The Schneider Building as I remember it

Vol. XII No. 3 - WINTER 2001

By: Carl Helbig

There’s a high rise in my neighborhood of 100 year old houses. It was built in the late 1970’s as public housing for seniors. It’s called the Schneider Building by the City of Chicago but my neighbors call it the “Senior Building”. It’s on the land between Ridge and Peterson just east of the RR tracks that run along Ravenswood.

One day last fall my friend and neighbor Art Gregg, retired from the telephone company was raking leaves when I stopped by to chat. I’m a retired bricklayer and sometimes when I see people outside I like to take the opportunity to find out what’s new. Art said “It’s Halloween and the Senior Building will probably have a good meal today. You should stop by.” Art is a regular at these Senior lunches but I usually don’t go- too busy I guess. But on this day I decided that my wife, Lorraine and I should go.

When we got there someone unlocked the door for us to get in and we were directed to a lady to pay $1.25 each. Then we were directed to the dining room. I found myself looking closely at the building as we walked down the hall. So this is public housing for Seniors. I count myself lucky that I can visit the building but I don’t have to live there.

The dining room was full of long folding tables with orange plastic tablecloths. Although it was before 11:30 a.m.- the usually starting time- many were already eating. Others were standing in line. A tall black lady, wearing a witch’s hat and a black costume was directing things. She told us to find a table and sit down and she’d let us know when it was our turn to eat.

As we sat waiting, Lorraine commented “There’s not much privacy here; everybody’s watching everyone else eat.” I answered, “What did you expect… booths? It’s not like eating at a restaurant. It’s a Senior Center, service is buffet style with trays.”

We were called up to the buffet by the “Witch” who handed us our trays. Then she got 4 more trays, filled them with food and delivered them to those who had trouble walking. This was helpful since soup was one of the items on the menu. She even helped Lorraine when she appeared a little unsteady as we made our way back to our table. So I was seeing both the up side and the down side of living at the senior building. It’s not very homey but on the other hand there’s help when you need it

While we were sitting there eating I suddenly got a flashback of a time, long ago, long before there were any senior centers.

When I was six or seven, my father took me to a Thanksgiving dinner given by the Salvation Army. The dining was set up much the same way. It was during the Depression. My father couldn’t find any work so we were on relief and to supplement our diet we caught rabbits. It was nearby since Lorraine and I live in the house my grandfather built.

About a block away there are railroad tracks. Just on the other side was an open prairie where the rabbits lived. My Dad and I would wait for a snowfall and men track them to where they hid in the snow. We’d just fall on them. Some days after a good snow we came home with a burlap sack with six or more live rabbits. We’d let them loose in our shed and catch them as needed for a good meal. My mother made Hasenpfeffer, German pickled rabbit out of them. To break the monotony sometimes she’d cook them like chicken. It was really hard to tell the difference, the taste was the same as chicken to me.

But at that Salvation Army Thanksgiving everyone was saying they weren’t serving turkey but chicken. I remember looking at it and saying, “Pa, are you sure this isn’t rabbit” Rabbit legs look just like chicken legs. I wonder what made me remember the rabbits, sitting mere at the Senior Center on Halloween. Maybe the smell and the seasonings, the people, the surroundings or even me location.

Who can say. But as I remembered that Thanksgiving one memory connected to another.

The Senior Center is built on land that had a long history in my neighborhood. It was once the homestead of the Egan family. So being in the building just made me think about how the building got there. It’s all connected to what happened when the neighbors found out about the City’s plans for the site.

The Egans lived at that location for two generations. In that time my friend Bob Egan lived there with his parents and 7 brothers and 2 sisters. Bob’s uncle built the most modern ice plant for the times at 5900 N. Ravenswood which was just around the corner. He later sold it to the Consumers Ice Company, (this property is now public housing- Sec. 8) The Egans were a hardworking family. They were the neighborhood movers, ice men, police men and tavern keep. Bob was a business agent in the Carpenter’s union. This was a family that knew how to be good neighbors. When my mother passed away while I was in Czechoslovakia in the service of my country (WWII) the Egan brother’s were my mother’s pall bearers.

So when the City announced it was taking the land and would tear down the Egan homestead and other nearby homes and replace them with public housing the neighbors got together. Bob told us “some of the neighbors had already sold. The minute the City put that big red X on the sidewalk in front of their houses, they panicked and sold out” But the other neighbors didn’t give up so easily. They raised money to hire a lawyer. I heard that even S+C Electric contributed. One of our neighbors, a professor at Loyola University, became our spokesperson. We held a meeting at the American Legion Hall at 6040 N. Clark. Ultimately, the City won and demolition began. The Egan’s were moved from their homestead but John Egan kept the tavern across the street open. From there he could keep an eye on the site.

Construction began for the high rise. It’s reinforced concrete. When it was done I learned mat the company I worked for got the job for the bricklaying. The company’s superintendent, Joe, wanted to make sure all of his crews were busy. He directed Frank, the labor foreman who lived a 1/2 block away to load all the floors with brick in preparation for the project. After they were all up, Joe found out that the architect didn’t want the short 8 inch brick, but rather the long 12 inch brick. Joe didn’t want the office to know that he had made such a mistake, so he had Frank work extra hard to get those short bricks down off the building and back to the factory, and the right bricks up again on all the floors.

It’s very seldom a bricklayer gets to work close to home. We always felt it was a conspiracy between Joe and the office. Did they use a dart board when assigning work? They sent the bricklayer who lived far away to work near your house and they’d send you to work near then- house. So imagine my surprise when I got the call to the site. It was 1/2 a block from my house! The office never tells us what jobs they are estimating so I had no idea this would happen. If I had known I wouldn’t have contributed to its being built. Going there everyday to work just kept reminding me of the Egan Family and what they had lost.

The company that I worked for was run by mostly German immigrants. It was humiliating to have to work for Germans when I had fought against them during WWII and won. The foreman on the job was Willy. I reported to him and asked, “What am I supposed to know about this job?” I already knew more than I wanted to about how it got started. He took a look at me and then said “If Joe thinks he can dump anyone he wants to on me that he doesn’t know what to do with, he’s wrong.” We were not getting off to a good start. I had never worked under Willy before.

It’s customary for the brick layers to eat and store their tools in the shanty on the site. On this job I learned not to lay the brick with orange side facing out. In the shanty we sometimes traded stories. The other bricklayers wanted to know more about what I did in the American Army on other jobs. I was a Morse Code radio operator in the Combat Engineers and got two battle stars for being in the combat zone. But my most interesting job was after the war in Graves Registration, finding the American soldiers bodies that were buried by the Germans, disinter them, identify them, and bury the soldiers back in France. Of course I told them about some of my experiences. During one of these sessions Willy began telling us German Army stories. He monopolized the lunch time.

Willy said he was in a foxhole with all his ammunition when over the hill came two American tanks. He said, “I had two choices, surrender or run. I took off my ammo belts, left my rifle and ran like hell. I ran until I was out of breath. I stopped and fell down. I felt something sticky on my butt. I looked at my hand- it was blood. I’d been shot. I went to the medic. He asked, “How did you get shot back there?” I’m sure he knew. When Willy stopped talking I couldn’t resist a comment. “When I took Advanced Infantry Training while in the United States, they taught us that if we could ever get a tank in our rifle sights, well, it’s almost like being in heaven. You really had three choices. Number three was shoot at the tank.” Everyone laughed. He said, “You’re one to talk. All you did was pick bones!” Two days later I was sent to another job. Willy didn’t appreciate my analysis.

I got a call back when the job was almost done and it was time for the washing of the bricks. But Willy wasn’t there. It’s an important, dangerous and smelly job. The main goal was to eliminate any smears of mortar on the face brick. But the acid wash can also eat away at the joints in the wall. As varnish marries wood and brings out the wood grain so to the acid wash marries the brick and brings out the grain and colors. This was the last step for us. I worked again with Willy and became friends with him. I even tried to interview him. He had become Americanized and said “No one wants those stories anymore.”

The building was completed and landscaped, ready for occupancy. It was ironic that a building that my neighborhood was against ended up being my place of work. It’s amazing what one will do for a job. Now my neighborhood is in the shadow of that high rise. One of my neighbors even claims that living in the shadow of that building is causing his heating bill to be much higher. The Egan’s bar still stands at the corner of my block, always reminding me of the neighborhood that used to be.

The first time I heard that the building was called the Schneider Building was when I was told it was my new polling place. That’s a good German name, the name of some settlers in the area. But I can’t help thinking it would be more fitting if it were called “The Egan Building”.