Monday, April 25, 2011

Our Raber (House) Has Tender Grapes; Can a vineyard estate save an abandoned landmark?

How do you get from here . . .
click images for larger view
. . . to here? . . .
The short answer: mix in a place and a building, and shake for 140 years.  The longer version?

This is the John Raber house. City-owned, it was made an official landmark in 1996, yet it stands empty and hermetically sealed. It's in the news right now because, as reported by Melissa Harris in the Chicago Tribune, rehabber and preservationist William Lavicka is trying to turn the long abandoned Raber house and its environs into a urban vineyard.
The article describes the Raber as "a boarded-up Washington Park mansion", which is definitely a tonier address, but in reality it's in the northeast corner of Englewood, and its history dovetails with the history of that neighborhood for most of its 170 years.

Seven miles south of the Loop, the land on which the Raber house stands began as a swampy oak forest, situated on a ridge and home to the Mascoutin Indians.  In 1840, the land was officially designated as habitable by the U.S. Government Land Office.  A contemporary history enthused over the water supply: "coming through heavy gravel deposits, it is of a very pure character, and is never failing."  A settler named Wilcox claimed  land along a ridge that would become Vincennes Avenue.  The Mascoutins moved on. 

In 1852, the railroad came to the area, with the Rock Island establishing a depot at 63rd and LaSalle streets.  Soon so many lines crossed through the district that it came to be known as Chicago Junction, with no fewer than three depots.  In 1868, local merchant Henry B. Lewis successfully lobbied to change the name to Englewood Junction to improve the suburb's image.
That same year, real estate developer L.W. Beck donated 10 acres around 67th and Halsted for the construction of the Cook County Normal School, precursor to today's Chicago State University, constructed at a cost of $120,000 within a 20 acre park.  According to A Short History of Englewood, a newly formed Englewood Business Men's Association began razing the oak forest and replacing it with paved roads lined by maples and elms.  Except for a few mansions on Wentworth, most homes were modest.

Then came the Great Fire of 1871, and suburbs like Englewood drew wealthy buyers eager to escape the perils of the city.  Described by historian Bessie Louise Pierce as a saloon keeper, John Raber was a mainstay in Chicago Republican politics, alderman of the 5th ward, and an unsuccessful candidate for city treasurer in 1881.  Raber had purchased a house and an adjoining thirteen acres for $18,750 in 1862, sold off seven, and keep six for himself that stretched all the way to State Street.  Just seven years later, the value of his property had increased to $75,000.  And it was here in 1870 that Raber built the Italianate-style house, with later additions by architect Thomas Wing, that still stands today.
The house stands in the center of handsomely arranged grounds . . . and although the building itself is not remarkable for its beauty, its surroundings are such as to render the general view very inviting.  Within the enclosure are finely graveled walks and drives, bordered with beautiful arbor vitae hedges.  Miniature lakes, filled with gold-fishes, and other pleasing features are to be met at every hand.
Raber's idyll was not to last.  Englewood began to absorb workers from the stockyards to the north, and subdivision spread.  Around the Normal School, 40 acres became eight blocks of 24 lots, which sold for $8.00 per front foot in 1869, $12 in 1871, and $18 to $20 in 1972.   Over 15,000 ornamental trees were planted along the streets.  By 1874, the population was over 3,000 people.  Englewood was annexed to the City of Chicago in 1889, and another construction boom followed around the time of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  After apartment buildings began to take over major streets, the population soared to 86,000 people by 1920.

In the 1880's, Englewood's had a black population of only about 26 people, mostly railroad and domestic workers.  Through the ensuing decades, restrictive covenants kept blacks out of Englewood.  In 1949 when eight Afro-Americans were among the guests at a reception for union members at a house on Peoria Street, about a mile west of the Raber, two days of rioting following. 
. . . the crowds, numbering at times as many as 10,000, became violent. Students from the nearby University of Chicago came to watch. They were targeted by white gangs along with the blacks. Rioters picked them out by asking any unfamiliar face, “what parish are you from?” If the question was not answered satisfactorily, that person was a potential victim of the violence. Anger boiled over into a rage that was directed against “Negroes, Jews, University of Chicago students, outsiders, and eventually, everybody and everything.” from A Short History of Englewood
With the coming of the expressways, white flight hit Englewood in a big way.  In 1940, blacks were just 2% of the population, by 1950, 69% Afro-American; by 1970, 96%.  In 1960, Englewood's aging, overcrowded structures were home to a peak population of 97,000 people.  Judging by the rusting mailbox, the Raber was divided up into six separate units.

And then it all imploded.  Abandonment became pandemic.  Buildings either fell down, by neglect, or burned down, out of boredom and anger.  Vacant buildings numbered into the thousands, and by the 2010 census, population had fallen to about 30,000 people, a 25% decline from just a decade before.
The area around the Raber House  seems to be regressing back towards the days before settlement.  Instead of a swamp, surviving homes stand adrift in an ocean of vacant lots,  improvised landfills strewn with debris. Walkways branch off from the sidewalk, leading nowhere,  to clumps of dirt and the rubble of crumbling foundations.

Still, the homes that remain mostly seem well maintained, a stubborn refusal to be brought down.  Just down the street from the Raber, this charming church endures.
Chicago is not Detroit, but the last census showed the city losing 200,000 people since 2000. Many of its outlying neighborhoods are depopulating.  How do you deal with evaporating density?

William Lavicka is looking to restore the Raber House and the area around it as a grand estate.  He's trying to get the city - which owns it all -  to sell him the Raber House, plus up to 50 lots for a buck a piece, and kick in street infrastructure and other subsidies not defined in Melissa Harris's report.  In return, Lavicka wants to establish a 5,000 vine vineyard.  Soil samples are being taken to make sure it's not contaminated by industrial toxins, as focus groups have determined that "Chicago Reisling - now with added lead!" would be a substandard selling point.

Could a urban vineyard be the kind of beacon project that reasserts a neighborhood's identity and revives its fortunes?  There's a seductive bit of urban romance in all this.  That 1870's rendering at the top of this post?  Was it in Chicago, or Over the Rainbow? Can we really reclaim time? And what time should that be?  Should we ask the Mascoutins?


ardecila said...

I could see that 1871 lithograph as the centerpiece of the labels on Lavicka's bottles.

Gigi said...

'Holmes on Homes' has nothing on 'Lavicka, Let It Live ! The Life and Community Lifestyle Changer !!! Can't wait for the "Sip and See". Lavicka is just what Englewood needs.
Good Luck Bill!

Anonymous said...

The last thing Englewood needs is a vineyard. Englewood needs to return Raber House into a boys and girl club for.the children in the community. The vacant lots needs to be developed into some form of low income housing or intergrate the housing. The area needs revenue to build markets and restuarants and etc. No one will benefit from a vineyard except the owner.

Anonymous said...

Save the Raber house - demo most of the other buildings. Return the area to prairie. Englewood will never be more than a shooting gallery. No one in their right minds would invest money there. If you disagree, would you prove it? Take a stroll down there every night on a hot week in July. Weekends included. If you do that, and survive, then maybe the neighborhood can sustain investment. If the folks that live there are nothing more than murderers and cut-throats, than no amount of money thrown its way will have the desired effect.

Noodles said...

No, Anonymous 11:40pm, please do not let it turn it into a Boys & Girls Club; have you seen how those places are maintained? A cheap restoration that would further degrade the place; the groups would move in and systematically destroy any remaining worth, and then it really would be unsalvageable (look at any of the old mansion community centers in the city and tell me which look well-tended. They are not- those groups take no personal responsibility, trash those facilities, and neglect their upkeep due to overuse. They are not valued, APPRECIATED, or maintained; they are run into the ground until noone wants them! See: Northside Community Center on Sheridan, Evanston Arts Center, etc.- they break your heart). Same for the low income housing solution- that's how it ended up the way it is! Let this man with the vineyard idea give it a whirl, and give the house a real shot at restoration and redemption. It would be a fascinating bit of work.

Anonymous said...

Technically, 5760 Lafayette IS, in fact, in the Community Area of Washington Park (which, btw, is hardly "tony.")

Anonymous said...


thomas w. atkielski said...

Something close to "natural" would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, giving neighbors something other than the "Same ole, same Ole" to view, and feel better about! Yes, all the many empty lots may serve a more practical purpose, but this guy will open the door to more natural diversity, in a place where nature became lost in a clutter of old, abandoned buildings and desperate people! Why haven't the neighborhood inhabitants started something like Recreation centers before, not criticize, or come up with alternatives after someone has come up with an interesting idea that would break the monotony of the area? Some will always try to criticize when partnerships are needed to start a new era of interesting enterprises! Rather than criticize, see what can develop as a result of a new idea, and develop accordingly! It may open-up the door to many successful Businesses in an area that definitely needs bold ideas to escape the ghetto-like presence of that old neighborhood! We need people like Lavicka, who are enterprising and creative! A recreation center maybe, nice housing maybe, but a vineyard in the middle of an old worn down part of the city, WOW! That could become a tourist attraction, where some enterprising Blacks, or others, could build surrounding attractions and Businesses to serve both the Community and Visitors, who would certainly be brought there through promotions of some kind or another! A project like that could bring about a certain kind of resurgence to the area, and to Chicago, where something creative like that would be welcomed by most future-thinking area residents! It would only be an extension of the lately developed Vegetable gardens a few enterprising residents started a number of years ago anyway, and brought back a little bit of Nature that people could "Get into!" In the late 1890's to early 1900's, there was a good mix of old farms, and natural projects, mixed in with the new emphasis on economically based shoulder-to-shoulder housing and Business enterprises! It was a charming time where people had a little bit of everything! Bring back nature, and people will be much more alive, and probably more productive too! That's why, in the old days especially, but nowadays too, I looked for the past, and seek the old, simply because the new just was so stifling and without much interest to me! Getting involved in Nature gets people out of the doldrums, and into a new, but ancient, reality! I'm all for projects like this to blossom!! TWA...

Scottie Ash Tree Seed said...

As one of Chicago's most passionate cultural historians, my wish had always been to someday purchase structure and repatriate its sprawling parcels of land. In order to restore house and return surroundings to Heritage Landscape era. Then donate to our city as a new public park space. As our regions Community tree historian, I would also survey for and protect any Mature trees from parks construction planning. There is now a Patriotic opportunity to also preserve Washington park communities other threatened historic surviving structures scattered about neighborhood. By adding them to a new collection, moving architectural treasures onto their own piece of this plantation sized property. For more info, contact Scott at

orchidartist said...

Perhaps he might talk with Michael Howard, founder of Eden Place? Michael has brought much-needed jobs, nature, and a sense of pride to the Fuller Park community on Chicago's South Side. I agree - give the idea a chance. Keep the area open. Plant roses at the end of the grape rows, as they do in other wineries (they're magnets for pests that bother grapes). We need revitalization of our cities, and something to keep our children busy and hopeful for good things to come.