Elegy for a 100-Year-Old Red Brick House

It’s being torn down! Not my house, but the dark red brick home with the curved glass windows and pleasant tree-lined yard that has stood on the corner of what is now Milwaukee and Long Avenues for 107 years. The house with the beautiful evergreen tree and the magnolia tree whose stunning pink blossoms remind me each year that summer is not too far away. I’ve lived in a condo across the street from this charming home for 14 years.

Before there was a condo, before there was a me, before two World Wars, and before most of us who are alive today were born, this house stood at 5374 W. Lawrence Avenue. This history-filled home was built in 1912 (and cost $8,000 to construct), a year in which New Mexico and Arizona became states, the Titanic made its last voyage, the first electric traffic light was switched on in Salt Lake City, and Oreos, Lorna Doones, and Life Savers were first introduced. (Some sources say the home was built in 1914, but I’ll stick with 1912.)

Every time I grill on my second-floor deck, watch a sunset, gaze at people enjoying Jefferson Memorial Park across the street, or look up from a game of Guess Who with my wife and son in the twilight, I’ve seen this house and taken its permanence for granted. I’m sure the hundreds of people who walk by it each day heading for the Metra and El, or going to the park or on a shopping trip, have felt the same way. Others may not care one iota, but that’s fine, too. It’s the kind of solid house that you think will be there forever, that is, until gentrification hits your neighborhood like it’s eating away at many historic Chicago neighborhoods along Milwaukee Avenue and in other areas. Like it or not we live in a capitalistic society where profit is viewed as far more important than history or the simple wish to preserve an old house that’s been part of the fabric of the neighborhood since William Howard Taft was president. 

The destruction of this house has caused me to look back at my time in Jefferson Park and be reminded that nothing lasts and that time marches on. We moved into this neighborhood from Lakeview in 2005. The diversity of the housing stock in Jefferson Park reminded me a lot of the homes in Beverly/Morgan Park, where I grew up. But unlike Beverly—with its large Irish and African American population—Jefferson Park had a significant Polish population. In 2005, the neighborhood was much more Polish than it is today, although it is still has a very strong Polish flavor. Store signs were in Polish; people would address us in Polish when we went into stores and restaurants; we were the only non-Polish speakers in our favorite neighborhood bar, Cafe Ya (which replaced the Golden Duck); and the red and white Polish flag would wave from balconies and cars on Polish Constitution Day. We were in our mid-30s with no kids, and barely knew anyone in the neighborhood. This may sound weird, but, as a runner, I rarely saw other joggers on the street. There were few really good restaurants other than Gale Street Inn and the Golden Duck. Today, we have a 9-year-old son, the neighborhood is full of runners and walkers, there are many more wonderful restaurants, and we have many great friends in our area. Jefferson Park was a nice place to live then, but it’s a great place now.

I’ll remember this house especially for its stone front porch in which two, and sometimes, three older men, held court. After we moved in, I spent more and more time on our front deck. I was fascinated that they’d sit there for hours, barely moving, just watching the world go by. As I lived here longer, I realized these men did more than just sit. On St. Patrick’s Day, they brought their boombox out to the front porch and rocked the neighborhood with their music. Irish music, country music, 70s classic rock, even a little radio-friendly rap. They’d also play their tunes occasionally to spice up the mood at our local farmers’ markets in the park. Some people viewed this neighborhood “concert” as wonderful, while others considered it unnecessary noise. The “porch guys” liked their music, but didn’t cotton to the noise of others. They’d yell at drivers stopped at the light for playing their music too loudly, and they’d blow a whistle if people disobeyed traffic rules. As someone who has been annoyed by ear-shattering vehicle music at all hours of the day, I welcomed their occasional “conversations” with drivers. I also welcomed their use of music to drown out the profanity-laced arguments that would spill out onto Lawrence Avenue from the employees of the ground floor business unit of our building. Men screaming at each other in the middle of Lawrence Avenue is not a selling point for any homeowner.

The red brick building men had a perpetual yard sale a few summers back. Every weekend, they’d set up tables and their goods in their back yard, and we wondered how they could possibly re-supply this ongoing sale. Curious, my wife, my son, and I wandered across the street and met one of the “porch guys.” We introduced ourselves, we bought a few Matchbox cars for our son, and the pleasant man gave our son a few free cars and some keyrings. We never spoke to him again, but we continued to see him and the other “porch guys” on many summer evenings for years thereafter.

And then the “porch guys” sightings became fewer and fewer. Then the men were gone. Their absence became a mystery to us. A regular component of almost every warm night on the deck for 13 or so years was replaced by an empty porch and a largely dark house. Where had they gone? Was one sick? Had they moved? Did they find a better porch? In a strange way, we missed these near strangers who brought a lot of porch sitting, occasional music, and a bit of drama with loud drivers into our lives.

But back to the red brick home, which I learned—after plans to preserve the building were thwarted—was known as the Wachowski-Ray House. And boy did it have a lot of noteworthy local history! Much of this I learned by reading an article by Susanna Ernst in a publication of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society. (Here’s a link to the article, courtesy of the society.) The first Mass for St. Constance Parish, which was established to serve a growing Polish population in the area, was held at the home in 1916. St. Constance, which is located several blocks west now, still exists to serve the community. One owner, Dr. Joseph Bux, based his medical practice at the house. Imagine all the medical advice and good and bad news dispensed under this roof. Another owner, a Norwegian attorney named Olaf Ray, advocated as early as 1918 that the “L” be extended to Jefferson Park from Logan Square to increase business in the neighborhood. That dream was not fulfilled until 1970. Ray was well-known in Chicago and even internationally. He also donated a painting of a Viking ship to the Jefferson Park fieldhouse in the 1930s. I stopped into the fieldhouse yesterday, and a very helpful lady showed it to me and my son.  

But now the house is mostly rubble. Its residents’ stories are just memories to friends and families and those who care about local history. A new probably thoroughly ordinary apartment development will replace this stately building (which, I admit, needed a bit of work) and its pretty yard. Doers and achievers may walk the rooms of this new building, making new history in Jefferson Park, but nothing can replace 100+ years of history, and that’s a shame.

My neighborhood has many examples of preserved and/or repurposed buildings, and I wonder why we couldn’t have found some way to preserve the Wachowski-Ray House. For example, the owners of ERIS Brewery and Cider House preserved a historic former Masonic Temple. It’s a stunning place with great food. When you sit there and soak in the architecture and history, you are grateful for far-sighted people who sought to preserve, rather than destroy, the past. ERIS just received the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for its efforts to preserve history. ERIS Brewery (4240 W Irving Park Road) and the Jefferson Park Masonic Temple (5418 W. Gale) will be part of Open House Chicago tours through the Chicago Architecture Foundation on October 19 and 20, 2019.

The facade of the Wachowski-Ray House still remains if you’d like to take a look, while the rest of the house consists of a big pile of bricks, metal, and wood. But you need to act quickly. The construction equipment is on the move and soon the Wachowski-Ray House will be just a memory–like many other Chicago buildings that are long gone. (Postscript 1: The facade was knocked down on the afternoon of September 26, but the solid front steps and lower brick walls still remain.) (Postscript 2-: Only a pile of bricks and other rubble remain as of April 21, 2020, but a beautiful magnolia tree is in bloom in the front yard. It was one of the first splashes of color this spring, and a welcome daily break from monochrome winter.)

I’m sure there’s a home or other building in your area like the Wachowski-Ray House that’s beautiful and filled with stories of people who built your neighborhood or just lived fascinating lives—but one that could have a date with the wrecking ball. I understand that every older structure is not worth saving, but many, many are. Let’s try hard to save some of our local history before it’s replaced by cookie-cutter real estate developments that reduce the wonderful architectural diversity of our Chicago neighborhoods. It’s too late for the Wachowski-Ray House, but not for the charming homes or other buildings in your neighborhood. And, if nothing else, try to learn the stories of the people who came before you. With each bit of knowledge you gain, your neighborhood will become that much more interesting. 

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes

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6 thoughts on “Elegy for a 100-Year-Old Red Brick House

  1. What a beautiful tribute to not only a building, but what that house represented. It is so sad to learn of its demise only to be replaced with a new construction which in time will develop its own history. For some people, that will be the only “history” they will know of the home/building on this site. This makes me think of Shel Silverstein and the “Giving Tree”. Your elegy will give a permanence to this house that defies its destruction and you should be comforted by this.

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy – I am glad that you did the work to find out more about the house and the people that lived in it and then put it all together in one spot. I walk by that spot on the way to and from the train station several times a week and was just a bit sad to see the demolition crews start their work. This post may be the only lasting tribute to that house!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, Greg. Thanks for reading the post and for your thoughts. After doing a bit of research, the pretty house became more than just an attractive abode, and it was neat to learn about its history. You’re right, my article and the one by Susanna Ernst, will probably be the final word on a beautiful home that graced the corner of Long and Lawrence for 107 years.

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