“Four hundred houses they’ve took down since the first of the year!” says Bill Lavicka, a structural engineer who’s rehabbed dozens of old buildings on the near west side. “The city of Chicago is creating more vacant lots than the Chicago Fire. You can’t keep tearing buildings down. There’s gonna be nothing left in this city–it’s turning into a prairie!”
Lavicka is particularly upset because the day before, on March 11, Mayor Daley had publicly fired Luis Martinez, assistant commissioner in the city’s Department of Buildings, because a historic coach house on West Hawthorne had accidentally been torn down. The press had portrayed Martinez as the fall guy in a messy situation involving the City Council, the Illinois Supreme Court, and Cherryl Thomas, the city’s building commissioner. Lavicka too saw him as a scapegoat. He says Martinez was a good administrator–and one of the few people who recognized that the old city is disappearing and was trying to stop it.
“This guy Martinez has helped me big time. He’s trying to make things work. He helped me go through the labyrinth. Then I hear he’s getting fired. They’ve got this demolition department, and these guys–400 buildings since the start of the year! Depending on the size of the buildings, you figure there’s maybe 20 buildings a city block. That’s two city blocks a week. Gone! Everywhere! I’m not sayin’ save every building. If you save 20, 30 percent of them, then you’ve got something. Take a wing at it. Pioneer and make it work. Lotta people like that out there. Look at myself 20, 25 years ago. Gimme a start with somethin’. Four hundred buildings! There’s so many buildings you can’t sort the landmarks from the nonlandmarks! When you’re tearing down that many buildings, when you got that big a machinery for demolition, you’re never gonna sort it out. How can you possibly do it? The coach house is a symptom of the major malady, which is that you’re tearing down two, three thousand buildings a year. So you take out one or two landmarks–that’s the way it goes. What about the rest of them?”
In the last 20 years Lavicka has rehabbed about 200 housing units. He’s also restored the exterior of Saint Adalbert’s Church at 17th and Paulina, the interior and exterior of Notre Dame on West Harrison, and most of the Lake Street Church in Evanston; and he’s done smaller projects on several other churches, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, where he restored the cantilevered overhang. In 1985 he did a million dollars’ worth of construction at Our Lady of Sorrows, a hundred-room monastery at 3121 W. Jackson, and he arranged to have the basilica of the adjoining church painted. Twenty years ago the archdiocese was planning to tear down the Church of the Epiphany, built at Adams and Ashland in 1885, to create parking for the drug-rehab center next door. The church’s roof was caving in, and the archdiocese issued a report saying it would take a million dollars to fix. Lavicka investigated and produced a counterreport. The roof was repaired for $15,000. “Just like men and women, old buildings tend to sag over the years,” he says, “but they’re still all viable.” His current project is a large building on Madison just west of Racine that he’s turning into condominiums called Old Chicago Lofts.
In a lot next to the condos Lavicka has built a shrine to all the old buildings Chicago has lost in the last century. Five years ago he told HydroAire, the pump-repair company that owns the lot, that he’d clean it up if they let him turn it into a memorial. He started by moving out an old man who was living there in a motorboat. “There was five hookers there who hung around the boat. I chased the hookers out. Had the boat launched and burned, like a Viking funeral.”
At the time the city was in the process of tearing down some of the last turn-of-the-century buildings that once lined Madison. Lavicka salvaged five cast-iron columns from an 1870s storefront and pulled some Indiana Bedford limestone column capitals from another building he estimates was built in the 1880s or ’90s. He painted the columns deep blue and put them in a semicircle with the limestone. He gave a sign painter who was one of his tenants a break on his rent in exchange for painting a piece of marine plywood to look like marble, then painting “Lost Chicago” on it in gothic letters. That sign stands in thecenter of the monument.
Now the guys who own Madison’s Restaurant next door would like Lavicka to get rid of the monument so they can have more parking. “I ain’t takin’ it down,” Lavicka says. “Maybe one day it will be lost too. A lost monument to lost Chicago. But I ain’t takin’ it down now. Fuck ’em. You can quote me on that. Someone 2,000 years from now is going to be excavating our landfills, and in between the big bags full of soggy baby diapers they’re going to find column capitals and say, what was that wondrous civilization they had there? Hah! Wondrous civilization! Rome did the same thing to itself. Took apart the Colosseum piece by piece. All those thieves and carpetbaggers. This monument is like an archaeological dig. It’s pieces of Chicago that didn’t quite make it to the landfill. It cost me about 5,000 bucks to put it in. I spent 5,000 bucks fixing up a vacant lot I didn’t own. That kind of stuff drives my wife crazy. She says, “We’ve got to send a kid to college next year. Where are we gonna get the money?’ I say, “I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll sell a building.”‘
Lavicka is 51 years old. His father was a Czech immigrant, and he’s of mixed ancestry on his mother’s side–a little German, a little Scotch, a little Russian. He’s five feet nine and 185 pounds, with wild hair and broad shoulders and callused hands. He knows how to lay shingles and schmooze with an alderman and quote Faulkner. “He’s a cross between a mad scientist and a construction guy,” says Tim Pieck, a friend, neighbor, and former client. “It’s got to be something outrageous with Bill. He’s not a linear guy at all. He’s eight-dimensional.”
Lavicka grew up in the western suburb of Batavia in an 1855 frame house full of antique furniture and around the block from a hospital built in the 1830s. “A lot of stuff on the Fox River was ancient stuff. Built when craftsmanship was craftsmanship and so on.” From an early age he was building go-carts, forts, and tree houses. “You’re kind of inexorably drawn to certain things. When I was eight my father christened me Bill the Builder. It came true, I guess.”
In 1962 Lavicka entered the structural-engineering program at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He didn’t like the Mies van der Rohe campus. “Everything is completely sterile. The boxes–just steel and glass and brick, and that’s it. Ornament was anathema. You talk to these old Miesian guys, and you would mention ornament. And they would say, “Ornament? How dare you have ornament on your building?’ How dare you have any beauty in your life, is what they were saying. In the east and historically in Chicago there was always ornament. It’s what made the buildings alive, it sparked the personal interest. I lasted at IIT for five years, but every day of it I was saying, this is a death place, these are buildings that are saying, we don’t want anybody around. They may look nice on some little model, but they don’t engage you. You’ve got to add beauty, add carvings, add stonework, add relief. Add, add, add.”
After Lavicka graduated from IIT he entered the navy as an officer and was assigned to the Third U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion. He was sent to Vietnam as a Seabee and served in Hue and Da Nang from October 1967 to August 1969. After returning to the States, he was on an officer’s inspection tour of the Long Beach naval shipyard and met a clerk and part-time student named Alys. After a short courtship they married.
Alys wanted to remain on the west coast, but in 1971 Bill was hired by Sargent & Lundy, at the time the largest structural-engineering design firm in the country. They moved into a six-room apartment on Taylor Street that cost them $100 a month. By then much of the once-thriving near west side had been razed to make room for the University of Illinois campus, though “there were a lot of nice old buildings left.” He started his rehabbing career with his landlady’s flat, sanding her floors and installing a vintage fireplace and some old doors. Then he met Leonard Currie, dean of the art and architecture department at UIC, who was working on a 6,000-square-foot 1860s house on Lexington. The house was in bad shape, and he was putting it back together piece by piece. Lavicka helped Currie, who became something of a mentor. “I said, this is what I gotta do for a livelihood. I like these old buildings. This is my life.”
In 1974 the Lavickas bought a three-story 1883 brownstone on Jackson just east of Ashland from Jose Alonzo, a 70-year-old Santo Domingan who’d raised his family in Chicago and wanted to return home. In the 1920s the daughter of Edward Hines, of the Hines lumber chain, lived there. In the 1950s it was a rooming house. Lavicka rescued a bird’s-eye maple and walnut column from a nearby house that was being torn down and installed it in his living room. He reconstructed archways based on the original 100-year-old house plans. “The plasterwork was gone. I pieced it together, and I molded it. That was one of the reasons nobody wanted to buy this house, because there were lots of missing pieces.” He put in tin ceilings from a torn-down saloon, restored the mahogany, oak, and cherry parquet floors, laid down bathroom slate he’d reclaimed from demolished school buildings, and installed original fretwork. A few years later he would build a greenhouse using curved plate glass that had been discarded when Marshall Field’s redid the display cases in its downtown store. “I found a workman, and I said, “Hey, what are you doin’ with all this?’ He said, “We’re breakin’ it up.’ I said, “Here’s 100 bucks. Save three pieces for me.”‘ Lavicka says he always asks permission to take something and often pays for it. He also built a bell-shaped concrete gazebo in his backyard with the help of Felix Candela, a Frank Lloyd Wright-trained architect-engineer. In 1978 Mayor Michael Bilandic would present him with the Chicago Award for Rehabilitating an Existing Building.
“Bill reassembles artworks into a different form,” says Don DeBat, a former neighbor who’s a marketing consultant to real estate developers. “It may be that the form is more creative and more interesting than the original. It actually gives something back to the art. These architectural elements that he reuses in some of his projects, they weren’t that way originally in all of the buildings. It’s not a faithful restoration, a museum-quality restoration. I don’t think Bill’s into that, although he’s capable of doing that. A lot of times he says, “Hey, I’d like to use this here–a little of this and a little of that.’ And somehow, it works.”
A year after buying the house Lavicka started feeling hemmed in by the regulations at Sargent & Lundy. One morning he forgot to wear his name tag to work, and a supervisor got on his case. Finally Lavicka blew up. “I said, “I don’t need this shit. I quit.”‘ Another supervisor told him to go home early, cool down, and think about his decision.
He came back the next day and marched into his boss’s office. “I said, “Fuck it, Dave. I’m gone.”‘
“A lot of people were feeling what Bill felt, but he went ahead and did it,” says Harry Kuchma, a structural engineer friend who was working with Lavicka at the time. “He took a big chance, but it was one a lot of people were thinking about.”
Lavicka started working on his house full-time, and when Ken Schmidt, a radiologist who’d bought the house next door, saw the work Lavicka was doing he hired him as a contractor. It was Lavicka’s first contracting job; later he and Alys set up their own business, Historic Boulevard Services. “Your life just happens sometimes,” says Alys. “Bill wants to work on old buildings. God knows, that’s what makes him happy. But it has changed our life. I think when our son Kelsey was about nine days old, Bill ran a house tour for a potential client. I had this baby, and there were all these people in our house. I said, “Who are all these strangers, Bill? Why are they here? Can’t we just have our house to ourselves?”‘
Eventually Lavicka would rehab a half dozen houses on Jackson and act as a consultant on many more, and his work would get numerous write-ups in the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and community newspapers. In 1975 he, Alys, Schmidt, urbanologist Philip Krone, and some other neighbors petitioned the city, which had started to establish historic districts, to add their Jackson Boulevard neighborhood to its list. The city did. Later the area also made the National Register of Historic Places.
Some of Lavicka’s buildings have been renovated and sold on spec. Others have been renovated and rented out. Lavicka decries the demolition of old houses, but in many ways the success of his business depends on old materials being available.
In December 1995 the city tore down the Ogden Hotel at Ogden and Madison, from which Lavicka salvaged 150 vintage doors. “They had insets with all kinds of decorative bumpety-bumps and gobbledygoops coming out. So I got these doors. I have to get ’em, because there’s getting to be less and less of them.” At the moment Lavicka owns 300 antique doors, 50 sheets of marble, and 20 fireplaces, as well as assorted arch stops, walnut staircases, balustrades, spindles, and an eight-inch-diameter helix-shaped handrail made of American walnut that he took from a building on Chestnut and Dearborn 15 years ago. He plans to turn it into a sculpture at Old Chicago Lofts. “I’m gonna take that thing, hang it on the wall, and look at the beauty of the curves.” Most of this stuff, including about a mile’s worth of lumber, he keeps in the basement of his office on Madison. The rest of it is in his garage. “See, you can save things. If people stand up–life is pretty much like that Jimmy Stewart movie. No matter if it’s me, or you, or somebody–if you weren’t there what wouldn’t have happened? That’s a good question. It’s a wonderful life.”
Lavicka is both architect and engineer of the buildings he works on. As such, he fits the definition of the ancient Greek word architekton, or master builder, which until around the end of the 19th century was widely used to describe builders of all kinds of structures, from country estates to prisons to theaters to temples. Not until the mid-1700s did the French establish the first official engineering school, the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees. In 1818 the Institution of Civil Engineers was founded in London, followed in 1834 by the Royal Institute of British Architects–the official declaration of the separation of the professions. As the industrial revolution progressed, building materials became more complex and the design of iron and concrete structures more mathematical. Social changes also forced architectural changes; society needed better hospitals, schools, and working-class housing, not just palaces and museums. Architects became increasingly concerned with philosophical and aesthetic questions, while engineers concentrated on scientific ones. These days the professions still cross from time to time, but the division is usually a given: the architect is an artist, the engineer a scientist.
That distinction puts the structural engineer in a difficult position, says Dr. Sidney Guralnick, Lavicka’s civil-engineering professor at IIT. He says a building engineer often has additional responsibilities but none of the glory of an architect or a general contractor. “Structural engineers have to sign the plans with their own names if they’re licensed. And if something should go wrong structurally with the plans that they prepared they are personally liable–whereas an architect who has hired a structural engineer to do that work would not be. So structural engineers are heroes in that they’re out there for everybody to see, and if the slightest thing goes wrong they’ll take the rap.” It’s legal for an engineer to draw up his own plans for architectural work, but it’s not often done. “Bill has decided that he’s competent to do all aspects of it,” Guralnick says. “And that is his privilege and his prerogative.”
Lavicka isn’t modest about his privilege or his prerogative, and he’s not fond of architects, whom he refers to as “artichokes.” “If you don’t create the whole design together–artistic parts, mechanical parts, structural parts–then you don’t build anything that’s any good. A lot of guys in design today kind of divorce themselves from construction, which is a big mistake. Years ago Frank Lloyd Wright used to make his students build houses to see how they’re pieced together. Encompass the whole from the idea all the way through to the final solution–that’s what I do as an engineer. Engineering teaches you everything about building. It teaches you strength, structure, foundation, piping, heat, and insulation. It gives you a broad basis. It does not teach you an artistic style. But you can go to the Art Institute for 25 straight years and still draw badly. Beauty and eye are not taught. You either have an eye for beauty or you don’t. Years ago a guy who used to work for me used to pick on people who had eyes like a potato. A potato has eyes that can’t see, and there’s lots of people out there that have eyes like potatoes.”
In 1977 Lavicka discovered and republished a turn-of-the century construction manual titled Masonry, Carpentry, Joinery. The book, essentially a beginner’s manual on building a house from scratch, captured his imagination; in it he saw the roots of his vocation. In a brief introduction to the book he wrote, “Good construction is not a phenomenon of today, but rather an evolutionary one that has come about with man himself.”
The book–written in simple, clear, jargonless prose that makes it appear that anyone could put up a house in a matter of days–was originally published during what Lavicka, among many others, considers the great period of Chicago architecture. But its subject is small-scale–domestic buildings and public-works projects. “All this stuff they made years ago was art. Everything was art,” says Lavicka. “Sewer covers were art. Everything that people touched had to have ornament, even the factories. They weren’t just rectilinear spaces. The rush to build after the Chicago Fire, it was like the old west–a confluence of artists, carpenters, craftsmen, and machines. The 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s were like the heyday of art, engineering, and design. Since then everything has gone down. When the Miesian buildings came in, the developers were making so much money, because everything was so simplified. They made double or triple their normal profits. But you can create beauty and still pay a fair wage to workers.”
Guralnick says that Lavicka’s sensitivity to the quality and low cost of recycled materials is what makes his rehabbing possible. “In this day and age where everybody is focused on the bottom line, if he couldn’t show cost-effectiveness it would be a sort of futile exercise to argue rehabilitation on aesthetic grounds alone. When it was argued on aesthetic grounds alone it was a failure. Now that Bill has been able to show it both on aesthetic grounds and on economic grounds it makes sense. What Bill has shown is that some things can be preserved that are part of the fabric of the structure and are quite expensive and don’t have to be replaced, whereas other things do. And he’s been able to sensitively walk the line between that which really must be replaced and that which can be preserved to hold the cost down.”
But Harry Kuchma points out that Lavicka’s work does have inherent expenses, and since he works on a small scale he doesn’t have much room for error. “He maybe got the materials for a nominal cost, but he has to have the guys take this stuff, they have to haul it, they have to stack it and put it into the building. So when you get down to it, there’s virtually no difference in cost than if you had concrete block or vintage stone. He’s just doing it because it’s a beautiful material with a nice texture and nice color. You can’t get anything like that anymore. He looks to make a reasonable profit, but on a lot of those buildings the profit margin goes from low to none.”
In the spring of 1994 the city was preparing to get rid of just about the last old near-west-side building on Ashland, a pretty three-story house of no particular architectural significance that was built in 1888 for $12,000 for a Dr. H.H. Brown. The city had acquired the house in the mid-80s, and Ted Mazola, then the First Ward alderman, had bought it and was supposed to move it somewhere where it would be protected. Several years went by, and Mazola started trying to talk the city into demolishing the building. The city agreed, but the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency stepped in and asked Lavicka to buy and move it.
Lavicka agreed to buy the house and move it around the block onto Adams, where it would be safely ensconced in the West Jackson Boulevard Historic District. “It was a big to-do with the city. The corporation counsel was very slow to react. Sixty pages of documents I signed to save that building. The city absolved itself of responsibility. I took all the risks.” Lavicka was supposed to move it by the first of March, but there was a foot of snow on the ground. In mid-March he hired a South Bend construction firm that specializes in moving houses to thrust steel beams through the basement walls of the 340-ton building and jack it up onto heavy truck dollies. It took several hours to make the two-block journey, including a tricky right turn off Ashland onto Adams, where the house was very gingerly deposited.
The 5,000-square-foot mansion with four bedrooms and three and a half baths now has a curved-room addition, a curved-glass oriel on the west side, and a third-floor deck. Lavicka put a lot of stuff he’d been saving into it–there’s stained glass everywhere.
But not all the reclaimed materials are vintage. To make the finials, the ornaments on top of the turrets, Lavicka used bowling balls and garbage cans. “A bowling ball’s a perfect finial. They’re giant. They stand out. They’re made out of a plastic that will never die. They’ve been bowled 10,000 runs down the lane, and they just take the abuse. I drill holes in them and I put ’em on the roofs. A garbage can, it has flutes and things on the inside. It’s made solidly. At a sheet-metal shop, the garbage can that you bought for $30 could be done by somebody for a thousand. But it’s at scale, and it helps complete the top of a roof. You piece them together with a round of cedar, and you’ve got a soothing finial to any house.”
The house now stands next to one of Lavicka’s most intricate projects to date, a massive two-story, two-turret house at the corner of Adams and Laflin. Though the house looks old, Lavicka built it in 1994. To get permission from the City Council’s Landmarks Preservation Committee to build new, Lavicka showed them pictures of the 1893 two-turret Florenz Ziegfeld mansion that once sat across the street. Lavicka put all kinds of things he’d been collecting into the new house: staircases, spindles, macrame-beaded fretwork, Tiffany lamps, solid oak doors, hand-carved stone fireplaces, copper piping, a copper roof. One of the turrets contains a tiled solarium, and the basement has a wine cellar. The base of the house is made of granite from Madison Street, which was torn up when the city built the United Center. Lavicka spent months chipping away at the paving stones to give them the right look.
Chicago’s history is more deeply embedded in its buildings than that of most American cities. Epic battles have been fought over Chicago’s design, from the Burnham plan to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s massive urban-renewal programs of the 50s and 60s to the destruction of the Maxwell Street Market. In its architecture the forces of economic expediency have always clashed with aesthetics; it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the two successfully merged. “The new buildings of Chicago were not constructed by the city, by religious organizations, by educational institutions or by private groups as palatial edifices,” writes Hugh Dalziel Duncan in the introduction to the third edition of Chicago’s Famous Buildings. “They were built by businessmen and they were built for profit. Even the Auditorium, which was the civic and cultural center of Chicago for many years, was built to make money. It was a civic center, a hotel, and an office building. It was financed like any other business venture on the expectation of profit.”
This is Lavicka’s ideal Chicago: a city of wealth, opportunity, and beauty. It’s the Chicago that Theodore Dreiser describes in Sister Carrie, one of Lavicka’s main artistic inspirations: “It was a city of over 500,000, with the ambition, the daring, the activity of a metropolis of a million. Its streets and houses were already scattered over an area of seventy-five square miles. Its population was not so much thriving upon established commerce as upon the industries which prepared for the arrival of others. The sound of the hammer engaged upon the erection of new structures was everywhere heard. . . . The city had laid miles and miles of streets and sewers through regions where, perhaps, one solitary house stood out alone–a pioneer of the populous ways to be.”
Dreiser describes a splendorous near west side, a neighborhood Lavicka has reconstructed in his imagination many times over. The street names–Madison, Jackson, Harrison, Lake, Ashland–represent nothing less to Lavicka than lost glory, as do the names of the families who once lived there: the Chalmers, the Palmers, the Harrisons, the Pinkertons, the Wilsons. In a recent article for a real estate magazine Lavicka wrote about the house he moved to Adams: “She had seen a lot, the short heyday of her youth, the parties, the elegance of the turn of the century. Ashland was such a grand boulevard that from Lake to 12th Street they wouldn’t let the noisy street cars come.” Later the wealth moved away, but the buildings remained. “The growth of industrial Chicago meant the growth of Union Chicago. And where else should they house themselves better than in these Ashland mansions so close to Haymarket Square? The clothing workers, the Teamsters, the carpenters, pipe fitters, masons, milk drivers, lithographers, working men and women now filled the rooms of the former bosses. If the walls of these Ashland mansions could speak, they would first tell of captains of industry plotting to get the most from labor and shortly thereafter labor answering, “no, not without just pay and safe working conditions.”‘
In the 1960s urban-renewal policies led the city to demolish more than a hundred Ashland mansions, many of which had become brothels, fraternity houses, or single-room-occupancy hotels. Then in 1963 the city declared the crumbling near west side a “conservation area,” under a program intended to rehabilitate whatever buildings remained. But many of the buildings were rehabbed by politically connected developers who, with the support of community groups such as the West Side Conservation Community Council, pushed out low- and middle-income residents.
Lavicka has sometimes had the support of these groups, and he too has political connections. And certainly he’s been responsible for some of the gentrification of his neighborhood. In his real estate magazine article he invites “you new titans of Chicago” to live in his Adams-Laflin houses, which are listed at more than $500,000. And when he says he and his neighbors were “trying to figure out how to bring more interest” to the historic district on Jackson Boulevard, there’s no doubt whose interest they were seeking.
Still, his sympathies are broader than those of many developers. For instance, he fought the city and Alderman Ted Mazola on the Maxwell Street closing. “He doesn’t want to be a big tycoon or anything like that,” says his former neighbor Don DeBat. “He’s always had a grass-roots orientation. He wants to be a neighborhood guy. He doesn’t aspire to big projects. And he could–he could be a developer on larger projects if he wanted to.”
“I’m not driven by money alone,” Lavicka says. “If I can make some money at my business then I can do more of what I like to do. I’m getting in a little trouble lately because I like to design everything completely. People say, well, maybe you shouldn’t do that. In the one building I just did I wanted to put some mermaids around the front door and paint ’em, because I have this artistic gal, and she’s wonderful at painting like that. You ask too many questions you get, oh, don’t do that. But an artist is somebody who does it, and then waits for his acclaim or the wrath. And my business is not completely analytical, in that I create things that I consider beautiful and I hope that somebody else wants them. But I say, damned if they do or damned if they don’t.
“One of the guys I knew 20 years ago, he helped build and dismantle Wicker Park. He would renovate a building, and tradesmen would come up to him and ask him if he wanted to do it this way or that way. He’d wipe his nose and crinkle up his face. “I don’t give a goddamn,’ he said. “Do it the cheapest, the dirtiest, because this is not my place. I’m not gonna live here. I’m just trying to sell the damn place.’ Some of these buildings around here, they don’t have any fire walls in the middle of the houses, they’ve got insulation that is eight inches thick. If a fire started it would burn everybody out. I couldn’t live with it. It’s probably saving a guy, on six to eight buildings, between 20 and 100 thousand dollars. He don’t care. He ain’t gonna live there. There’s a lot of shit goin’ on out there, and the consumer is the last to know.
“Gentrification is something that has to happen. If you don’t have gentrification you have Detroit. You have mile after mile of nobody. If I could say one thing about poorer neighborhoods it’s that the city of Chicago tears building after building down so you can’t even think about gentrifying. These are capital stock, stone-front beautiful buildings built with craftsmanship and pride. Never gonna be replaced. It probably costs $10,000 for each of these buildings to get torn down. And there’s nothin’ gonna rise in their ashes. They’re making neighborhoods where there’s one building missing, then another building missing. It’s like, you get one bad tooth you pull that. You get another bad tooth you pull that. Pretty soon you got a smile with nothing but gapped teeth, and you might as well tear the whole neighborhood down. It’s been this way for 30, 40 years. The capital stock is diminishing. You talk about poor people and beauty–the one good thing about the rich running away from their stone houses in Chicago is that people who are poor have been able to move into them, have a stone-fronted house, have carved woodwork, a staircase, have a fireplace. They can live there for 40 to 100 thousand dollars. That wouldn’t buy a wooden coach house of 1,000 square feet in Naperville. But it will buy a 5,000-square-foot mansion on any one of the boulevards in Chicago.”
Lavicka isn’t much like the legions of politically connected developers who’ve run the city for decades. The figure from the past he most resembles is Richard Nickel, the architectural photographer who made it his life’s work to photograph, document, and if possible save the buildings of Louis Sullivan. Nickel–who was crushed by falling I beams one night in 1972 while pilfering ornaments from the old Stock Exchange, which was in the process of being demolished–was the first to openly, publicly protest the demolition policies that came out of City Hall. Lavicka says that any contemporary movement to preserve architecture in Chicago stems from Nickel’s work.
Like Nickel, Lavicka protests the tearing down of buildings. And if he fails, which he often does, he tries to salvage whatever he can. He’s Nickel with some capital, but his work represents the same blind act of faith regarding the worth of Chicago architecture. “Bill could have lost a lot of money, declared bankruptcy–a lot of things could have happened along the way,” says IIT professor Sidney Guralnick. “But he’s the kind of guy who’s an eternal optimist, and that optimism carries him through. He’s gonna do it, and by God it’s gonna get done. He’s persistent, he’s smart, he’s savvy, and he doesn’t give up.”
In the last few months Lavicka has grown increasingly frustrated with the city’s new “fast track” demolition policy. Since 1992 the Daley administration has made several policy changes that have allowed the building department to speed up the process of knocking down abandoned or boarded-up buildings: increasing funds for demolition, speeding up the court process, and permitting demolition crews to use explosives to quickly bring down industrial buildings.
On March 4, the day before his 51st birthday, Lavicka decided he had to do something. He stormed into City Hall, headed up to the fifth floor, and demanded to see Mayor Daley. He’d met Daley before at official functions and thought he’d be granted an audience. But he waited an hour, then was told to go downstairs or risk arrest for loitering. He went down to the lobby intending to camp out, but 15 minutes later was escorted outside by the police. Lavicka yelled at the police and continued yelling after he was on the street. Soon a police officer came outside and told him to leave or he’d go to jail.
Lavicka went home and whipped off a letter to the mayor. “The City of Chicago has created a monster bureaucracy whose job is to destroy the capital building stock,” he wrote. “Chicago is literally devouring itself, starting from the foot, and is now up to about mid-thigh.” He also kept calling City Hall and finally got a meeting with Roger Kiley, Daley’s chief of staff.
The day of the meeting Lavicka took with him a list of homes that had recently been demolished and a letter in which he wrote, “The Great City of Chicago is underwriting its own demise. Why not reverse this wholesale carnage and create workable policies which force the General Services, Building, Housing and Law Departments to put vacant lots and buildings into private hands? I estimate that the city presently owns some 10,000 lots and has another 10,000 in some state of demolition lien proceedings. Further, I guess that another 10,000 buildings will be torn down in the next four years at the city’s present demolition rate.”
He included a number of suggestions for saving buildings from demolition, including giving the building owner the $10,000 that would be spent on its demolition with a three-year deadline for property improvements, an open bid for city-owned vacant lots and buildings with a one-dollar minimum bidding price, and a five-year, 1 percent limit on county property taxes on the lot’s purchase price. His proposals, he wrote, favored neighborhood residents. “It is a difficult if not impossible task to rein in and control a government bureaucracy, because the Chief’s tenure is always short compared to the Indians. But in this case, swift and direct action is needed to reverse these shipwreck courses.”
Kiley greeted Lavicka but said he was in the middle of a big conference and couldn’t talk. He introduced Lavicka to Terry Teele, an assistant to the mayor, and Lavicka presented his case to him. According to Lavicka, their conversation went as follows:
Lavicka: “The city of Chicago is knocking down 200 buildings a month with public money, and private money is putting up maybe 20 a month. Something’s gotta change.”
Teele: “But there’s nobody in those neighborhoods, and the neighbors that are left want their houses safe. They can’t stand an abandoned house on their block.”
Lavicka: “Look, man, I know all about the west side. I know all about the vacant houses. Tell the neighbors when they complain that you’ll give them the house for a dollar. And they can fix it up. And get the city out of ownership of property and land, because they’re not good at it.”
Teele told Lavicka he was proud of the demolition program, that the city’s Chicago Abandoned Property Program (CAPP) had already made abandoned buildings available to communities at little or no cost, that CAPP grants were being routed through local political organizations.
“Forget about political organizations,” Lavicka said. “Get it in the public. Forget about going through the political process. This is what’s killed it. You gotta recycle houses. You politicians only seem to be good at knocking things down.”
Teele and Lavicka went back and forth for nearly an hour, then Teele went back to work.
When Kiley came out of his meeting Lavicka told him about all the vacant lots the city owns. He says Kiley looked surprised and said that he’d met with several department heads about the lots the day before and they’d told him nobody wanted them. Lavicka said he knew plenty of people who’d want them. The two men agreed to keep in touch, and Kiley went back to his meeting.
Lavicka felt frustrated. “I tried to talk to these guys,” he says later. “You know, they’re pretty obtuse. But I tried. See, Kiley had some big super meeting–Soldier Field, Meigs Field, McDome, McState Street, Marshall Field’s, something. They’re not paying attention to the neighborhoods. Kiley, he seems like a nice old guy, 65-ish. But you had Gery Chico in there for a couple of years before that. The advisers, and the mayors for that matter, they come and go. But we’ll be right here. Obtuse. I looked it up. That’s what they got down there. Kiley semi picked up on it. These guys, if they get a little heat they react. But if they don’t get heat they’re complacent.” His voice trailed off.
“We’ll keep going. I’ll keep going. Shit, I live here. I’ve got to. They got kids walkin’ the streets not knowin’ what to do, and they got people with no money–and they got houses they’re tearing down with public funds. The houses are capital worth. They’re stone, bricks, and mortar–capital worth of a hundred years. It’s just terrible. Do you have to go to engineering school to figure that out?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Randy Tunnell.