Eyewitness News

Vol. VI No. 1 - SUMMER 1994

By: Kathryn Gemperle

On the morning of Sunday, September 4, 1994, the roof of a partially vacant commercial building on the corner of Berwyn and Clark collapsed without warning. EHSers Kathy Gemperle, Martha and John Kraeger were at the scene.

Martha heard the rumble… not an earthquake, but something. She decided to take a look around with her husband John. At the corner, they heard the sirens and saw the speeding fire truck turning up Berwyn to Clark. It was only a short hike up the sloping “sand dune,” now paved with a sidewalk. At the top stood the remains of an elegant old building. The roof of the old Charles Mattison Ballroom had caved in, knocking out part of the north wall.

“History in the making!” thought Martha. She quickly returned home with John, grabbed her camera and phoned me to meet her there.

A crowd was standing by quietly, in wonderment. Latecomers asked, “Was it a bomb?” “No. No, it just collapsed,” someone answered. Three vehicles were smashed by debris and a city of Chicago photographer was recording the event. I likewise began taking pictures.

A young man, owner of a red pick-up, stood in the street looking despondently at his crushed driver’s side window. I proffered, “You must have nine lives. Do you need some pictures?” He said, “Yes, please! I called my brother, but it may be awhile before he gets here. I just parked the truck and went into the church. Then there was a loud rumble. My name is Tim.”

The firemen taped off the area with that yellow “do not enter” hazard tape and waited, watching what was left of the standing wall. It could still fall down; one fireman had noted the presence of rusty metal structural pieces.

The crowd thinned, many moving on to tell others to go and have a look. A tow truck appeared and the firemen directed the relocation of the crushed vehicles. Now the destruction of the parkway trees was more apparent. The young ash trees were split and splintered, branches laying among the terra cotta rubble.

Church services were over and a new crowd of spectators gathered on the sidewalk. Questions were posed to them: “Didn’t anyone hear a rumble?”… “Wasn’t it a little distracting?”… “Does anyone own one of the cars?”

The churchgoers responded: “What happened?”… “Sure we heard it. One of our ushers was walking in when he heard the rumble. He began walking toward the sound and stopped at the alley, just in time to see the wall fall right in front of him. Well, I guess it made a believer out of him!”

The most often asked question was “why?” - “Why did a roof collapse on a well built building?”… “Maybe the owner knows.”… “Who’s the owner?”… “Reza.”… “No, he sold it. He was going to use it as a banquet hall but he couldn’t get a liquor license.”… “What about the businesses on the first floor — what will they do?”… “Can the building be fixed?”

City inspectors and people from the Mayor’s office arrive on the scene — it’s Sunday and there’s a Bears game. They have other things to do. Mr. Doyle from the Building Department says, “Unfortunately this is not such an uncommon occurrence in the city. A building may look fine, but there’s been deterioration that is hidden. Then all of a sudden — collapse.”

More photos are taken as the Streets and San truck arrives with wooden sawhorses to block off the area. Next will come a clean-up crew with a scoop - heavy equipment for heavy removal.

We ask whether we could have some of the “debris” for the Edgewater Historical Society - some fragments of the beautiful terra cotta work to save for posterity. The owner, Danny, says “Sure!” and Martha races home while I stand watch over our selected “treasures.”

Martha returns with her car; husband John comes with a little red wagon. She takes the smaller of the two terra cotta pieces in the car. John lifts the large one into the wagon and walks down the flattened sand dune that passes for a hill in Chicago, treasure in tow.

No one was hurt. EHS preserved a bit of history and “The City That Works” took care of everything else. Not a bad Sunday, all in all.