To Be or Not to Be...

Vol. VII No. 1 - SPRING 1996

By: Sandra A. Remis

That was the question last May: whether ‘twas nobler in the City of Chicago’s mind to facilitate the establishment of an Edgewater Historical Museum Center at its vacant Fire Station at 5358 N. Ashland Avenue, or to take arms against the Edgewater Historical Society’s burning desire and, by opposing, end our dream. For the answer, keep reading. (For the anxious, a hint: we’re sleeping a little easier now!)

First, let the stage be set.

Edgewater became part of the City of Chicago in 1889 when Lakeview Township voted for annexation. The area’s first firehouse, a wooden frame building, was constructed a short while later, in 1890, at the corner of Ashland and Balmoral. The original address was 3179 N. Ashland, making it the most northerly located station in the city at that time. When the Chicago uniform numbering system was established in 1909, the address was changed to 5358 N. Ashland.

Hose Company No. 6 was organized at the station on January 6, 1891. When the Hose Company was discontinued in September 1895, it was replaced by Engine Company No. 79. In September of 1925, the Engine Company was temporarily relocated to 1525-45 W. Rosemont Avenue, while the original wooden building was torn down and replaced with the present brick structure (see photo on page 3). The design of the new building shows Art Deco influence in the limestone details on its brick walls.

The new station was in use as a firehouse from 1926 through sometime in the 1970s, as far as we’ve learned to date. In recent years, it was used as a polling place and for testing, first by a unit of the Chicago Department of Environment and then by the Cook County EPA. But mostly the building just fell into disrepair.

The Edgewater Historical Society had been seeking a location for a home base since it was founded in 1988. With competition for commercial space being strong and rents high, our hopes, at first, were not. Various options arose from time to time, but we were always restrained by our ability to raise funds.

Still, heeding the sage advice of Daniel H. Burnham, author of the famous 1909 Plan of Chicago, we made “no small plans.”

Over the last eight years, EHS expanded its membership to include founders, residents and those who have moved far away but still cherish memories of “the old neighborhood.” We worked, raised funds, scrimped, saved and gained recognition for our efforts along the way.

In 1991, our fledgling newsletter, the Edgewater Scrapbook, won a superior achievement award in the Congress of Illinois Historical Societies and Museums’ (CIHSM) competition for publications. The Chicago Historical Society, a much older and more well endowed sister, also won a superior rating that year, proving we could compete with the best!

In April 1992, EHS was delighted to receive the Pride of East Edgewater Award for 1991 from the East Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, in honor of our services to the community.

In addition to the many programs and tours EHS offers as part of our normal scheduling, information, research and photo collections are made available to the public through speaking engagements, special exhibits, help given to elementary and high school students, participation in neighborhood events and “causes” and media exposure in print and on cable TV.

But, without a “home,” the Society’s collections of information and physical items have to be stored in members’ houses, under far from ideal conditions, not readily available to other members or the public. We have to sadly decline donations of certain items simply because of our lack of storage space. Organization is extremely difficult.

The drama unfolds

In 1994, EHS begins to explore the possibility of acquiring the vacant Fire Station at Ashland and Balmoral as an office and museum. Precinct captain Chris Grant shows us the building so we can assess its feasibility. Our physical analysis of the site discloses:

  • 2,700 square feet of space
  • A handicapped accessible building in the center of the Andersonville area
  • A neglected but historic building worth saving
  • A building in need of systemic repairs well beyond the money EHS has accumulated for future expansion
  • A building we like, despite the above point

In 1995, steps were taken to prove community support for founding a museum center. We start a petition drive and succeed in collecting over 1,800 signatures. We are gratified by the support of Aldermen Patrick J. O’Connor and Mary Ann Smith, as well as many Edgewater neighborhood organizations, who write special letters to Mayor Richard M. Daley on our behalf.

A budget is developed for the project and EHS solicits Alderman O’Connor’s crucial aid (the Fire Station is in his ward) in approaching the City to discuss the acquisition process. EHS prepares a formal proposal to Mayor Daley, offering to purchase the station for $1. (The City has been known to accept such offers in cases where one of its properties is under utilized, dilapidated and would cost more to repair or demolish than it cares to spend.) We then apply for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for funds to rehab the building.

Alderman O’Connor presents the proposal and begins to negotiate with the city on our behalf. The Alderman becomes ill and the political process goes into hiatus. The Alderman recovers and negotiations resume. In December 1995, we are promised an award of $25,000 in CDBG funds - after we acquire ownership.

EHS makes arrangements for legal and accounting services and forms two ad hoc committees. Carl Helbig is named chairman of the Building Committee to oversee the needs of the firehouse itself. Betty Mayian and Judy Rodgers are appointed co-chairs of the Fundraising Committee.

The plot thickens

EHS starts 1996 in high spirits. An expert, John Arcanne of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society, has already been consulted on how best to proceed with fundraising efforts. A survey is prepared and distributed to EHS members to gauge their support of acquiring the Fire Station, in terms of potential monetary pledges and donations of in-kind services. A kick-off benefit is planned for the spring.

But the necessary political and legal “happenings” are stalled. Voting on the Fire Station has already been scheduled, postponed and rescheduled with the City Council several times. The city’s Legal Department needs more information about “this.” On the advice of our lawyer, EHS needs more information about “that.” The idea of a leasing agreement, instead of outright purchase, is proposed to EHS for consideration. Offers and counter offers ensue.

In the meantime, the kick-off benefit has to be postponed. Instead, EHS introduces a new bimonthly publication, Edgewater Notes, to keep members and the community at large informed of timely news about the Fire Station and upcoming events and as a fundraising impetus. It is estimated that $125,000 will be needed for repairs. Bids are put out for a restoration architect, received and assessed. The local firm of Greene & Proppe Design, Inc. is chosen.

The climax

On May 9, 1996, under a measure sponsored by Alderman Patrick O’Connor (40th), the City Council agrees to sell the Edgewater Historical Society a building, at 5358 N. Ashland Ave., for $3,000, with the understanding that such building cannot be sold by the Society for ten years. We agree!

The 1996 CDBG award of $25,000 is reconfirmed and another $25,000 for 1997 is promised. The restoration architect prepares designs. The Building Committee seeks advice and bids from several contractors.

On Sunday, June 30, EHS throws a “thank you” brunch at the Edgewater Beach Apartments for Everett C. Stetson, a lifelong Edgewater resident, EHS board member and frequent contributor of photos and reminiscences to our archives. He has just made a large capital contribution to our Building Fund and, in appreciation, we intend to dedicate the museum center’s main exhibit hall to him.

The denouement (?)

A $3,000 cashier’s check is made out to the City for the Fire Station but is still held by EHS, pending resolution, to our satisfaction, of several points including proof of title and environmental issues. The clock is ticking on the CDBG funds; we must use the 1996 award before year end or lose it – but first we have to take possession of the building.

To be, or not to be. The final scene cannot be played out until our contract with the City is signed, sealed and delivered. EHS is doing everything possible to ensure a happy ending.