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Losing Her Museum 

Loren Billings lives out her days amid her memories at Chicago's Museum of Holography. But thanks to three mysterious "friends" and a million-dollar loan approved by Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, she could soon be on the curb.

The bedroom Loren Billings no longer sleeps in remains as it was when she lost her husband in 1998—the floor thick with Persian rugs, the classic movies (La Dolce Vita, Citizen Kane, Richard III) racked beside the television. And at the head of the bed they once shared, the bed in which he died, Loren has propped up amid the throw pillows a black-and-white photograph taken of the two of them when times were good.

Loren and Robert Billings bought the building at 1134 W. Washington in 1974. He was a dashing newspaperman, she a former Ice Capades skater. Urged on by her husband, whom she'd met at a south-side bar she then owned, Loren established the Museum of Holography on the first floor. It's still there, the last holography museum in the U.S., and Loren still runs it, mostly by herself. She lives upstairs with her cat, Charcoal.

When she enters the bedroom she returns to that happier time—before Bob died, before she became so forgetful that some days she neglects to open the museum for business. And before she met the people who talked her into taking out the $1 million loan that now threatens to drive her from her home.

She borrowed the money from the local Broadway Bank in 2002 and gave most of it away. When her son, Terrence Kasprzak, discovered—several years later—what she'd done, he sued the bank. In the 2006 suit, he claims that his mother, 83 when she took out the loan, was mentally unfit to understand the financial jeopardy it put her in, and that the bank should have seen from her financial records that she was in no position to repay it.

Kasprzak, who because of the litigation declined to be interviewed for this story, argues in the suit that the museum building in the gentrifying West Loop was worth well over $1 million when the loan was made and accuses the bank of seeking to acquire the property through foreclosure and resell it at a profit.

Broadway Bank is owned by the family of Alexi Giannoulis, Illinois state treasurer and a political ally of Barack Obama. Giannoulis was the bank officer who approved the loan to Loren Billings.

A skid row of abandoned warehouses and homeless shelters when Robert and Loren moved in 34 years ago, the West Loop now is home to luxury retail stores, condo developments, and fine dining destinations. Oprah Winfrey was a major catalyst in this regeneration. Her office is directly across May Street from the museum, and Harpo Studios is a block away.

But long before Harpo, there was the Museum of Holography. For a time, when holography held the public imagination, visitors flocked to it. Now the museum's days are quieter. It's a Wednesday afternoon, and Billings is addressing a group of women standing in the wood-paneled entrance hall. The hall smells like mildew.

After collecting their $5 admission fees Billings addresses her visitors from her perch behind a glass souvenir case that displays holographic earrings and key chains. On her side of the counter she's taped a photo of Robert.

"What you are about to see is high science," she says. "Holography did receive the Nobel Prize in 1971. Holography is all about the atoms, particle physics. This is what you're composed of—particle physics. So everything in nature is composed of atoms, including you, and every creature here on earth."

Billings, a tiny woman, is wearing a typical outfit—a button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, dark pants, and loafers. Her oval spectacles are rose tinted, and her hair is cropped into a neat pixie cut. "You will look at each holograph," she continues briskly. "There could be one picture in one holograph, or there could be two or three different changes. So move your body from side to side, or walk by slowly. When you begin, stand at least three feet away."

Holography, the technique of generating a three-dimensional image on a photographic plate or film, was invented in 1947 by Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor. It involves splitting a laser beam so that one part bounces off the object onto the photographic plate while the other part goes directly to the plate. Like the objects themselves, holgrams can be viewed from different perspectives, and because they capture a much longer moment of time than still photography, they can even portray movement.

Holography was still pretty novel back when Billings opened the museum. She had discovered it at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago a few years earlier. "I took a class on holography in '72 or '73, and I saw my first hologram of a light bulb," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. "I haven't been able to get enough of them ever since."

The Museum of Holography consists of four galleries that total 2,772 square feet. The entrance hall serves as the first gallery. Small holograms arranged without regard to theme vie for attention on the wood-paneled walls. In one, Mike Ditka clasps his chin in thought. In another, Medusa stares menacingly, snakes writhing on her head. A hologram of binoculars reveals a hologram of a parrot perched in a tree. This image within an image, says Billings, delighted pop singer Michael Jackson when he visited the museum in 1988.

The central gallery is a dimly lit space decorated with clusters of fake pink roses. Here are the larger holograms, many of them kinetic. A shark darts out of the darkness. A dinosaur skull looms, its jaw agape. A larger-than-life tarantula wriggles its tentacles. Mike Royko, that trademark wry smile on his face, revolves in a capsule.

The next gallery is a smaller room devoted to the works of the late mathematician and holographer Art Freund, who died in 1994. In Eggstasy (1987), a hand reaches out to clasp an egg; the placard reads, "Humor returns to first principles and first causes, a symbolic message of humanity reaching out for their hopes and desires, the material and the spiritual."

The last gallery is devoted to types of holography used in medicine, such as angiography, an imaging technique used to visualize the insides of blood vessels and organs. Some works here, such as "4 Views of Breast with Malignant Tumors" and "Lumbar Spine with Severe Scoliosis," look like X-rays and are displayed in light boxes.

The galleries are well maintained but feel dated. Most of the holograms are presented the same way most two-dimensional artwork is—framed and mounted on the walls. Many have been here for decades.

Besides the living quarters, the second floor houses a lecture hall and studios where, in the early days of the museum, Billings and instructors she hired taught holography. "It's been a few years since there were any classes," says her nephew Gareth Dobija. "Generally, when someone is interested, we'll refer them to Columbia College or the Art Institute."

In the basement, a cool, dark maze of holography labs, old, stained lab coats hang from wall hooks. The building was originally constructed as the Free Methodist Publishing House, and the basement, insulated from the street by several feet of concrete, housed noisy printing presses. After the publishing house closed, the building was used as a coffin showroom. When Loren opened her museum, the thick foundation made the basement the perfect place for creating holograms: the reinforced walls prevented sound waves from interfering with the delicate production process.

Now all these spaces seem devoted not so much to holography as to the memory of holography. Billings rarely leaves the building. Dobija and his sister, Marcia Siska, check in on her once or twice a week. Her son comes by more often, and on Saturday he runs the museum. That's the one day of the week there's a good chance it will actually be open.

The museum has hours—Wednesday through Sunday, noon to five—but many days Billings opens briefly in midafternoon, and increasingly she doesn't open at all. Family members say she's grown more and more forgetful and confused. Though articulate in conversation, she often repeats herself and mixes up facts and figures.

"She's going through some dementia, yes," says Dobija, a retired army major. "When she's not feeling good she just doesn't open."

Sometimes he scolds her, gently. "I go, 'You can't run a museum like that, because people come down unknowingly. There are visitors to Chicago. They have an agenda of what they want to see. They pick this one just to come down here, and you didn't open the door.'

"She's not a threat to herself," Dobija continues. "She can cook, she can take care of herself. She doesn't leave the burners on. She doesn't wander outside the building and get lost. We're always on the lookout for little signs like that."

Back in the day, Bob and Lui Billings, as they were known, counted Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet, Playboy editor Arthur Kretchmer, and a host of prominent local politicos among their friends. A black-and-white photograph above the sofa in Robert's office captures them as bon vivants out on the town, Robert confident and sharp in a natty Rat Pack suit and slim tie, Loren with her blond hair swept upward a la Doris Day.

"You should've seen this woman," says John Sciackitano, a former production manager at the Chicago Daily News and one of Bob's closest friends. "She was a gorgeous, shapely blond."

The middle of three children and the only daughter, Loren was born Florentine Dobija in 1919 to a laborer and a housewife who'd emigrated from Poland to Chicago. She doesn't talk much about her first marriage. It ended in divorce in the mid-60s and that husband, Terrence's father, died long ago. But her marriage to Bob Billings transformed her life.

Billings, 12 years her junior, epitomized the hard-boiled Chicago newspaperman. He'd worked for the City News Bureau and then the Sun-Times, the Tribune, and the Daily News. He'd even founded his own newspaper in Evergreen Park. For a time he was the first Mayor Daley's press secretary. His peers knew him as an athlete adept at several sports. In 1972 he wrote a book called Stop-Action with Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, and one story had it that he'd introduced Butkus to Shakespeare.

"He was a man's man. I'll tell you," Loren says. "When he used to watch the games his eyes changed because he was so intent at looking at every play so he could remember it."

"Bob was a tremendously intellectual man," says Don DeBat, a former Daily News colleague. "Beneath that gruff exterior there was a wonderful intelligence. The guy, you look at him, you think, oh he's some rough-and-tumble guy—but he's a very sensitive, deep-thinking, well-read individual."

The couple married in 1967 and set up house in Evergreen Park, but the suburbs made them restless. "My husband thought that I was wasting my time not doing anything," Loren remembers. With his encouragement, she began taking classes at the Art Institute in 1971, and when she discovered holography there she wanted to share it with the world. Robert scouted out the building on West Washington and encouraged her to open the museum. "It was his confidence in me that made it all worthwhile," she says.

"The place was really in disrepair when they bought it," says Sciackitano. "They devoted their life to fixing this place up. You have no idea—10, 20 hours a day working in that place for years, I mean just rehabbing."

With the help of friends they tore up the sidewalks outside the museum and put in trees. Robert created a garden on the rooftop, hauling up tomato plants and large pots. He divided up the interior into new rooms and installed a shower. "The building was built like a fortress, so you can imagine cutting through walls. It was an arduous task," says DeBat.

Loren originally opened an art gallery, but that didn't last long. "The reason we became a holography museum," she explains, "is that when we would have artist exhibitions here visitors would come for the opening and then the rest of the month there was no one here. When we had the holographic exhibition, people came and came and came, and they still come."

Says Sciackitano, "What you have to understand—and this is hard for me to understand and I'm sure it has to be hard for you to understand—that building was their life, OK? They hardly ever left it. They would always be there. That was their place. They didn't go out at night. They didn't go cabareting or anything. They would have friends over there, entertain in the basement—that was it."

On Friday evenings they threw wine and cheese parties and as many as 150 people would come by after work. Studs Terkel might be there; artists would drop in to display their works. Some nights Robert invited friends over to read from Ulysses.

"They were crazy about each other, let me tell you something," says Sciackitano. "They were inseparable, did nothing apart, and they loved art." Of Loren he adds: "I think she loved holography as much as she loved her husband."

On August 27, 1998, at age 66, Robert died of lung cancer. Loren fell into a depression, and family members say her mind began to slip. She took to wearing Robert's shirts, began repeating herself in lectures, and fumbled with simple arithmetic at the front desk. She binged on ice cream and cabbage rolls and neglected her hygiene.

She enlarged photographs of her late husband and placed them prominently around her home. A picture that hangs in both the library and his office shows him doggedly pounding away at a typewriter with his two index fingers. She rarely allows anyone into his office.

Despite a thunderstorm the morning of September 19, 2002, that left city streets slick with rain, Billings made a rare trip out of the house. Three people she thought of as new friends drove her to the Chicago Title Insurance Company in the Loop to close on a $1 million loan from Broadway Bank.

Maria Chychula, Vitaly Baka, and Igor Anatsko ran a business called GnXpert Neural Technologies. Today Anatsko's LinkedIn profile identifies him as president of Gnxpert Corporation, which it says, among other things, "develops and markets artificial intelligence analytic software applications based on neural network and genetic algorithms." Among the products and processes it lists as under development is a "3D revolutionary holographic flat panel piezo screen." The profile also mentions Gnxpert Color, which makes "nano and micro glowing and reflection-enhancing additives" for various industrial applications.

The address listed online for GnXpert Corporation is 150 N. Michigan, where the building management says GnXpert once sublet space but has since left. The address given for GnXpert Color would put it in Ukrainian Village over a flower shop whose owner says it's her building and she's never heard of the company. The online Yellow Pages has no listing for either business.

But for a time Chychula, Baka, and Anatsko worked out of a space in Billings's building. Dobija remembers them bitterly as "like sugar-coated poison. They were just too friendly. They befriended her too quickly and too easily. Right from the get-go."

Terrence Kasprzak's suit says his mother met the three of them in late 2001 when they visited the museum and chatted her up about holography. Dobija says they told her they were "working on a holographic movie system which would enable viewing of true three-dimensional holographic movies" and suggested that one day "they could make the first presentation of this technology to the scientific community and industry at her museum." He says that never happened.

Kasprzak alleges in his suit that in January 2002 Chychula, Baka, and Anatsko talked his mom into investing $50,000 in a so-called foreign currency arbitrage account that Anatsko supposedly ran—the suit refers to it as a "fiction." By that September, according to statements Kasprzak submitted with the suit, her investment had turned into $993,000. The suit says Loren didn't see a penny—she was told $493,000 had gone to GnXpert as a "service fee" and the balance had been converted into GnXpert stock.

Then there was the $1 million loan.

Representing Broadway Bank at the closing were Demetris Giannoulias, its chief financial officer, and his brother, Alexi, the vice president and senior loan officer. In a letter dated three days earlier, Alexi had warned Billings to watch her step. "It is Broadway Banks's opinion that you seek the guidance of counsel," his letter began, stressing the need for her to understand the "intricacies" and "potential risks" attached to such a loan. Furthermore, "there is concern on the bank's part due to the past credit history of the three other co-borrowers. All three have had significant problems in the past with their finances, and none of them currently has satisfactory credit. In addition, we have discovered that two of the borrowers, Mr Anatsko and Ms. Chychula, have been reported for suspected fraudulent activity on the 'Fraud Finder Alert' supplied by Chex Systems."

Yet the deal went forward—with Billings taking sole responsibility for paying back the loan. "The Bank ignored its own procedures," Kasprzak alleges in the suit, arguing that due diligence was insufficient and the loan committee barely discussed the matter. "The Bank did so because it wants Loren's home—a building worth far more than the $1,000,000 loan."

Kasprzak alleges that the bank accepted financial documents from his mother that she didn't prepare herself and that wildly overstated her assets—listing, among other things, a $120,000 salary in 2001, $170,000 in dividend income, and $430,000 in that arbitrage account. (He noted in one court document that the state income tax Loren filed in 2001 claimed she was paid no salary at all.)

Billings put the building up as collateral. She was 83 years old and it was the first loan she had ever taken out in her life. Despite the letter from Alexi Giannoulias, no lawyer represented her when she signed. And no one from her family was present.

"This woman lives on social security!" says Dobija. "That's her income. What she generates at the museum doesn't keep the lights going and pay the taxes. God strike me, but she didn't understand it when all this started with GnXpert."

The day after the loan closed, Billings signed cashiers' checks issued by Broadway Bank for more than $600,000. About $202,000 of this money went to GnXpert and $350,000 to three men who remain a mystery to Loren's family. (One of the men, reached by the Reader, indicated they'd been GnXpert investors.) Of the balance, about $200,000 remained with the bank in an escrow account. Payments on the loan were made from that account until it was exhausted.

In 2005 Marcia Siska, Billings's niece, came across a late notice from the bank in a fax machine in Billings's home. That, her family says, was the first any of them had heard about the loan. Kasprzak filed suit in June 2006.

In November 2006, Alexi Giannoulias, endorsed by Obama, was elected treasurer of Illinois. During his campaign the press questioned him about some of the loans he'd approved; the Billings loan was one of them. In a letter to the Sun-Times Giannoulias said Kasprzak's suit was "fraught with factual errors and baseless claims," denied that Billings had shown any signs of mental impairment in 2002, and wondered, "Why is Kaspazak [sic] suddenly voicing concerns about his mother's mental capacity four years after the loan was granted and when I'm currently seeking a statewide office?"

In May 2007, a forensic psychiatrist did find that Billings lacked the mental capacity to handle her own affairs. But that finding, of course, was not retroactive. That September Chychula, Baka, and Anatsko were deposed; they refused to answer questions, pleading the Fifth Amendment, and didn't take the stand at the bench trial.

Last March 31, circuit judge Sophia Hall ruled in favor of Broadway Bank. Though she was "sympathetic to Loren and her family about the possibility that the GnXpert people defrauded Loren," Hall ruled that it was not the bank's duty to inquire further than it did or second guess a borrower. She noted Giannoulias's testimony that Billings "was adamant about going through with the loan" even after he'd warned her about her associates. As for her mental acuity, Hall wrote, "mental incompetence cannot be inferred from old age alone."

When loan interest and lawyers' fees were added to the tab, Billings wound up owing Broadway Bank about $1.6 million.

Kasprzak is appealing the verdict.

"I signed for a loan to support other people," Billings says when I ask why she placed her home in jeopardy. We're sitting on the steps in the museum's entrance hall. Behind us the gallery spaces are dark.

"What my son was concerned about was the building was in the loan, and he didn't want to lose the building. We rectified that," she says breezily. "The people that I supported to lend them the money never fully attained their goal, but they were honest enough to pay the loan."

They paid the loan back entirely? I ask.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she responds. "I don't have to worry about the building anymore.... And the bank demanded the holographs on top of it.

"So I said to the bank, because the museum is a nonprofit organization, the bank couldn't possibly take the holograms. The holograms would have to go to another nonprofit organization. I was ready to give the Art Institute—if something came to that point—all the holographs."

When I ask Dobija whether his aunt understands her situation, he says, "Depends on what day of the week it is, honestly. It bothers her, but she doesn't understand it."

Giannoulias's office said comment for this article should come from his brother, Demetris, as Alexi no longer works at the bank. Demetris did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

I left a message at a number listed on the GenXpert Color Web site. Maria Chychula called me back. "Oh, bless your heart," she said when I told her I was writing a story about the Museum of Holography. "Thank you so much for doing this. That's wonderful."

She added, "This is a very complicated situation. The museum deserves as much publicity as it can possibly get and, um, I'm so happy you're doing this. Thank you!"

We agreed on a time for me to interview her by phone. But when I called her she didn't pick up, and multiple messages went unreturned.

Kasprzak has made himself legally responsible for his mother's affairs. Last November he settled with Broadway Bank by taking out a loan from another bank. But although this gained him some breathing room, to repay the new loan Kasprzak must sell the building. He's started showing prospective buyers through. The real estate market has taken a dive, of course, but Kasprzak's attorney, Peter King, and Dobija say there are prospects who have been through more than once and remain interested.

One afternoon, after the visitors have left, Billings takes me through the building. We climb the stairs to the second floor. Aside from the bedroom, the residential quarters include a library, a walk-in closet, and her husband's office. Robert's presence is everywhere. In the closet, his suits and coats still hang alongside her clothes. His shoes are lined up beneath the dresser. In the library, his books take up most of the shelf space.

Billings's voice takes on a different tone here. It's gentler, more contemplative. When the mood strikes, she's poetically effusive. "He never leaves," she says, "because he was such an integral part of your life. We did so many things. We traveled through Ireland, England, France. We've been to the horse race, we've been to the opera. What a life. Now I sit alone. But the memories keep you alive, you know?"

Billings turns on the lamps in the library, and they reveal a series of photographs arranged on a table. One was taken at their wedding. Sharing the picture with the happy couple are a friend she can no longer place and Mike Royko, the best man.

"I'm just the only one left from the gang," she remarks. Everyone else in the picture is dead. She studies it. "This is a good picture."

Inside Robert's office, the wooden shutters are closed to keep out the sunlight. Above the fireplace hangs a photograph of Robert in rich red robes, staring intently at the viewer; it was taken for a feature assignment that had him playing an extra in a Lyric Opera production of Otello. Beneath the picture, his old pipes and some tea tins sit on the mantel. Several pairs of his eyeglasses have been collected in a jar on his massive desk. To the side of the desk is a little table that holds his IBM Selectric II.

"Hi Bobby," Billings says to one of the pictures.

The third floor is unfinished. Billings says her husband planned to move their quarters upstairs, but the remodeling barely got started.

"Want to see?" she asks.

There's an enormous central space that's cluttered with boxes and stray Christmas decorations. The bottom half of a mannequin stands in a corner. On the floor are boxes of vases and vessels that Loren once sculpted. They're still unglazed.

After Robert died, she called off the renovation. "I didn't want to live there alone," she explains. But she sometimes comes up to visit. She's drawn to a corner where a window faces onto May Street. Two chairs sit side by side here, and there's a boxy old TV with rabbit ears and dials.

Along the brick wall behind the chairs, a row of houseplants thrives in the generous sunlight—low-lying succulents, ferns, and some potted plants that have grown taller than either of us. The view from the corner window looks down on Oprah's employee parking lot, protected by a security fence. Sometimes Billings sits here for hours, gazing at the lot.

When we return to the first floor, Billings decides she's done for the day. It's only 4:37 PM, and the museum is officially open until 5, but she walks through the galleries hitting light switches and shutting down exhibits.

She walks me to the door, and when I reach the sidewalk she pokes her head out the door. "How do you spell my name?" she asks me.

"L-O-R-E-N," I reply.

"That's right," she says approvingly. (I'll find out some past interviewers have identified her as "Lauren.")

Reassured, she gives me a last smile. Then she locks the door behind me. The Museum of Holography is closed.v

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