Wolves at the Door

Developers are in a feeding frenzy in the Prairie Avenue Historic District. Next on the menu: Ed Magnus’s mansion.

By Sarah Downey

Just after twilight, as the jackhammers and power drills finally slow to a stop, Ed Magnus looks up from the bricks he’s loading into the back of his pickup truck. For a few seconds he savors the silence, then sighs.

The construction is done for today, but it will start up again tomorrow, and it’s projected to continue for at least another three years. His neighborhood on the near south side has become newly desirable–even Mayor Daley lives there–and a housing explosion is saturating the blocks nearby with high-end condos and town houses. Magnus, who owns a 117-year-old relic of Chicago’s Gilded Age, can’t help feeling besieged by the new forces in the neighborhood, where he used to be nearly all alone.

Magnus has owned the former Marshall Field Jr. mansion at 1919 S. Prairie since 1993. Coaxing the dilapidated building back to its former glory hasn’t been an easy job, and it’s been made tougher by the fact that he’s had to wrestle with the city and developers. (I first wrote about him in a cover story for the Reader on September 10, 1999.) “I’ve been sort of kicked around enough to where I’m almost oblivious now,” says Magnus, who spent six years renovating the 8,000-square-foot coach house at the rear of the mansion before he moved into it.

Not long after he did, a conglomeration of town houses, duplexes, and flats known as the Commonwealth on Prairie Avenue rose across the street at 1918 S. Prairie. “They’re not exactly an architectural masterpiece, so I guess my house doesn’t fit in with them,” says Magnus. And for the past two years, he’s been involved in a legal battle with Rezmar Development Corporation, the Commonwealth’s builder.

Distracted by the sound of crunching gravel outside, Magnus peers down the driveway to see an approaching SUV. Two men dressed like cops get out, and one asks Magnus if he knows who the owner of the mansion is.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Magnus replies.

“Oh, OK, ’cause we work security for McCormick Place and we’re always driving by this place–mind if we take a look inside?” asks one of the guards, who will identify himself only as Elvis.

“Yeah sure, I guess so,” says Magnus.

“We love old architecture–we’re real history buffs,” Elvis says. “My partner here just got back from Gettysburg.”

The partner wants to know who shot Marshall Field Jr. in the bedroom upstairs. Though the heir’s death in 1905, of a gunshot wound to the abdomen, was officially ruled a suicide, it was rumored at the time that he’d been killed by a female companion who was not his wife.

“Well, there are a couple of different stories,” Magnus says with a smile as he leads the pair inside.

If Magnus charged a few dollars to every unannounced caller he’s led through his mansion, he might have the money to make it habitable. But probably not the $2 million needed to restore it to its original condition.

The Queen Anne-style chateau was built in 1884 by Solon Spencer Beman during a break from his duties as chief architect for the town of Pullman. Beman went on to design Michigan Avenue’s Fine Arts Building, then was called back to Prairie Avenue to build a castle for piano magnate William Kimball. Now known as the Kimball House and owned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, that building is one block north of the Field mansion, across the street from Glessner House.

Tourists flock to the restored Glessner and Kimball houses. But more and more people have come by wanting to see the Marshall Field Jr. mansion, especially since Magnus put it on the market in July 1999. He was driven to it, he says, as a strategy to protect his home from Rezmar.

Rezmar has bought up just about every parcel of land around the mansion, beginning in 1998 with the purchase of the abandoned Hump Hairpin Factory across the street. Once that was flattened, Rezmar began work on the Commonwealth, and followed with a pricier option just to the south called Cornerstone of the Commonwealth. Rezmar then bought the parcels on either side of the Field mansion and set up its sales trailer just outside Magnus’s front door.

At one point Rezmar offered Magnus $525,000 for his mansion–less than some of the Commonwealth condos sold for. Magnus, who paid $62,500 for the house and estimates he has put about $250,000 into repairs, would like to get more like $1 million. When he declined Rezmar’s offer, their relationship went from sticky to claustrophobic.

Rezmar took Magnus to court in May 1999, alleging the mansion’s condition violated several city building codes–it had holes in the roof, rotted window frames, and missing gutters, among other things–and requesting custody of the building through receivership. “Rezmar is substantially adversely affected by the property and its condition,” says the filing.

It’s never easy to take something the other party doesn’t wish to give, and Rezmar v. Magnus is no exception.

The mansion has been a labor of love for the 39-year-old Magnus, who studied business and economics at Southern Methodist University, is partial to jeans and work boots, drives a rusty 1978 GMC pickup, and does his own carpentry. He has experience as a real estate developer, having rehabbed a building in Kenwood into condos a few years back. (Four out of the six units have been sold.) While aware that Rezmar’s philosophy differs substantially from his, Magnus still can’t understand the legal claim that “the dilapidated condition of the Property has been and is presently damaging Rezmar’s ability to sell and market its adjacent developments.” Sales at the Commonwealth projects were brisk even before the court action, and the units have sold out entirely since.

And in November, Rezmar got permission from the city to expand its Prairie Avenue holdings. They’d already spent $2.9 million to buy the warehouse abutting Magnus’s property at 1905 S. Prairie. That site was once home to the mansion belonging to Marshall Field Sr., which was leveled in 1955. Now the site is called Phase 3, an opulent string of 30 four-story town houses with price tags that top $1.5 million. “Row-house mansions, if you will,” is how George Papageorge, the project’s primary architect, described it at a neighborhood meeting last fall. More than half have already been sold.

Such success had Magnus thinking his new neighbor might consider backing off. But Rezmar has learned to take advantage of city subsidies following its success as a low- and mixed-income developer; in May 1999 a partnership it’s in received $2.5 million in city financing to build the $13.2 million Cottage View Terrace. And it still has the Marshall Field Jr. mansion in its sights. “It’s absurd,” Magnus says. “What comes after this, Phases 4, 5, 6, 7, 8?”

Little more than a decade ago, vacant lots and abandoned buildings made up most of the available real estate on the near south side. But Magnus had an uncle, Alexander, a developer who saw potential in the beleaguered Prairie Avenue District. Magnus saw it too, after Alexander brought him in to supervise conversion of the Atwell Building at Cullerton and Prairie into commercial loft space. Magnus was drawn to the forlorn-looking relic up the street, particularly when he learned his grandfather had been a doctor at the Marshall Field Jr. mansion in its days as a sanitarium in the 1920s.

The sanitarium became a convalescent home, which went bankrupt in the late 60s, and the Field mansion had been sitting abandoned for two decades when Magnus first saw it. Although the area had been designated a historic district in the late 70s, the Field mansion (which never received landmark status) had been too expensive a renovation project for fledgling preservation groups. Left behind were years of deferred maintenance, a defective sprinkler system that had weakened the ceilings, and changes in decor that included the placement of plastic tile over inlaid wood.

It was little more than a paradise for squatters by the time Magnus bought it. They scattered when he began boarding up windows, but Steve Swafford hung around the neighborhood so much that eventually he became Magnus’s trusted watchman. “He stopped a few break-ins,” Magnus says. In early 2000 Rezmar took court action that got Swafford kicked out on a building-code technicality: no indoor plumbing. “He took it a lot better than I did,” says Magnus, who hasn’t seen or heard from Swafford since.

Magnus could probably teach classes in how to fight city hall–all the code-violation business since Rezmar moved in has become his draining daily grind. He was married last spring, and the thought of moving his wife and adopted six-year-old son to more conventional confines has crossed his mind. “I don’t need this,” he says. Getting pummeled by municipal forces with their own agenda is “a microcosm of the real estate business. Somebody tries to stop you from determining your own fate.”

For almost two years he’s had the property listed with Patrick Fegan, who’s led potential buyers “on hundreds of showings. People come in groups–architects, roofers, electrical guys.” The house has gone under contract a few times–each potential buyer seemed long on vision, Magnus says, but came up short on financing.

Scott and Debra Seger found the building that houses their bed-and-breakfast–the Wheeler Mansion, at 20th and Calumet–through a tip from Magnus. They met him a few months after he bought his property, when they dropped by and asked if he knew what was available in the neighborhood. Preservationists speak of the Segers’ work restoring the Wheeler Mansion in reverent terms. So when they expressed interest in buying the Marshall Field Jr. mansion, it seemed like a good sign.

Magnus says he was hopeful when they walked through with a prospective business partner, less so when they returned with Terri Texley of the city’s Department of Planning and Develop-ment, which provides subsidies to commercial interests. Were the Field mansion a bed-and-breakfast or condominium project, it could qualify for a TIF (tax increment financing) subsidy or other tax breaks. But there isn’t much funding available to people who just want to live there.

In February the Segers offered Magnus $500,000, he says (the Segers won’t confirm that figure), and he turned them down. “I think I’d be the first person to say the mansion should be renovated,” says Debra Seger, but “if you want to sell a piece of property, price it comparable to what it’s worth. I’m always interested in paying fair market value.”

The day after Christmas, Rezmar brought Magnus to court to sign an affidavit testifying that “the premises are secure and no person including Steve Swafford, is residing in, inhabiting or using as shelter the main house at 1919 S. Prairie, Chicago, Illinois.”

The salt on the wound came last month, when Rezmar asked for a detailed progress report on 1919 S. Prairie: repairs made, offers tendered, and contractors contacted since 1998. Perhaps they’ve heard about Magnus’s thoughts of moving, because they also requested a list of current residents and an estimate of how long they expect to live there.

“The real issue here is safety,” says Cary Donham, the attorney for Rezmar. “You have a building that the city of Chicago has described as having dangerous and hazardous conditions. There’s a dangerous and hazardous chimney. Things could fall off….I would anticipate the judge would be interested in the status of the sale of the mansion. And what’s been done about the building-code violations.”

Magnus is supposed to come up with an answer by his next court date, on Monday, April 16.

He’s thought of one possible reply: “I was here first.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.