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When Jack Simmerling was a child, he saw the inside of Marshall Field’s mansion at 19th and Prairie. It was the early 1940s, and the building was boarded up and unoccupied. But the caretaker knew Simmerling’s grandfather, who’d worked as an office boy for the first Marshall Field at the turn of the century, back when Prairie Avenue was the wealthiest street west of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

“I saw the house right after it had been occupied by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus, so the interior had been altered somewhat for the school,” says Simmerling, who’s now 60. But he recalls being impressed by the mansion’s opulence. His grandfather and the caretaker talked only about the old Prairie Avenue, home to the city’s elite: railcar tycoon George Pullman, piano manufacturer W.W. Kimball, industrialist John J. Glessner, and meatpacking magnate Philip Armour, among others.

Simmerling soon started shooting photos and making sketches of the old residences, which were being torn down at an alarming rate as the area was increasingly taken over by rooming houses, parking lots, railroad tracks, and light industry. “I was always one step ahead of the wrecking crews,” he says. “Some of the homes didn’t last three decades, and they were built to house generations of families.”

In order to get a better look at the fading past, Simmerling even took a job with the enemy. “At 16 I worked for a wrecking company,” he says. “But I helped tear the houses down only so that I could get more photos and salvage more pieces.” Tribune writer Herma Clark, known for her history column “When Chicago Was Young,” took Simmerling under her wing and encouraged his interest. They teamed up for a series of lectures during his college years in the 1950s.

Simmerling studied art and history at Notre Dame, where one of his professors affectionately referred to him as “the last Victorian.” He says that many people thought he was crazy. “The Victorian era was laughed at for many years,” he explains. “It was considered to be in bad taste. I thought, my God, how could they let that go?”

Almost immediately after graduating in 1957, Simmerling opened his Heritage Gallery in Beverly. In addition to selling his own prints and watercolors of Chicago landmarks, Simmerling has also filled the gallery at 1915 W. 103rd Street with booty scavenged from demolition sites, including such items as silver-handled shutters and Louis Sullivan mantelpieces. “I felt that somehow this should not all be lost.”

Last year Simmerling and Wayne Wolf wrote two books on the city’s neighborhood architecture, both published by McGraw-Hill: Chicago Houses: Fact and Fables and Spires of Faith: Historic Churches in Chicago. The pair have also penned four books on the Civil War, all told from the perspective of Confederate soldiers and based on letters Simmerling retrieved from a box lying in the middle of a demolition site on the south side. As with his other finds, Simmerling says, “I came along at just the right time.” Two years ago he contributed some of his Prairie Avenue studies to a traveling exhibition, “The Great American Avenue: 1850-1920,” organized by the Smithsonian Institution.

This Wednesday night Simmerling will present “Music in the Mansions,” a slide lecture on the French chateau built by W.W. Kimball at 18th and Prairie and the role of music in the lives of its genteel occupants. The talk starts at 7 PM in Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall on the seventh floor of 430 S. Michigan. Admission is $15; proceeds will go toward the purchase of a new harpsichord for the university’s music department. Harpsichordist David Schrader will perform following the lecture. For reservations, call 341-3617.

–Tara Munkatchy

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.