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Standing in the Gap: a one-woman preservation campaign 

From the outside, the old Victorian three-flat at 3241 S. Indiana seems ready for the wrecker's ball.

Well over 100 years old and one of only three houses on the block, it's squeezed between a grassy lot and a parking lot. Across the street is the Illinois College of Optometry, which apparently is eager to demolish the Victorian so it can either expand the parking lot or build more classrooms.

A few City Hall preservationists express sympathy for the building's fate, but most observers are indifferent.

But not Angela Rivers, who's waging a one-woman campaign to save the building. An artist and amateur historian, she lives alone there--all the other tenants having been removed. One reason she wants the building to survive is that having helped renovate, restore, and paint it, she knows it's actually in good shape. Another reason is that she feels a spiritual kinship to the building and its past, which she doesn't want forgotten, let alone destroyed.

"After a while it's no longer progress to tear down old buildings. It becomes desecration," says Rivers. "This building is faced with Joliet limestone, which is rare--they stopped using this kind of limestone in the early 1880s. There's so much history in these buildings. There are names and voices and people from the past. We should be learning from the past, not destroying it."

Rivers moved to the house in the near-south-side area known as the Gap in the fall of 1992. The building was owned by several of her friends, who according to Rivers were eager to restore it. "It was in lousy shape," says Rivers. "But we felt a commitment to it."

None of them knew much about the building, except that it was probably built sometime in the early 1870s, just after the great Chicago fire. Over the years it had decayed, as had the surrounding neighborhood. By the 1960s it had been converted into a rooming house. A separate entrance for the top floor was added, and the basement and top two floors had been subdivided into several apartments.

"The old owners and I had a verbal agreement that I could stay here as long as I wanted," says Rivers. "They didn't want to sell. They were like me, they wanted to preserve. We wanted to stay here and rehab and preserve."

The roof was fixed, the walls replastered. The top-floor apartment was outfitted with a new kitchen and bathroom. For her part, Rivers took over the ground floor.

"This was a work of love," says Rivers. "We stripped layers of wallpaper from the walls. In some places, we stripped paint that was a quarter-inch thick. I painted the ceiling the color of sky, which reminded me of the sky in central Illinois where I grew up."

For Rivers, living there was a dream come true, in part because she felt a kinship with the era in which the house had been built.

"I'm very into that era in history, the end of the 19th century," she says. "My thesis in college was on Paul Gauguin and the postimpressionist movement. I studied the spiritual movement, which was a major force in the 1880s. The spiritualists believed in seances that could communicate with the dead, and that through the power of kinetics you could move objects and there could be soul transference. These ideas fascinate me. They were the predecessors to many of the new age beliefs you see today.

"In fact, there are so many parallels between that age and ours. It was the end of one century and the start of another. People then were talking about art being dead because photography was coming in, just as today they talk about video taking over art. I felt enriched to live in a house that was of that time."

Three older men rented the rooms in the basement, and the upstairs apartment was rented to a woman. Rivers signed a lease that was good until March 1995. But in April the building changed hands.

"The old landlords had said they would never sell, but basically they were offered more money than they could turn down," says Rivers. "When they sold, that was the beginning of the end."

On April 29, 1994, Rivers got a letter from J. Kenneth O'Neal, one of the principals with Kedgo Partners, the new owner. "We look forward to the continuous cooperation experienced by the previous owners," O'Neal's letter went.

By the summer, however, Kedgo was asking residents to move.

"In June the tenant upstairs talked to one of the new owners," says Rivers. "She asked if she could extend her lease, and they said no. Later they came to me and said they wanted me out. They sent me a notice saying, "You are hereby notified that your tenancy of the following premises will terminate on August 15.' The day after I got that notice in the mail they hand-delivered another copy of the same notice. It was at 7:30 on a Sunday morning and they were banging on the door until I had to answer it. It was Mr. O'Neal. I said, 'You sent it to me yesterday.' He said, 'I want to make sure you got it in your hand.'"

Rivers contacted a lawyer who told her there were no legal grounds to remove her before her lease expired so long as she paid her rent on time. She decided to learn more about the building and its history, hoping to find evidence of historical value that would convince the owners or city officials to save it.

She went through old records in City Hall and discovered that the house had originally belonged to a Mrs. Amanda Cook, widow of Charles W. Cook, a prominent banker and financier of his time. Amanda Cook bought the plot of land on which the house stands from a developer named James Sinclair, who built the house according to her specifications.

"In those days this was a swank address," says Rivers. "I found out about Mrs. Cook by looking her up in the blue book, which was a 19th century directory of the wealthy."

Mrs. Cook died in 1900, and a Julius Cook took possession of the building. "I don't know who Julius was, though I assume he was related to Amanda," says Rivers. "I don't know when Julius Cook stopped owning it. But by the 1950s it was owned by a Mrs. Mary Harris."

By then the neighborhood had long since changed from white to black and was no longer considered a fashionable place to live. It's a common lament of preservationists that the city only feebly tries to preserve its past. But preservation efforts are even feebler in black neighborhoods, where it's often assumed that there is no past worth preserving. In the case of the near-south-side neighborhoods along the lake, city officials thought they were doing everyone a great service when they plowed over hundreds of valuable old Victorians and other mansions to make way for various urban renewal projects.

Ironically, in the last several years middle-class black professionals have moved to the Gap precisely because they want to renovate and remodel the few remaining old mansions. It is becoming a fashionable neighborhood once again.

A few years ago the city designated a portion of the Gap as a historical landmark district. That means any construction or demolition there has to be approved by the landmarks commission. Unfortunately for Rivers, her section of South Indiana falls just outside the district's boundaries.

"I feel terrible for her, and emotionally I'm on her side, but there's nothing I can do for her," says Tim Wittman, a preservationist for the city's Planning Department. "I'd love to see any old building saved, but there's a reason her block is not in the historical district. There aren't enough houses remaining on her block to justify putting it in the district. The whole point of having a district is to convey a sense of what the streetscape looked like when the homes were built. And most of the homes on her street are gone."

For his part, O'Neal says he and his partners recently sold the building, but to whom they don't know. "We sold it to a blind trust," says O'Neal. "And I don't know who controls that trust."

Rivers speculates that the college of optometry controls the trust and is planning to demolish the house in order to expand its campus. College officials won't comment on the matter, saying only that they're not prepared to reveal details of their expansion plans.

City Hall sources say the college intends to develop the whole block--not just a single parcel. But the project has been delayed because the college is having difficulties "obtaining all the property on Indiana and clearing the land."

In other words, Rivers has more power than she may realize. As long as she stays in her apartment--and, remember, they can't evict her until her lease expires in the spring--the house cannot be destroyed. That leaves her a few months to rally public opinion and convince the college that the house is worth preserving, if for no other reason than good public relations.

"I understand that the college is going to want to go ahead with its expansion," she says. "But I'd like to convince them to move the building somewhere else in the Gap. It's a long shot. My friends tell me that eventually I'll have to let go. And maybe they're right, maybe I will have to let go. But this isn't over until they either save the building or tear it down."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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