For almost seven months, as they zipped about the northwest side looking for a vacant lot on which to relocate the Huntley house, David Murray and Bill Lavicka were tag team crusaders for the preservation movement. The deal they offered the city looked like a good one. “We basically said, ‘Give us a vacant lot and we’ll pick the house up and move it there,'” says Lavicka.

But for reasons that are not completely clear–the city says one thing, Lavicka and Murray another–the planning department turned down their offer. On September 30 a wrecking crew showed up at the Huntley house, one of the oldest houses in the city, and tore it down.

“The city just talks and talks and talks and nothing gets done,” says Lavicka. “They had a good offer–I was gonna do all the work–and they let it die.”

Folks outside the preservation movement may not understand why anyone would get so upset over an old, empty house at Pearson and Paulina. But for Murray, who lives nearby, saving Huntley became a quest that consumed the better part of a year.

“My dad told me, ‘You’re saving the world’s ugliest house,'” says Murray. “But it’s old–it’s been there since 1858. It’s the oldest house in West Town. And when you research its past and you see the names of the people who lived there in those old dusty ledgers, suddenly you start seeing your whole neighborhood differently. Suddenly you see a continuum in your neighborhood.”

In the spring of 2001, Murray heard that the house’s owner, a developer named Robert Ranquist, planned to tear it down for condos. Over summer and fall and into last winter, Murray and other preservationists tried to convince the city to protect Huntley by designating it a historical landmark.

His first-person account of that unsuccessful struggle ran on the front page of the February 1 Reader. The article earned him the enmity of some city officials who felt he’d deceived them by not letting them know he’d be writing about the matter, and it brought the issue to Lavicka’s attention. “I read David’s article and said, ‘I gotta get involved,'” says Lavicka. “To me it’s a crime it didn’t get landmarked.”

By his own admission, Lavicka’s an odd character for Chicago. An engineer by training, he’s made a good living renovating old buildings. Unlike most developers, however, he’s not shy about speaking his mind, even if it means lambasting city officials. He was particularly outspoken in the unsuccessful attempt to save Maxwell Street. Neither he nor Murray is a master of the tactics that win friends and influence people in City Hall.

“Lavicka called me up after the article ran and said, ‘Let’s move the house to a vacant lot,'” says Murray. “He told me he had experience doing it.” Lavicka’s plan was to lift the house onto a truck and drive it to another site, where he’d rehab and sell it. “All spring and summer we drove around the city with that house in our brains,” says Murray. “Lavicka measured openings and power lines. We were like madmen going around town with this phantom house.”

They began meeting regularly with Alderman Jesse Granato–in whose First Ward the Huntley house was located. “I fell in love with that building,” says Granato. “I wanted to save it. I was ready to give it my all.”

At first Lavicka and Murray weren’t sure what to make of Granato. They suspected he was trying to piggyback on their efforts in order to win over the many preservationists who live in his ward. Whatever his motives, he was a helpful ally. He met with Ranquist and his lawyer, Jack Gutman, and got them to agree to hold off on demolition. “We developed a pretty good personal relationship with Jesse,” says Murray. “We spent a fair amount of time with him–he actually drove around with us looking at lots.”

After several weeks of touring the northwest side, they settled on a city-owned lot at 1232 N. Hoyne. “It was ideal,” says Lavicka. “It was relatively close to the Huntley house’s Paulina location, and it would be a pretty clear shot on moving day. And the lot was available. I essentially told the city, ‘Give me the lot and I’ll move and rehab the house at my expense.'” But, says Granato, “the city dragged its feet.”

The alderman says the city had several problems with giving Lavicka the lot. “The city didn’t want to spend too much money on this deal,” says Granato. “They figured they could get $400,000 for the vacant lot if they put it on the open market–so that’s about a half million right there that they don’t get. Plus the vacant lot was in the 32nd Ward, so that meant bringing in another alderman–Ted Matlak. And that made complications. Because Ted said, ‘I gotta talk about this with the community.’ It just wasn’t meshing right.”

The city offered to trade the Hoyne Street lot to Ranquist for the Huntley house. “We felt that would be a lot easier than moving the house, don’t you think?” says Peter Scales, a spokesman for the planning department. But Ranquist wasn’t interested in a swap.

Lavicka dogged the city throughout the spring, dropping in on the planning department offices once or twice a week. “I’m an engineer–I want to get things done,” says Lavicka. “But the city’s planners, they have a different frame of mind. They like to talk and have meetings. You can’t see Alicia Berg [the planning commissioner]. She’s got the palace guard. Maybe I offended them with my persistence. I don’t know. I wanted to save the house.”

At a meeting on May 31, Brenda McKenzie, one of Berg’s top assistants, offered Lavicka another city-owned lot, this one in the 1300 block of North Claremont. This time Lavicka and Murray resisted. “I didn’t think it was right for a house as important as the Huntley house,” says Murray. “It would be on this tiny narrow street jammed between two houses across from a school. No one would have ever seen it. I felt we would be hiding the Huntley house.”

Scales says McKenzie made it clear to Lavicka that Claremont might be the best deal the city could give him. “As I understand it,” Scales says, “he said, ‘I’d rather see it demolished than go to Claremont.'” Actually, it was Murray who made that remark, in a moment of candor he’s come to regret. “I was frustrated. I didn’t think they were bargaining in good faith. Besides, I still thought we had a chance to get the Hoyne site. I was working from the assumption that the city was still looking into giving us those lots.”

Almost three weeks passed, and neither Lavicka nor Murray heard from the city. On June 20 Lavicka stopped by the planning department with a new offer. Not only would he take the Claremont lot, but he had a $10,000 check for the city.

“I gave it to one of the secretaries in the office,” says Lavicka. “I told them they could hold it as a performance bond. It was a goodwill check to show I wasn’t just bullshitting around. If I didn’t [move the house], they could keep the money. People who don’t like old buildings say, ‘These preservationists are a bunch of idiots–they don’t put their money where their mouth is.’ But I put my money on the table.”

Yet the city gave him back his check and rejected his offer. This news came to him in a July 3 letter from Berg. According to Berg, Lavicka had missed a city-mandated deadline. “They had to get their proposal to us [for Claremont] by June 19 so we could send legislation over to the City Council in order to have the land legally transferred to [Lavicka],” Scales explains. “We were on a tight schedule. We wanted to be fair to the owner [Ranquist], who was waiting for a demolition permit. [Lavicka and Murray] missed their deadline. There was nothing we could do.”

Murray and Lavicka insist that they knew nothing of the deadline. “It was a ruse, just an excuse to turn us down,” says Murray. “We didn’t know about any deadline. If they had such a tight deadline, how come they didn’t issue a demolition permit right then and there?”

The city asked the McClier Corporation to prepare a feasibility report on moving the house to Wells High School, 936 N. Ashland, where it would be converted into an administrative building. After three months of study, McClier sent the city a report saying the move would cost about $480,000. According to Scales, the city paid McClier $19,000 for the report.

“It was going to be a complicated move–they’d have to slice the house in half and trim trees and remove utility lines,” says Scales. “We also estimated that it would cost as much as $750,000 to rehab the house. So you’re talking about spending over $1 million to save a house that’s not even a landmark.”

On Friday, September 13, a planning official called Murray. “She said, ‘I hate to deliver bad news, but the numbers are over $1 million and the city’s decided not to pursue saving the Huntley house,'” says Murray. “She said they would not hold the developer back from demolishing it.”

A couple of weeks later a wrecking crew tore the house down. “It took them just two days,” says Cristie Bosch, Murray’s wife. “They were remarkably efficient.”

In the aftermath, Scales says there was nothing more the city could have done. “We exhausted every option,” he says. “We explored landmark designation, moving the house, trading lots–none of these options proved viable.”

Granato says he gives the city high marks for its efforts. “I know one thing–my conscience is clear. I worked all summer long on this project. I facilitated all sorts of meetings. I can look people in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I did my part.’ I like Bill Lavicka. I give him credit. He did his best. I want to know where were all the other folks who are so vocal about preservation. I didn’t see any of them putting up any money.”

And why does Alderman Granato think the city eventually turned down Lavicka’s offer to move the house to Claremont? “I don’t know–I couldn’t get the city to work with him. Why? I could never put my finger on it. They were not comfortable with his proposal. That’s all I can say. You’ll have to go with that.”

Murray suspects that the city was determined not to work with Lavicka because they didn’t like his style. “He was always in their face. They made it personal,” says Murray. Not so, says Scales. “This is not personal. We appreciate Lavicka’s efforts and ideas. I hope he appreciates the efforts we put into it too. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.”

Murray wonders what might have happened had he immediately accepted the city’s Claremont offer: “Now that the house is dust, yes, I’d rather have it on Claremont, hidden or not–I worry that maybe we took too hard of a line on that. But they’d have probably come up with some reason to put the kibosh on that. The city has a funny way of doing things. They spent all that time and money just to say, ‘Sorry, the deal can’t be done.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul K. Merideth.