By: Kathy Gemperle
The landscaping at the new Edgewater Historical Society Museum was provided by Gethsemane Garden Center after Board member Carl Helbig approached Regas Chefas, the owner of Gethsemane to get a bid on the project. The pleasant design created by Joanne Charron has been partially completed. There is more to be done. The improvement so far is remarkable.
The backyard was gardened by a woman from Rogers Park when in 1995 we made inquiries about the building, an old firehouse that had not been used since 1979. After spending some time, energy and funds on the building, we decided to go ahead with the purchase in the fall of 1996. We knew we would be turning the yard into a construction site because a certain amount of debris would have to be removed and dumpsters would have to be placed there. We asked the current gardener to begin removing her plants. She did that and we were left with a bumper crop of prairie plants some times known as weeds. There were some perennials there, a green and white striped grass, lemon mint, day lilies and holly hocks. But perhaps the biggest problem was the seedlings from the tree of heaven which grew next to the neighbors garage.
But in 1997 our chief concern was finding a contractor and complying with the rules for the CDBG grant that we had been awarded to repair the building. We went to the yard and tried to chop everything down. Of course, in full sunlight everything grew back again. Even neighbors tried to mow things down but the wild growth of the weeds continued. In the meantime we had the asbestos removed and the parapet rebuilt.
At the beginning of 1998 we signed a contract for part of the work on the interior. By June it was clear that the contractor, who had demolished walls and installed the Steel I-beams, did not intend to finish the work. We fired them and they were replace by Metropolitan Corp. who began work in November of that year. Again, we didn’t do much for the backyard, because we were working on the building. A dumpster sat in the back for weeks, we even removed some of the unusable furniture from the second floor. The crew of students from St. Gregory’s supplied a lot of the muscle for a clean out.
In the spring of 1999, we got some more help from St. Gregory students who moved bricks and swept up the place before we held the Hard Hat Party in May. They even made decorations for the event. What we had to show at that party was two completed handicap accessible bathrooms. A month later, a couple St. Gregory students primed the two rooms on the second floor that still had walls.
In the mean time John and Martha Kraeger stepped up to the challenge of the tree of heaven seedlings and chopped them all down. In the summer of 1999 I worked with two neighborhood youngsters pulling weeds in the backyard. I got poison ivy. By pulling weeds we diminished the number of seeds they scattered.
Neighbor Win Gillis began stopping by to mow the grass growing along the north side of the building. But it looked like an abandoned building while we waited for the City of Chicago to review the documents and reimburse our expenses. That wait was a long one lasting into 2001 through personnel changes and multiple reviews of documents. In the meantime a committee was formed to review the problems with the site and make a checklist which helped to focus on what to do next.
Carl Helbig got a great idea and called the 40th ward for mulch. He got their assistance in mowing down the weeds first and then they delivered wood chips. Once again the students from St. Gregory’s helped out by spreading the wood chips all over the backyard. But now a bigger problem had our attention, how to find a contractor to finish the project and raise enough money to pay him.
In the fall of 2001 we were able to hire MP Construction to complete the second floor which was partially done. MP then continued to work on the downstairs interior after we signed a contract with them in the spring of 2002.
After months of work on the interior of the building it began to look like we might be able to open the museum in the Fall. The Board of Directors asked Carl what Gethsemane Garden Center would propose for the site. Carl brought us the news that they were willing to donate the work. This went way beyond our expectations. We could already see that we did not have enough funds to pay MP so we were hoping to at least get the backyard cleaned up and perhaps the parkway asphalt removed.
Since the beginning we had been concerned about the parkway trees and the asphalt that surrounded them. We wanted to remove the asphalt and brick over the parkway leaving planting beds under each of the trees. We didn’t know about the City of Chicago rules regarding parkways but we soon learned that it was way beyond our budget so we began a step by step process.
First Carl found out through the 40th Ward office that the Department of Transportation is in charge of the parkways. When contacted they agreed to remove the asphalt along the side of the building and the broken driveway in front of the building. We proposed a new concrete walk and a service walk in front of the building. That was in May. In July a crew showed up to begin the work. In the process of removing the concrete the lid to a Water Dept. tunnel was dropped into the tunnel. Oops! The crew continued the rest of the plan and poured the concrete walkway. Some of our Board of Directors provided security for the entire day until the concrete was set by 5 p.m.
The CDOT crew also began demolishing the asphalt leaving the tree roots exposed. We tried to cover them but thought the crew would be back that week. It was not to be.
They did finally return when we called the 311 number and asked why they hadn’t. As the days moved into September and closer to our opening date we finally saw the crew return – after the water department had rebuilt the tunnel opening and replace the lid. The remaining asphalt was removed and the rest of the concrete poured under Carl Helbig’s watchful eye. In the meantime the Dept. of Forestry arrived to remove the one parkway tree that was splitting in half.
Enter the Gethsemane Garden Center crew who spent the rest of the week cleaning out the backyard and replacing the dirt. They also tackled the entrance planting bright yellow mums and more. Without the funds to complete the parkway Gethsemane covered the tree roots with soil and applied a fibrous bark mulch. This mulch which has a funny smell was used along the side of the building and in the back. But before the back was completed Joanne Charron of Gethsemane Design presented us with a plan that incorporated the ancient Ashland Avenue pavers in the terrace and walkways of the open space in the backyard. This involved a kind of earth sculpture so that the heavy pavers and the thinner grey stones would produce a level walkway. This work was also donated by Gethsemane. For the Grand Opening the front and back yards looked beautiful!
Still to be completed are the remaining walkways and the parking area in the back for two cars, one handicapped. We hold out hope that we can raise enough funds to create the planter beds around the trees. We can’t thank Gethsemane Garden Center and Regas Chefas enough for all the work they did to make our backyard so elegant. Now we are looking for a Garden Committee to plan and oversee the completion of the site.