Eisenberg: Quietly and quickly, a tower vanishes
By Paul Eisenberg Citizen Journalistemail@example.com June 21, 2012 1:24PM
When the Flatiron Building was demolished a few years ago, it brought to light some old advertisements that hadn’t been seen in decades. | Supplied Photo
Updated: July 25, 2012 6:11AM
As any reader of this column knows, I’m a fan of cool, old structures. If they’re cool enough, or old enough, they can become world-famous landmarks. The Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Taj Mahal, Parthenon and even the Pyramids of Gaza are all cool, old structures, as is Chicago’s Water Tower.
Of course, not all cool structures are old, and not all old structures are cool. As a supporter of historic preservation, I know there’s a limit to the amount of old structures that can be saved. Some structures have served their purpose and must come down. The old water tower at Chicago Heights Steel on Main Street was one of those structures. It was quite old, and quite cool to look at. They just don’t make water towers like that any more. But arguments that the structure should be saved from demolition didn’t hold water, because the water tower didn’t hold water. A prominent feature of the downtown Chicago Heights skyline for nearly a century, the tower came down in the early 2000s after its owners decided it was a safety risk.
A few years later, local preservationists put up a noble but ultimately doomed fight to save the Flatiron Building, a triangular building located where Halsted Street and Emerald avenues split off from the old downtown area of Chicago Heights. The former auto dealership had been spruced up in the years prior with murals depicting the building’s heydey. Instead of boarded-up showroom windows, the building instead reflected a bygone era, when indoor showrooms housed classic cars. Owned by the city, the building was torn down after officials decided it was too damaged to be salvaged.
But one bright spot to emerge from that sad loss was the airing of some antique advertising that had been hidden for decades behind the Flatiron building. Wall-sized billboards advising motorists to use Veedol Motor Oils and Greases as well as for a Ford Fordson dealership where one could buy a rebuilt Ford car for $99 down saw sunlight for the first time in decades.
The Flatiron Building was unique, not only for its architecture, but for the group of people who coalesced around it in the effort to save it. They fought long and hard, and even though the building came down in the end, it didn’t go quietly.
Other structures in the area seem to fade out of existence. The former McDade’s store, which more recently was home to Jim Shoes bar and other entertainment outlets, was torn down a couple of years ago without much opposition. Unremarkable except for the businesses it had housed, the warehouse-sized retail building from the late 1960s didn’t evoke a lot of emotion. The unobstructed views south from Joe Orr Road to Bloom High School are an improvement.
That building was at least missed, probably because it was so large. Smaller structures can seem to disappear overnight. Such was the case last month with a small, two-story building overlooking the junction of Chicago Heights’ two remaining railroads.
Called the “Jay Tower” by rail fans and local history buffs, the tower watched over the rail junction for more than a century. But sometime in May, it disappeared.
Pete Petrouski, lifelong Chicago Heights resident, member of the Chicago Heights Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and former Chicago Heights railroad worker, pointed out the tower’s disappearance to me in an email early in June.
“The Jay Tower is gone,” he wrote. “Another fragment of our history has vanished.”
It came as a surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have. The 102-year-old tower, Petrouski said, housed for decades a switchman who would manually throw the switch between the Chicago and Eastern Illinois (now UP/CSX) and the EJ&E (now CN), and was one of the last manned towers in the Chicago area, though it hadn’t been staffed in more than a decade. But it was visibly decaying when I snapped a picture of it last year, with repairs needed to its roof at least. When writing a year or so ago about a smaller structure along the former EJ&E line in Matteson that was facing the wrecking ball, Paul Jaenicke, who wrote a book about the history of the rail line, told me he heard the Chicago Heights switching tower was safe for now.
Perhaps the folks at Canadian National Railroad, which owned the tower, didn’t want to face any potential obstacles, as they took down the tower quickly and without fanfare.
The former Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad headquarters still stands on Chicago Road just south of Joe Orr Road, but it’s now home to a communications company. Aside from the tracks themselves, it’s the only railroad-related structure remaining in a city steeped in train history.
And so, as Petrouski wrote, Chicago Heights can now safely be called a former railroad town. The Jay Tower was old, at least as things go around these parts, and I thought it was pretty cool too. I’ll miss it.