned, that was the end of
the house’s historical significance. The rules for making a building a
landmark are written to exclude all but the most obvious choices. An
old wooden house on a corner in West Town? No chance. Which didn’t stop
me from shrieking at the November hearing, "This house is the history
of this neighborhood, and if you destroy this house you erase that
I’m not from West Town. I’m not even from Chicago. I grew up in Ohio
and moved to Oak Park after college, in 1992. Six years later my wife
became a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, and we moved into the
city. We found a great condo in a turn-of-the-century graystone on
Paulina a block north of Chicago with a view of downtown.
The working-class neighborhood made the condo affordable, but the area
was culturally opaque to us. Chicago Avenue is lined with discount
stores with names like "Pretty," western-wear shops, and strange
hybrids such as a combination hardware and medical-supply store. Many
of the liquor stores double as bars.
Once I was walking down an alley to pick up dinner at the corner
taqueria, and a white homeless guy said, "Hey, brother, you speak
Spanish?" I shook my head no. "You speak Polish?" Again I shook my
head. He laughed, "Then you in the wrong neighborhood, man!"
We were in the wrong neighborhood, and we were grateful to be tolerated.
Some of our neighbors coexisted with us only grudgingly. "You
yuppies,"screamed one on the day we moved in. "You’re all stupid!" We
mostly kept to ourselves.
The only person I talked to in the neighborhood was Stanley, who lived
in the Huntley house. We’d have the same conversation several times a
I’d ask how he was doing, he’d reply "half-and-half," and then he’d say
he was heading to the hospital to get his blood pressure checked and
eat lunch at the cafeteria. He didn’t hear very well, so I didn’t
bother to say much about myself.
When he learned he’d have to move out of the old house he complained
bitterly. He’d lived in the neighborhood all his life, and now his only
option was a nursing home near relatives in Wisconsin. "Way up there,"
he said. Before he left last spring, he invited me into the vestibule,
where in a kind of farewell ceremony he gave me two plastic swords he’d
been keeping on his wall. He suggested I might arrange them in an X
William and Jane Higgins bought the house in 1880 for $3,000. Records
indicate the money came from Jane. Perhaps she had an inheritance,
since it’s hard to see how they could afford such a monstrously big
house on William’s earnings as a passenger agent on the Illinois
The Irish Catholic couple-he was born in New York, she was off the
boat-had seven children: Nelly, Jenny, Frances, Flora, Stella, Gertie,
and William Jr.
I have a map showing all of the buildings in the neighborhood in 1886.
Even at that late date-after an influx of immigrants had caused the
city to swell westward-the neighborhood was still spread out. There was
no building on the lot next door to the Higgins house.
By 1900 William had died, and Jane had apparently also lost two children-Flora and Gertie don’t appear on the 1900 census.
"Didn’t you ever go to the library in college?" my wife asked one
afternoon when I came home from the Newberry Library chirping about my
discovery that William Higgins Jr. had followed his old man into the
If the worst part of this experience was the politics, the best part
was the research, which at times required almost as much persuasion. A
lot of staffers in research libraries are smart people who are
qualified to do important work yet spend their days fielding requests
from ignorant people like me-people looking for their ancestors, people
researching the history of their houses. We ask clumsy, often
irrelevant questions, and the answers are usually much harder to find
than we assume. And at most of these places the librarians are dealing
with staff shortages, forcing them to hurry at work that shouldn’t be
My visits became exercises in trying to persuade a dispirited and
sometimes surly librarian that my cause was worthy of her passion. "I’m
trying to save this house," I would begin with an earnest grin. Then
I’d breathlessly explain what research I’d done, detailing the many
dead ends I’d run into and what I was hoping to find. I got good at
this; by the end of my speech
I usually had the librarian on the case.
A notable exception was the guy who worked in a basement office at City
Hall for the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. As I asked how to translate
the numbers on the tract books into documents in the microfilm room, he
nodded vaguely and answered my question correctly-without once taking
his eyes off the rear end of a file clerk across the room.
"You’re fooling around with somebody who owns a piece of property, and
private property is a holy thing in these United States of America,"
West Town activist Marjorie Isaacson told me after the landmarks
commission decided against making the house a landmark. "You’d better
decide if you want to take this on." What she didn’t have to say was:
Don’t get me involved if you’re not willing to put up a fight.
In the early stages of my campaign I tried to keep my distance from the
likes of Isaacson and the East Village Association, of which she’s a
prominent member. I wanted to try to save the house in a civil,
intelligent way, without the kind of brute force the group used when it
saved the Goldblatt’s department store building near Ashland and
Chicago and Saint Bonifice Church at Noble and Chestnut. "EVA is so
evil," said one former member who stopped going to meetings a year ago.
I wanted her help, but she resisted crossing paths with her former
allies. "I just can’t take the way they treat people-anyone who comes
to their meetings. It’s like a war zone."
I couldn’t see myself picketing, getting signatures on petitions,
running letter-writing campaigns, passing out handbills, or shouting at
aldermen in community meetings. I wanted to work this out rationally,
talk with the developer constructively and flexibly, go through
official channels, create a win-win solution.
I was naive and dead wrong on two counts. I vastly underestimated the
intelligence and experience of these neighborhood activists, and to
just as great an extent overestimated the intelligence of the city.
"This city is like a big, dumb guy," I bellowed to Cristie one night.
"You just have to throw rocks at the son of a bitch for long enough
that he gets sick of it and takes a swing at you." Of course, I still
had no idea what I was talking about, but I already knew the main
thing: You need to be tough to fight City Hall.
"It survived the Great Chicago Fire; but will it survive the
developers?" read the headline on the 2,000 flyers we jammed in
mailboxes, rolled into wrought-iron banisters, and slipped under
windshield wipers all over the neighborhood. The flyer drew about 65
people to a special EVA meeting with Alderman Granato five days after
the landmarks commission’s decision.
After an hour-long grilling–in which residents begged, urged, and
demanded that he do everything in his power to stop the developers from
razing the house–Granato left knowing that many of the most vocal and
influential people in his community expected him to do more than shrug
Granato had become alderman of the newly created Hispanic First Ward in
1994 with the backing of the old Rostenkowski-Gabinski machine. But he
only narrowly won his last race. With his ward rapidly gentrifying, he
has to work hard to keep track of voters. He promised to convene
another gathering at his office with EVA leaders, the developers, and
Channel Seven’s report on the meeting aired the next morning. It began
with an elegant description: "The original residents would have seen
the Great Chicago Fire from their front porch." It concluded with a
grim prediction: "The case will ultimately end up in court."
On the phone with my old roommate from Kent State, I mentioned that I
was going door-to-door delivering flyers and trying to persuade people
to save the green house. "What’s happened to you?" he exclaimed.
"You’ve become the block *bleep*!"
By the early 1900s, West Town was no longer the sylvan setting in which
Nathan Huntley had built the house. In 1910 the neighborhood’s
population, teeming with working-class Polish and German immigrants,
peaked at 220,000. The house at Paulina and Pearson was full of Poles
and Germans too, because Jane Higgins was sharing her home with 16
renters. The house had been cut up into apartments.
The Siemieniewski family lived in the front. Husband Anton was a
shoemaker who’d emigrated from Poland in 1881; his wife, Mary, came
over the following year. In 1910 they were in their mid-40s and had ten
children, the oldest 21-year-old Kasimir, the youngest a small child
Another boarder was Costas Sarelas, a Greek widower who’d emigrated
from Germany. An elevator operator, Sarelas also had two grown children
living in the house.
No matter how cheerful and even-tempered I imagine Jane Higgins to have
been, it’s hard to believe she relished sharing her house with so many.
Alone at 61, she was surrounded by strange languages, smelling strange foods, putting up with all those children.
Jane was suddenly in the wrong neighborhood.
In his book Boss, Mike Royko describes "neighborhood towns" that were
"part of the larger ethnic states": "To the north of the Loop was
Germany. To the northwest Poland. To the west were Italy and Israel. To
the southwest were Bohemia and Lithuania. And to the south was Ireland."
West Town’s population steadily declined. In the last census it stood
at 87,435. By the 1940s an urban survey found West Town’s residential
areas in "blight or near-blight" conditions. Between 1960 and 1980 the
neighborhood lost almost a quarter of its housing. The decline would
last through the 80s, when the Puerto Ricans and Mexicans who were then
the majority began to be joined by people like me.
One afternoon when I was getting ready to go to another library, the
buzzer rang. Donna Poljack Kurcz wanted to know if her mother and
father, Josephine and John Poljack, could come up to my condo and have
a look around. Josephine had lived there as a girl in the early 1940s.
I invited them up, hoping Josephine would remember something about the
old house next door. We had a great time as she recalled the old floor
plan and how she and her sister used to slide down the long hallway "on
our behinds." But she didn’t remember much about the Huntley house,
only that there were big windows back then. "We used to gawk," she told
She said she’d played there with the neighbor girls. Her daughter
pressed her mom about who exactly lived in the house. The old woman
became impatient: "The little girls!"
Everyone tried hard to be cordial at the mid-November meeting in
Granato’s office. He smiled. "I just wanted to get us all together to
see if we can come to any compromise," he said a dozen times. Granato
used weightless words to make everyone more comfortable and to buy time
to think about what to say next. It’s a habit of his. "There’s things
that you have to realize and understand," he told me on the phone one
morning. "The legal parameters of the law are the legal parameters of
the law. And those I have to stay within."
At the meeting Jack Guthman was also smiling, but he saw no need to
fill the air with words. As one of the city’s most prominent zoning
lawyers, he’s too cool for that. Guthman, whose nickname is "Smiling
Jack," worked on a few high-profile preservation issues this past year.
On behalf of downtown business owners along South Michigan Avenue, he
fought the idea of making that stretch a landmark district. The Chicago
Cubs retained him to help clear the way for their controversial Wrigley
Field changes. And developer Bob Ranquist and his wife, Karen, hope he
can help them tear down the old Huntley house.
Preservationists gripe that Guthman is good only because he’s well
connected, but I’m sure he’s well connected because he’s good. He’s
everything he needs to be at any given moment, moving effortlessly from
cool to hot to cold to warm. Whatever mood the situation requires, he
calls it up without hesitation.
While Guthman smiled, his clients looked uncomfortable. They let him launch the opening salvo.
Technically, Granato’s hold on the demolition permit was good for only
ten days, Guthman said, and now the hold was coming up on three months.
He also pointed out that his clients had looked into the possibility of
restoring the house and had found it "financially nonviable." They’d
paid $750,000 for the land, he said, and they figured by the time they
finished rehabbing the place they’d be into it for $2 million. The
Ranquists, he said, were not there to discuss fixing the place up. "We
are at loggerheads," he declared with an air of finality. I didn’t know
how to respond.
I was glad I wasn’t alone. Our side had firepower too: Jonathan Fine,
the architect who led the campaign to save Saint Bonifice Church from
the wrecking ball; Scott Rappe, a local architect whose calm knowledge
lends the voice of reason to overheated preservation meetings; and
Brenda Russell, president of the East Village Association. Of course,
they didn’t have nearly the firepower of the mayor, which is why we’d
launched an assault on his office. Isaacson wrote and called
incessantly, and finally someone gave me the direct fax number, warning
me not to give it out to anyone else.
I called the guy from the landmarks commission hearing who’d said he
knew Daley. After telling me he’d lost his enthusiasm for keeping the
house in its current location-he said it was aesthetically unpleasing
juxtaposed with the much larger masonry buildings surrounding it-he
graciously dictated a letter he thought I should send to the mayor
under my name.
"All of us know of your keen interest in all Chicago issues great and
small," began the letter, which included photographs of the house and a
time line of its history, "but it occurs to us that a certain
142-year-old house in West Town might have escaped your attention; in
fact, its extraordinary age and rich history have only come to light in
recent months, as several members of this community have attempted to
save the house from the developer’s wrecking ball. Our mutual friend
has convinced me that you’ve been the major force in Chicago
architectural preservation, especially for the purpose of maintaining
the distinctive look and feel of old neighborhoods."
The mayor’s friend then dictated a line saying he’d convinced me that
"these sorts of preservation projects don’t always work out. But I just
wanted to make sure you have all the facts on this one."
I was haunted by that line. Was it meant to make me look reasonable and friendly? Or was it code: Let this one go?
I never heard back from Daley, though I did see him at a performance of
They All Fall Down, the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s play about
preservationist Richard Nickel. On the way out I passed right by him. I
thought about stopping him to talk about the house but feared he’d find
that tacky. Of course Isaacson and company excoriated me for not taking
advantage of the opportunity.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks is part of the city’s Planning
Department. A handful of staffers considers potential landmarks and
makes recommendations to a volunteer board of architecture experts. The
board decides which buildings will then go before the City Council for
a final vote. Because the process is political, few structures make the
In all, Chicago has only 168 landmark buildings. When you call the
landmarks commission you deal with the staffers. The one I dealt with
throughout the process was Terry Tatum. An architectural historian,
Tatum taught me how to do the research. He sent me a book explaining
how to find the history of a house, he reviewed some technical
information I faxed to him, and he spent a great deal of time with me
on the phone, encouraging me in a chummy way. "Keep going, kiddo,
you’re on the right track."
I was thrilled when I heard Tatum would deliver the official
presentation of the facts before the November 1 hearing. I was shocked
when he delivered that presentation in a robotic monotone.
The city’s rules for designation seem designed to filter out most
buildings. Potential landmarks must meet at least two of seven broadly
defined criteria-such as historical or architectural significance-and
all candidates must meet a nebulous "integrity" criterion, meaning the
building has to be in close to its original state.
At the end of his presentation Tatum was asked his opinion of the house
as a potential landmark. "The house is definitely old," he said, "and
it certainly has significance for many people in the
near-northwest-side neighborhood. Unfortunately, despite the history
that has been documented,
I am not at all convinced that it can meet the criteria for
designation." Tatum’s presentation was so damning that Guthman, who
followed the historian to the floor, opened with a smile, telling the
assembly, "If it wouldn’t disappoint you if I did, I would almost rest
and say Mr. Tatum has made my case."
I was stung by what I saw as Tatum’s betrayal, yet I knew landmarks
commission staffers often must play both sides-they’re political
animals with city jobs who constantly have to look over their
shoulders. When I returned to his office a week later to pick up some
documents, Tatum almost apologized. "Sometimes I find myself supported
by the prince of darkness," he said. "I have to do my job, but if you
guys can manage this without us I’ll be very happy."
They don’t use a wrecking ball to tear down houses anymore. A giant
excavator with a big bucket and a hydraulic "thumb" reaches out and
effortlessly tears chunks out of the building like a baby attacking a
birthday cake. The bucket drops the chunks on the ground and then its
tank tracks drive over the pile of rubble to crush it. In a day the
house is just a pile of wood, plaster, and glass.
Surviving records don’t show how Jane Higgins lost her house, and they
don’t show what happened to her after that. But in 1919 a circuit court
signed the house over to Judah Noble, who transferred it to Jozefa
Chudzynski, a 60-year-old widow, and her 34-year-old electrician son,
Jozefa and Henry lived with Henry’s sister Josephine, his wife and two
sons, and his son-in-law, an automobile mechanic. After a long illness
Josephine died in the house on June 11, 1931. She was 39 years old-"in
the bloom of life," according to the death notice in a Polish
newspaper. As was the custom, her wake was held in the house.
"Most of us kids thought the place was haunted," says 74-year-old Ann
Loeding, who grew up on Paulina a half block north of the house.
Loeding heard I was looking for information on the house, so she called
one night to relate what she remembered from her childhood in the 1930s.
She thinks a Mrs. Busse lived on the first floor. Mrs. Busse was
forever canning food, and Loeding rarely left the house without a jar
for her family. The man who lived on the second floor was a plumber;
his kids played with Loeding. They played golf on the lawn, where the
plumber had set up a course by burying soup cans in the ground. "We
went hole to hole," Loeding recalls.
She remembers climbing a spiral staircase to the "big, boxy rooms" on
the second floor. "There were little unlit aisles that ran from
apartment to apartment up there."
I asked if she had any pictures from her childhood that show the house.
"Who took pictures back then?" she asked. "Nobody had any money."
In September, several months after the house was vacated, I’d called
Stanley in Wisconsin. How was he doing? "Half-and-half," he said.
I needed the number of Jean Ziegler’s daughter to fill in the rest of
the house’s history. Ziegler’s husband, Edward, had died in 1970-around
the time Stanley and the widows moved in and began paying rent, which
allowed Jean, like Jane Higgins so many years before, to stay in her
"Tell me the truth," Stanley said. "Is the house still standing?" I
said it was. He let out a soft and sorrowful wail, then said bitterly,
"I could still be living there!"
I told him I was trying to save the house and that’s why I needed the
phone number. "Yeah," he said, "but then somebody else will live in it."
He told me he’d have to rummage around for the phone number and that I
should call him back. But a week later he couldn’t give it to me-Jean’s
daughter had asked him to keep the number to himself. He said he was
At the meeting in Granato’s office in mid-November, architect Scott
Rappe tried to kill the Ranquists with kindness. He acknowledged that
the developers were good people-they’d built good buildings in the
neighborhood. He asked them, as residents of the community, to consider
an alternative plan.
Bob Ranquist was having none of it. He challenged Rappe to come up with
a financially feasible way to save the house on its expensive double
Rappe passed out several copies of a paper on which he’d drawn a
bird’s-eye view of the property, with the green house in its original
position and a new coach house in the backyard. Suddenly the tenor of
the meeting changed.
Now we were all looking down at the map discussing how, instead of a
coach house, maybe you could build a two-flat with garage space below-a
two-flat that the owner could use to make money on the lot. Granato
said he’d do whatever it took to make the zoning work for such a plan.
Not about to get carried away, Guthman reminded everyone that his
clients weren’t in the business of rehabbing old buildings, and one of
us jumped in and agreed, proposing that they put the property on the
market to see if someone who was in that business would take it off
their hands at a good price.
I pointed out that the very act of looking for a buyer for a rehab was
in the Ranquists’ best interests. It would be an act of good faith, and
if no buyer were found the neighborhood would be more likely to accept
Guthman called his clients into another room. For ten minutes the rest
of us wondered what was going on. Granato seemed surprised by the turn
of events; he intimated that the Ranquists had had "a hearing with the
Guthman and his clients returned with a counterproposal: They would get
their demolition permit within two weeks, with the understanding that
they wouldn’t use it until the end of January. If we could find someone
to buy the property for $1.2 million or better with the intention of
rehabbing the house, they agreed to take the offer.
Granato said he’d sign their permit "tomorrow" if the developers would
extend the no-demolition promise through the end of February. We asked
the Ranquists to agree to consider reasonable offers of less than $1.2
Guthman and the Ranquists agreed, to the relief of all parties. No
backs were slapped, but we exchanged handshakes, and everyone left
Guthman would send Granato and me a written agreement to sign. EVA’s
Brenda Russell and I celebrated with a beer at the Happy Village
Tavern. We told each other we’d done the best we could. The house would
stand until March, and we still had a chance to save it.
When I got home I explained the agreement to Cristie. She said she
didn’t think it seemed like such a great deal. I exploded. "What choice
did we have? There was nothing we could do!"
The truth is, I don’t know the first thing about selling a piece of
real estate-especially an overpriced one that will require extensive
restoration. And our deal with Guthman isn’t even official yet. We’re
still wrangling over a new clause he wants to work into the contract.
Granato and Guthman also want to cut us out of the deal completely.
We’re insisting that we see a copy of the contract before Granato signs
it. Granato is resisting. "Don’t you trust me?" he asked.
The longer it goes on, the less competent I feel. If I know little
about real estate, I know even less about the law-or about finding a
lawyer who will work on this case pro bono.
It’s much easier to get a movement going than it is to escape it. I’ve
been repeatedly surprised by how easy it is to make a splash and even
sustain momentum. People want to get involved. Most of this campaign
took place in the immediate aftermath of September 11, when everyone
was supposedly distracted, scared, and obsessed with bigger issues. But
if the house comes down it will not be because it lacked the support of
I kept local historians on the phone for hours, begging them for leads.
I cringed before asking people to give up part of their weekend to
distribute flyers, but they always volunteered cheerfully. Simply
because I E-mailed her and pleaded my case, Nan Greenough, an artist
specializing in preservation, drove down from her home in Wilmette,
took pictures of the property and several other Italianate houses, and
drew a sketch of what the house might have looked like before its many
alterations. She made sure to write "a gift to David Murray" across the
top of the page.
These people carried me along. They don’t want me to quit. "It’s such a noble cause," a colleague said.
I still hope we can save the house. Maybe the real estate market will
continue to fall and the developers will choose to take a lower price
for the land to avoid the financial risk of building on it. Maybe some
rich person who loves Italianate architecture or Chicago history will
read this and spend the big bucks to buy and restore the house. Or
maybe the mayor will get sick of Marjorie Isaacson’s phone calls and
tell somebody to find a parcel of land to move the house to or to trade
with the developers. As long as the house stands-and thanks to all
these efforts, it’s stood months longer than it was supposed to-there’s
But I’m haunted by the last line of the play about Nickel. After
spending the night at a condemned building, the preservationist
explained, "I felt like I was sitting with a dying friend." Looking out
my office window at the gray roof of the house I used to call ugly, I’m
beginning to feel the same way.