The core of his passion was this: he loved old buildings. Bill was a builder, a man of his hands. He was medium height, stocky, with a sailor’s forearms and big broad hands, a tousle of reddish hair and a ruddy face. He spoke in a thick nasal Chicago-ese. He loved old buildings passionately and fought to save them. His greatest brawl may have been with UIC, while I was a graduate student there. That’s where I met him. I joined a little coalition, an oddball group of sorts, a handful of students and miscellaneous folks who for one reason or another cared about old Maxwell Street, long after the market had been removed from the area. But the old buildings still stood. They were fine old-style commercial buildings that we wanted to save, while also saving this little piece of the city.
Bill, Steve Balkin and Elliot Zashin were politely invited into the Chancellor’s office to discuss the matter. But Bill confronted him so persistently about the buildings that the flustered Chancellor warned he would press the security button under his desk. Bill also confronted the university president about the buildings. That was tall, gaunt, silver-haired Mr. Stukel, a bespectacled, dignified man of the engineering sciences, who must have looked down his long nose to Bill with utter disdain, grimacing at the site of this doughty building rehabber who rattled on ceaselessly about some old buildings.
Bill confronted the Planning School dean in the buffet line at a banquet. He told the dean to set down his plate, stick his hand in his pants and perform an unspeakable act upon himself, just to ensure his manliness. Later in the evening he arose unbidden and shouted to the room, “There’s forty old buildings down on Maxwell Street! Now we can save those buildings. What’re you people doing to save them?!” The room, full of urban planning students and their polite professors, was shocked. Bill hounded them afterwards to show some courage, but he couldn’t get any of the academics to speak out for the old buildings.
Bill was relentless. He hollered, he ranted, he was thrown out of university board meetings on at least two occasions. Bill fought to save old buildings like other people would fight to save their own house, with pure moral conviction. But it wasn’t as a preservationist, per se. He worked over the old buildings to give them a new personality and use. He knew every inch of them, their structure, their bricks, their beams, their slats and plaster. He milled his own woodwork and made his own ornamentation. He transformed them. He was an artist with an old building.
His culture came of his work with his hands. And he built very beautiful stuff. Bill was trained in structural engineering and served as a Seabee. He returned from Vietnam and, in the early 70s, went to the rough and abandoned west side to begin the work of his life. He saw beauty there and started restoring the 1500 block of West Jackson Blvd. That was in the city’s dark days, long long before fixing up old Chicago houses became fashionable again. Some faded late-19th century homes still stood in rows on this one block of Jackson, more or less intact. They are big stately homes, Bill called them “town mansions”; most had been split up into boarding homes. Bill told funny stories of the old madams who were the owners of many of them, who lived there and conducted their business on the skid row up on Madison Street. He began with his own home at 1520 W. Jackson, what he called “the best buy I ever made,” where he and his wife Alys raised three children.
That was back when the west side’s old graystones had begun their long decay and nobody much cared. They were full of original parts and pieces, ornate bannisters, stone mantles, fine doors, wood trim and boards, and various pieces of exterior stone all lying about. These could be bought cheap or sometimes taken. Bill told the story that late one night he encountered the dean of the College of Architecture out “salvaging”. The dean urged Bill to keep quiet about it, which he must have for a long time, though later he told the story with a chuckle. Whatever Bill salvaged he always put back into the west side and enriched the place.
He gave each room of his home its own special character. Each held some objet d’art that Bill himself created. He combined the old dining and front sitting rooms into one long magnificently wood-trimmed room, with a grand piano filling the middle. Across this lay a huge wooden piece formed of salvaged walnut handrails, carefully finished and set there as a giant sweeping serpent. Further back he built a modern kitchen with fine brickwork and a small dining room with walls covered by paintings he had picked up over the years. I recall two big gray-tone portraits of the stubbly face of Hizzoner Richard M. In the corner stood a chunk of richly polished fir fashioned into feminine curves with strange protruding copper wings, a piece he called Heat.
Bill liked to have friends here, where he served olives, cheese and his wine Chateau Chicago. He told one pithy anecdote after another of the characters he encountered around the city. Bill came to the city in the era of Richard J. Daley, but Richard M. became the constant, distant object of his efforts of persuasion. Bill respected the mayor but feared no one, so far as I could tell. One morning, the story goes, he was holding up an anti-Daley sign in a park near the medical district, where the Mayor was to speak. The Mayor came and was soon surrounded by sycophants, but after his packaged speech he broke away and went over to Bill, greeting him. He must have found Bill’s dissent refreshing.
When Bill rebuilt his Angel Lofts, an old apartment building on West Madison out near the arena, he remade each floor in different ways. On the first floor he built a 2-level coffee shop with colorful tile mosaic floors. He kept a drafting desk on the second level for a while. Our little coalition had good times in the place, plotting against the university and “breaking bread together,” as Bill put it, often opening some Chateau Chicago. There were some zany Friday night poetry recitings in the coffee shop, too, in which Bill gave his own readings of some steamy stuff from an old book of translated French poetry he found somewhere.
He gave each of the apartments its own special attributes in layout, woodwork, and ornamentation with magnificent doors and fireplaces. In one, the intimate front parlor connects to the modern dining room/kitchen, with a high passage through which light may pass from this area to the bathroom of the main bedroom. This bathroom is big, airy, filled with fine light. It complements the bedroom, a great brick-walled room with a 20’ ceiling, voluminous yet quiet and private, lit softly from far back by windows opening on a raised porch. The man knew how to arrange space and make it magnificent.
Each building was a composition of carefully crafted rooms and parts, joining together what he salvaged with what he fashioned himself. He built new structures and put old magnificent doors in them, and fantastic colored glass, and his great finds of curving glass, and marble, ornaments and accents, copper finishings, even cobblestones from the old streets, turrets, spiral staircases, cupolas, cornices, attics, chimneys, fanciful spires composed of colorful odd pieces, and ornamental carvings in the facades. He even took a great stone window from a demolished mansion and fashioned this into a canopy over a door.
On South Calumet, a south side street with too many missing teeth amidst its rows of old homes, he joined elegance to the whimsical, reviving a badly dilapidated old house with light, colorful decoration and structural art. It feels a small version of his own home in the front room of lovely woods, fireplace and staircase. He built out the back in a turret topped by a lantern of block glass. This enlarges the kitchen and the master bedroom upstairs. But downstairs this space becomes a neat little wine cellar hidden in the multi-room basement. It breaks through the stone foundation, with curving rows of clay tiles to hold the bottles, receiving a natural coolness.
Bill combed the south side and the west side looking for buildings to buy and rebuild, each a custom job. He never rushed. He was a craftsman in the old sense, working in his own pace and sense of time. Though he took it up a notch because he was, after all, a high-energy Chicagoan. “Hey Alan it’s Lavika!” he hollered once in the answering machine at my 18th Street apartment. He was looking for intelligence on buildings to buy in Pilsen. He bought, rebuilt, held it as long as it took, eventually reselling.
Bill picked up properties where he could at estate sales and tax sales and so forth. He picked up whole buildings and moved them, and had some colorful stories to tell about that. He would do anything to save a building, and to save the city around it. Wherever he built a building or moved a building, he fit it nicely into the context of the block and the neighborhood. So he achieved a high art, where each part of a room, and each room of a building fit together nicely, and each building complemented its spot in the city. His work fully embraced the city; he never fenced it off or turned his buildings away from it, as other builders of his era usually did.
As always he went against the grain. But he was just the sort of man the city needed for his time, one who picked up what was lying about and embraced it with a great openness and generosity. He must have acquired some wealth in property as he made a good living for his family. But of avarice there was none in him. The point for him was not earning rents; the purpose for him was rebuilding the city. He fought for old buildings because he loved them no matter who owned them. He could be a s.o.b. hollering at his workers. Yet he treated them well, employing them for years and bringing their sons into work for him. After a while working with these guys he could pepper his speech with a little Spanish, which pleased him greatly.
We all learned what it was like to work for Bill one summer Saturday in the late 90s, when we gathered at the northeast corner of Halsted and Maxwell, recently cleared by the powers that be of two old buildings. We made a little park of sorts. We painted a “wall of fame” on the brick wall of the adjacent building, with names of the musicians and other notable ones who were associated with the place. While the girls were working on that, the guys began digging under Bill’s direction out in the middle of the lot, through really hard debris-filled dirt. When these holes were deep enough we hauled up heavy railroad ties and held them in place, with Bill aligning them, pounding on them, pushing them into angles, shouting, hollering, banging with a hammer. His workers mixed concrete, poured it down and strapped the timbers together. Finally at the end of a long afternoon it formed three big black letters MAX.
Bill sent me across the street for a couple six-packs from the liquor store and pork chop sandwiches from Jim’s. He sat and munched on one of these and contemplated his sculpture, or whatever it was. And the sturdy thing stood there for a year or so, reminding the world that some vital place had been there long before the university arrived and took it over and called in “blighted.” Eventually the university tore down the MAX and everything else around it in its ongoing TIF-financed takeover.
The travail over Maxwell Street went on and on and became a struggle to stop the TIF. The university, to entice its selected developer into the deal, had to get a TIF designation over the whole area. “But for,” the monies made available from this taxing district, the redevelopment would never happen. Or so they had to argue. One morning Bill, Steve, and another guy I can’t recall (maybe Merlin?) showed up at a meeting of some little civic review committee called together by the city to look at the city’s TIF districts. They barged in and caused a stir, being told by the startled committee chair that they had the wrong day, that the “Roosevelt-Union TIF” was not to be discussed that day. But they wouldn’t leave, demanding answers.
This was in city hall. The planning commissioner’s staff chief, a sometimes tactful lady, came out and to everyone’s relief led these guys (I tagged along) into an adjoining conference room, where Bill promptly demanded to see the planning commissioner. The lady replied that she worked for the planning commissioner and that he was not disposed to meet with them at the moment. Bill hollered, “We’re sent over there, we’re sent back here, this whole thing is just…incestuous!” He stormed out in disgust and headed to the 5th Floor where the Mayor would give him some answers about TIF. Bill went in there forcefully but we never got past the outer reception of the mayor’s office.
Lori Grove put together a second full proposal for national historic district designation, a masterful effort that was nearly approved but finally blocked by the political appointee heading the state’s historic commission. But by then a lot of the buildings were gone due to the university’s aggressive removals, and the national historic committee expressed concern over the area’s “integrity.” This might have caused some to give up but not our little coalition. Meanwhile the university got its TIF designation over the area.
We must have caused enough of a stir to provoke some reaction from the city, because over the course of a couple years the planning department commissioned two alternatives to the university’s plan. They were beautiful renderings of the old buildings along Halsted restored and preserved, with new structures of the university mixed in. Bill used one of these drawings with forceful effect when the day finally came for review of the TIF, and the university’s make-over of the area, by what was called the Community Development Commission (or something like that) in city council chamber. It was another of those committees established by the city to monitor the city’s use of the peoples’ money, and always seemed to approve whatever was proposed anyway.
Bill stood before them, or rather he ranged up and down the floor before them, for a good twenty minutes. He was forceful not ranting, holding up the beautiful renderings, casting them aside, coming again and again to his point that the university could do otherwise, that the fine old buildings could be saved. Steve spoke too, “But for! But for! But for!” he said mocking the hypocrisy of granting a TIF district for an institution that qualified for it by causing its own blight. After many testimonies the commission gave its predestined verdict of approval quietly. Then the chair meekly admonished the university officials to be attentive to preservation.
There was something compelling in the way Bill talked about Maxwell Street, because he summed it up in a couple phrases. “There was one color down there,” he said, “It was green. The color of money. Green was the only color that mattered down there.” The city’s racial divides melted away in the market’s friendly bustle. That was the joy of the place. And that’s what Bill and the rest us felt was lost when the buildings were lost. It was about a lot more than just those bricks and mortar, although there were good bricks and mortar and still very useful.
The university came out with a “facadectomy” proposal to save the faces of a few buildings, which drew tons of derision. But it was a big letdown. I tried to shift the coalition’s interest more toward helping the old market thrive in its new location, but Bill showed little interest in that. One evening as we met in my Pilsen apartment he dramatically quit and walked out the door. But the spirit of the market drew him back again some years later, when he came up with an idea for a monument to link the old market with the new.
This idea was presented to the authorities as only Bill could do it. He more or less invited himself into a meeting of a city-sponsored arts committee. The city had retained an architect to design the new market’s layout when it was relocated again to Des Plaines Street. And she drew it just as any architect would who knew nothing about the market, showing tidy rows of little squares for the merchants to fit into. It could never work that way on the ground, as Steve Balkin well knew. Regardless, the city went ahead with it and promised $30,000 for some public art. Hence the little committee, that both Lori and I were invited to sit on.
We politely reviewed the concepts of divers sculptors and painters and installationers. None of what they showed invoked any sense in me of the beautiful grit of the old market. But one evening Bill, accompanied by his friend and architect Alan Johnson, got into one of these meetings and took the floor with his own proposal, which blew everything else away in terms of scale and vision. His rendering showed a spacious plaza and round raised stage with a curving wall showing a “march of the immigrants” in silhouette and names of the great ones of Maxwell Street. A foot bridge links it across the expressway to the Hull House museum. Street musicians would find a good place to play for the crowd and everyone would find facilities conveniently located in the back.
The committee had no authority or budget for this but at least Bill livened up the meeting. His point was, if you want to commemorate something great then build something great, dammit. And his concept could still be built to give the new market some sense of permanence and a link to its storied past. Bill told such stories in his work, always referencing the great city in one way or another. Like the big “ball glove” statue he built in a west side park, marking the third base line of a little league diamond. It was the trunk of a tree made like an arm with a ball glove sculpture he salvaged and repaired. It took a “catch” from the so-called bat sculpture way down Madison Street downtown. There was no subtle allusion in that one!
He expressed his sense of the sacred in a work he may have loved the most, his Vietnam Veterans park. Again it came together from good salvaged pieces, set out on a couple city lots. He took cast iron columns and limestone and fashioned these into a ring. The columns are deep red, the stone is black. He put flag poles in there and young trees that continue growing. I recall one warm summer evening when a lot of veterans gathered there and Jimmy Lee Robinson played guitar in the street. But most days the park simply serves as a quiet respite in the city.
Bill expressed everything with his hands. As with his Chateau Chicago – he didn’t just buy wine he made his own with his own hands, in his basement. He brought in California grapes each year, crushed, aged and bottled it, slapping on a handsome town mansion label. What he made he freely shared with friends, and he had many friends from years ago. In light moments, relaxing with them, his thoughts came out as a flow of witty quips usually directed at some person of authority. He spoke in that slightly high, raspy voice, and what came out was quite earthy. He had an old Chicago way of phrasing his remarks; he greeted friends with a “hiya’,” a woman young or old was “sweetheart”.
It’s how he took on the little authorities in their little bastions of power around the city. He took on the university, the west side Medical District, even the Archdiocese when he tried to save old churches over the years (though he was a bit more reverent toward the bishops). What humored him, what irked him, what got to him about people, was their high sense of self-worth, their high opinion of themselves, their complacency. It was their complacency in the face of the city’s decay and the loss of its beauty that bothered him.
He mocked them all in a poignant, friendly way. He summed up one developer and perennial board member, a smiling guy in suspenders who was obviously well satisfied with his own success. His smile is so wide and gleaming, Bill said, that “he struts when he sits.” He always had a pithy comment for these types. But he saved it for those in power and nobody was beyond his range. He told a story of standing on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue one winter day when the Rev. Jesse Jackson came surrounded by aides. Bill wanted to speak to the Reverend and called to him, but he brushed by. So Bill hollered after him, “Hey Jesse I thought you were a man of the people!” The Reverend apparently heard that, reversed course and returned to greet Bill.
Bill was an individual in the best sense, that rare individual, the one ingredient to spice up the pot, fearless in confronting authority, which every democracy needs.
To get an appreciation for his life’s work, in his own lingo, you should read his self-published autobiography Urban Structure, which he dictated to a friend in the last months of his life.
– Sept, 2014