A few years back, no one gave the two mansions at Granville Avenue on North Sheridan Road much chance for survival, stuck as they were on a thoroughfare lined with high rises.

Once upon a time, when North Sheridan was home to the hoity-toity crowd, dozens of mansions clustered along Sheridan from Devon to Foster. But after the gentry moved, the buildings were torn down as the high-rise developers descended.

The two three-story homes–known by most in the area as the Viatorian mansions–survived, but only by a quirk of fate. They were owned by the Viatorian clerics, a Catholic order–but in 1979, it seemed the mansions were destined for demolition after all. The Viatorians, who had determined to sell, were receiving offers from high-rise developers for the 3.3-acre parcel of as much as $6 million.

But this is one of those rare community-development stories in Chicago that has a happy ending: The Viatorians didn’t sell to the developers. The mansions were saved. In fact, the Park District converted the South mansion into a community center five years ago. On September 25, the North Lakeside Cultural Center (located in the north mansion) celebrated its opening with an open house. This is a not-for-profit endeavor unassociated with the Park District and operated by a board made up of local residents.

It will offer classes in portrait painting, puppetry, poetry, watercolors, improvisational theater, basic drawing, photography, and Chinese cooking, and at relatively low tuition (with scholarships available). There will be seminars on art, film, and poetry, as well as special programs for children and senior citizens. The rooms that offer the building’s most magnificent view of Lake Michigan can be rented for weddings and other functions; community groups can hold meetings there.

And that’s not all. The center plans to convert the coach house behind the north mansion into a restaurant with an outdoor patio, which, when completed, will offer a panoramic view of the lake.

It was from start to finish a textbook example of neighborhood cooperation. The center’s backers somehow or other united the often rival factions of 49th and 48th ward aldermen David Orr and Kathy Osterman, won Park District approval, and then raised about a half-million dollars to cover construction and operation costs.

“So far it’s come together so well,” says Ellen Mazer, the center’s executive director. “It may seem easy right now, but putting the pieces together was sometimes a tremendously complicated process.”

To begin with, there was the issue of demolition. The two mansions were built near the turn of the century for families whose names have long been forgotten. Over the years, they changed hands several times, until they were purchased in the 1940s by the Viatorians, who used them as dormitories for their seminary.

“The Viatorians stayed here all those years when Sheridan Road was changing,” says Jack O’Callaghan, a member of the center’s board of directors. “Why did the high rises come? Simple enough–money. The developers made tremendous offers. You could sell your home for thousands and thousands of dollars. Of course people sold; wouldn’t you? People won’t do anything for money, but they will do some things.

“Besides, I have a problem with this elitists’ notion of mansions. Why should the lake be reserved for a few? Isn’t there something to be said for the fact that now thousands of people who live in the high rises can enjoy it?”

Of course, by the time the high rises were built–so many of them that the stretch from Foster to Devon is known by locals as “the canyon”–the area had long since lost its luster. Many of the mansions had been converted into halfway houses or boardinghouses.

“It was once the beautiful street in the area,” says Kathy Gemperle, another center board member. “Older residents will tell you what a thrill it was to walk along Sheridan and look at the mansions. But over the years a lot of them fell apart. Some were knocked down, or converted into nursing homes. I remember visiting one nursing home around there that was in such horrible condition, I was shocked.”

Throughout the 60s and 70s the high rises came, meeting the demand for lakefront residences, until by the late 70s the Viatorian homes were the last mansions left on the east side of that stretch of Sheridan. And then the Viatorians announced that they, too, were leaving.

“They decided that it was too expensive for them,” says Mazer. “They wanted to be closer to their school, which they had moved to Arlington Heights. The community was nervous because we figured every developer in town was going to be after the land. Estimations of the land’s value ran in the millions. You can understand why–it was the last lakefront parcel waiting to be developed.”

The Edgewater Community Council, the area’s largest community group, mounted immediate opposition. They led protest marches, won the editorial support of the local Lerner newspaper, and asked that the Park District come to the rescue.

“Our strategy was to convince the Park District to buy the land and convert the buildings into some sort of community center,” says Mazer. “We didn’t have plans in those days of running it ourself.”

The Viatorians offered to sell the property for about $2.3 million to the Park District if the district would restrict it to not-for-profit community use. In 1981, the Park District bought the property. But they made a decision about it that angered local residents.

“That’s where the Park District and the community parted ways,” says Roula Alakiotou-Borenstine, president of the center’s board. “The Park District said they would convert the south mansion into a community center”–but they wanted to demolish the north mansion. Park District engineers explained that the north mansion was “structurally unsound.” It would cost far too much to renovate both buildings. The district proposed instead to make a park there, with trees, a terrace, and tables and chairs.

So now ECC–led by Robert Remer, its president at the time–directed their protests against the Park District. They held a series of protest marches (which were well covered by the local paper), including one in which they erected a cross on the Thorndale Street beach that was supposed to symbolize the “death of Lake Michigan.”

In 1983, the Park District compromised. They boarded up the north mansion and postponed its demolition, giving ECC two years to raise the money for renovation.

“That was our challenge;’ says Mazer. “We were all volunteers. We had to do this in our spare time.”

The first fund-raiser was held in 1984. “It was some cocktail party,” says O’Callaghan. “We used a couple of those big fire-engine spotlights to light up the mansion. We surrounded the mansion with lit candles. We had people reciting poems. The Pegasus Players theater group helped out–they put on a sample of Shakespearean plays. We even had a fire-eater.”

By then the Park District had named the 3.3-acre parcel for Albert Berger, a former park commissioner and prominent north-side developer. Osterman then called on Berger’s descendants, seeking financial support. “The Bergers, particularly Ronald Berger, really came through,” says Mazer. “They had grown up around here, and felt a commitment to preserve the mansion. They donated a lot of money, and we were able to use their name to build credibility in the foundation community.

“We had all sorts of fund-raising ideas, including ‘buy-a-brick.’ That was my idea. I got it from Portland, Oregon, where an entire square was paved over with bricks-bought by donors. We couldn’t use bricks, so we settled on small plaques with the donors named on them. You could get your name on the plaque as a donor for $25. Buy-a-brick raised $20,000.”

“Then there was the tour bus and donor luncheon for the downtown foundations,” O’Callaghan adds. “That was quite an endeavor. We picked up some of their representatives downtown, and then took them on a double-decker sight-seeing bus tour of the neighborhood. We showed the community that exists out beyond the high rises. We toured the mansion, and then served them a big spread for lunch. We had Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Greek–all from restaurants in the area.”

That effort led to about $50,000 in corporate contributions.

“Our biggest break came when we got a [federal] Community Development Block Grant of $216,000 from the city,” says Mazer. “For that we have to thank David Orr. But even that was complicated. The grant was awarded in 1985 for the ECC. But by then, ECC had decided the project was too big a drain on their resources. So we became a separate not-for-profit entity. That meant the grant had to be amended and put in our name, which took time.

“Then there are the peculiarities of these grants. The city just doesn’t give you the money. You start your project, and then they reimburse you for your expenses. We had to juggle things. We had to use the money we raised from donors to pay for construction costs that the city grant was supposed to cover. Orr’s office helped us keep track of the money. We had to call the city again and again.

“In a lot of ways, we were fortunate. I’ve heard all the horror stories about CDBGs, where other groups folded because they couldn’t get their money in time to start or finish a project. Ours was a model. We went through it without a glitch.”

Last fall, renovation of the south mansion began, supervised by Alakiotou-Borenstine.

“We wanted to keep the original flavor as much as possible,” says Mazer. So they retrieved the original oak door, which had been stored in the basement, polished it up, and put it in its original place. The marble entranceway leads into a foyer that includes a fireplace decorated by a colorful mosaic in marble tile.

“We have four rooms on the first floor,” Mazer explains. “The living room will be used for meetings or functions. There’s a kitchen, which will be used for cooking classes, as well as a ‘donor’ room, which eventually will be lined with our buy-a-brick plaques.”

The wide staircase leads to about ten more rooms on the second and third floors. The theater and most of the art classes will be held upstairs. The long walls in the hallway can be used to hang paintings for exhibitions. “Sloppy” art classes–watercolor classes, for instance–will be held in the basement.

“The last controversy we settled was over parking,” says Mazer. “If you drive, you have a problem. Obviously, there’s no parking along Sheridan.”

There was talk of building a parking lot behind the center, but many residents objected. What’s the point, they said, of preserving parkland and then paving it over with concrete? So the Park District and the center have tentatively settled on a plan to convert a small strip of Granville that cuts east of Sheridan into a parking lot for 17 cars.

“We will encourage people to carpool or take the bus,” says Mazer. “I don’t think it should be too much of a problem. I hope we don’t have many problems at all. We’ve managed to stay clear of the political wars in the area. We’ve done this with total community support. I think the center is something that all of Edgewater can be proud of.”

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