By: Kathy Gemperle
The new Edgewater Historical Society Museum opened with a celebration on October 6th with a group of over 300 attending. The contractor, MP Construction was patiently waiting for his last payment and the hope of finishing the work room was set on the back burner.
The celebration was the culmination of six years work and negotiation to repair the abandoned fire house and create a wonderful new facility. As most members of the society already know the process was slow and what was a single project got stretched out into four phases over six years.
It all began with a conversation at an EHS board meeting- can we buy a building and create a museum? Our attempts at finding rental space had failed. The library was overcrowded, there was no room at St. Ita’s and not enough room at Edgewater Presbyterian. Since we had noticed that there was no activity around the firehouse at Balmoral and Ashland we decided to make some inquiries. Chris Grant, the precinct captain who had been using the place for voting, loaned Thom Greene the key and we went to take a look. Then the whole Board wanted to take a look. It was pretty depressing, no furnace, broken windows and minimal working plumbing.
We asked Chris to advise us on what steps we should take. We determined that we should announce our plan to the community and seek their support through letters from community organizations and a petition drive. We took petitions everywhere we could think of and amassed about 1800 names. Then we put together a proposal to the Mayor and asked Alderman Patrick O’Connor to carry it to the Mayor. O’Connor then took it to the City Council who approved the sale to us in March of 1996. He also let us know that we could apply for a Community Development Block Grant which was due in May. We were still discussing the condition of the building and what steps we would have to take to repair it when Everett C. Stetson, one of our board members offered that he was prepared to make a sizable donation to the project. We officially received the donation in June of 1996 and began making plans to complete the purchase of the site. In October of 1996 we went to the Department of General Services office to complete the purchase and take possession of the building. We sought the services of Greene and Proppe Design in order to develop a plan for the building. A small group of the Board of Directors met at the GPD offices to discuss what was needed in the space. It was clear that the main area of the garage was going to be the main exhibit and meeting area.
We learned that the City of Chicago would require two handicapped accessible bathrooms on the first floor. The back area of the building was below ground. We determined to make the lower part a crawl space and to create a kitchen / workroom at the same level as the main floor. On the second floor we kept the room arrangement the same but had to build a wall to meet the requirement of an open hallway to the fire escape exit stairs. We also planned to eliminate the larger bathroom that was once used by the firemen and make it a store room. We attempted to create an airlock at the main entrance to keep the drafts of winter out. But there was not enough room for it and that plan had to be abandoned.
After the plans were drawn up we applied for a building permit. This was in 1997, possibly the worst time to apply since the Building Department of the City of Chicago had come unglued and for months only a few permits were approved. Ours was left on the back burner despite attempts by aides in both the 48th and 40th Wards to get someone’s attention. Lynn Pierce of the 48th Ward office did get someone to look at the permit and he sent us a short list of corrections. We thought we were good to start soon but learned we were going to spend months in the permit game, somewhat like a Kafka novel. Compounding this was a requirement that we apply for a second CDBG grant because we had only been partially funded in the first one. With the permit unavailable, Thom Greene finally went to the Mayor’s office and threatened to give the building and the project back to the City. We got our permit in November.
We hired Supreme Construction to tuck-point, rebuild the parapet and replace the roof in order to preserve what remained in the run down building. In the meantime we began a search for a general contractor. Surprisingly to us no one was interested in our little project. It was either too big for some or too small for others. Working with the City’s list of contractors we found Arcoiris, a minority owned company that usually worked on smaller projects. They began work in February after signing a contract with us for only part of the work: $77,000 worth of mechanicals and demolition. To our surprise, the workers were unsupervised and they went about tearing down the plaster walls on the second floor. Then they stopped work.
On a Spring day I brought my architecture students from St. Gregory High School to watch the installation of the two I beams on the first floor. They were huge! We watched from the sidewalk in front as they were put in place to support the second floor.
In May we learned that the contractor had failed to pay the HVAC subcontractor and that he would put a mechanics lien on the project and issue a stop work order. I spent hours in June and July meeting with the Performance Bond Company and the City of Chicago Corporation Counsel Office in the GPD offices to reach the conclusion that Arcoiris had to be fired and the performance bond company, Forcon International had to assume control of the project. They presented us with a new contractor in November of 1998. Metropolitan Corp. began work in 1999.
In order to bring in a new contractor we had to go over the plans and determine what still needed to be done from the original contract. One problem was the demolition of the second floor walls. It was incomplete and as long as it had been started we needed to finish it. Then, because the walls were open we wanted to add insulation. Our new contractor told us that he could not complete the wiring as required because it called for some walls that were not built yet. We had to add to the original work order.
The work proceeded through 1999 and into 2000. We made the last payment to Metropolitan in the fall of 2000. Then we were stuck. We sought the reimbursement for the second CDBG grant only to have it ignored for six months while the Department of Housing changed personnel. Although the errors in the paperwork were simple (I signed one document in a black pen), we went the entire summer and into the Fall waiting for the funds to continue our project. Then in October I received a call that our insurance certificate that was current when we applied for reimbursement was now out of date. The Kafka novel continued.
We spent most of 2001 looking for a contractor. Only two gave us proposals for the entire project. Others wanted to do only one part, like the walls, or the floor. Through all of this the offices of Greene and Proppe Design continued to work, keeping track of the project and reviewing bids. This was done in spite of our inability to pay for the hours of additional labor. In the Fall of 2001, I spoke with Marion Plewa of MP Construction about the project, seeking his company to finish the partially done second floor. He gave us a very reasonable estimate and we immediately signed a contract. Then we began to beg him to do the entire project. He must have found a soft place in his heart for us because he signed a contract with us despite the fact that we were $12,000 short. His workers began the first floor in 2002 and the end was in sight!
By the end of July we knew that we had to raise more funds to complete the project. MP was essentially finished and we had only raised $2000. This is when Tim Rasmussen stepped in with the offer to give us a fundraising event at the new Charlie’s Ale House on Clark Street. We liked the idea but did not know how we could manage it alone. Two neighborhood associations offered to help, Lakewood Balmoral, East Andersonville Residents Council. The date was set and then delayed several times as Tim had his own personal experience of being in a Kafka novel. It was the permits again. On September 28th we hosted a reception at the museum for our donors, those who have stuck with us over five years and donated at least $100. Mr. Plewa of MP Construction attended and promised to be patient as we continued to raise funds. He treated us to many different kinds of pierogis. We made a small payment to him after that event.
Then, on October 6, 2002, we hosted the grand opening in our incomplete building. Later in October, Tim called with the date of November 6th for the fundraising event at the new Charlie’s Ale House at 5308 N. Clark.
We went into action preparing for this event which included a silent auction. About 5000 invitations were handed out or sent out. About 300 people attended and we retired more of our debt. But we are not done yet. We need a sink and cabinets in the kitchen and we must still complete the parking area (required by the City) and landscaping in the back. We have extended the final date to get your name on the founder’s plaque till the March general meeting.