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Tests of Time

Alva Maxey-Boyd of Prairie Avenue fended off the bulldozers of one Daley, only to be honored by another.



When Alva Maxey-Boyd and Charles Boyd took possession of their house at 2801 S. Prairie Ave. in 1948, the building had been boarded up for nearly two decades and lacked functional systems for heat, water, and electricity. All of the ground-floor windows were broken, most of the plumbing had been carried away by scavengers, the plaster walls had been ruined by rainwater pouring through the leaky roof, and squatters had burned a campfire scar into the floor of one of the front parlors. Furthermore, the surrounding neighborhood was a notorious slum--but then, as African-Americans, the Boyds weren't in a position to be selective in their choice of neighborhoods.

Ignoring friends who said they were crazy, the Boyds moved in between Thanksgiving and Christmas and set up cots in the dining room. At night they set an alarm clock to ring every two hours to remind them to get up to put logs in the parlor fireplaces.

They would spend two years and $25,000 restoring the three-story, 24-room Queen Anne mansion, doing most of the labor with their own hands. Charles, a lawyer, set up an office in a front parlor. Alva, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University, would brush the plaster dust off his clothes before he went to court.

More than half a century later, on August 7, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks paid an overdue compliment to the Boyds' work in preserving the house by recommending to the City Council that it be landmarked. The commission took the rare step of advising that protections be extended to much of the house's interior--nine out of ten landmark designations in Chicago apply only to exteriors. According to Peter Scales, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development, the council is unlikely to reject the commission's proposals, and the designation could become official as early as October. After that, most of the house will be permanently protected.

"I think there should be some accolades for the owner who worked to preserve this," said the commission's Seymour Persky at its May meeting. "Perhaps a plaque could be placed on the building to describe what they accomplished."

Although it's a gratifying moment for Maxey-Boyd, who's now in her 90s, she regrets that her husband, who died of a heart attack at 75 in 1990, didn't live to see it. Charles, she says, was never entirely at ease about the future of the house, and understandably so: not once but twice he had to defend it from demolition orders issued by the city.

The Wood-Maxey-Boyd House, as preservationists and historians are now calling it, was built in 1885 on the southern boundary of what was then one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, the Prairie Avenue district (today part of Douglas), where magnates like George Pullman, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field lived in Victorian opulence. The house was created by architect John Crombie Cochrane at the behest of lumber baron George Ellery Wood, at a cost of $97,760. Wood built the house for his daughter, Anne Louise Wood, and is said to have timed its completion to coincide with her debutante season.

The asymmetrical house is made of red brick and sandstone and has a gabled roof of black slate with copper copings. In addition to a three-story spiral staircase of elaborately carved wood, its interior features include 20-foot stained glass windows, seven fireplaces decorated with colorful majolica tiles, handsome oak and cherry floors, and window cases adorned with sandstone and terra-cotta details. The same materials were used to build the coach house out back.

The society heyday of the Prairie Avenue district proved short-lived; by the turn of the century, the Chicago aristocracy was relocating to the Gold Coast and the north side, an exodus accelerated by the encroachment of industry and the rising levels of noise and dirt produced by commuter and rail traffic. By the teens it had become a rather raffish boardinghouse district and, in the wake of an antivice drive in the downtown area, home to a substantial number of brothels. By 1920 it and the larger Douglas district had become a predominantly black enclave, and the mansions that the millionaires left behind were being subdivided into smaller and smaller apartments.

Reluctant to abandon the house her father had built for her, Anne Louise Wood--by then Anne Meadowcraft--was one of the last holdouts of the old guard. When she finally joined the caravan of white flight in 1931, she still refused to sell the property. Instead she had the house boarded up with many of its contents--furniture, paintings, silverware, crystal, closets full of clothes--still inside. Meadowcraft hired an African-American caretaker named Earl Walker and put him up in the coach house, but in the high-crime neighborhood, Walker was unable to keep the premises secure. "Every time he turned around he had to call the cops," says Maxey-Boyd. "The family left all kinds of expensive silver. All that was left when we moved in was some old wineglasses in one of the cabinets."

Except for Walker's ministrations and the occasional break-in, the Wood house would sit empty for 17 years, until the Boyds came along to rescue it.

Alva Maxey was born in Madison, Georgia, around 1910. Both her parents were school principals, and she grew up with a strong academic bent, graduating summa cum laude from Talladega College at the top of her class and earning master's degrees in sociology and social service administration, from Oberlin and Case Western Reserve, respectively. In the late 60s she accepted a graduate scholarship from the University of Saskatchewan, where she taught statistical methods while earning her doctorate in sociology. "Wherever I got a scholarship, I went," Maxey-Boyd says. "Jobs were not available, but I was supposed to be brilliant so I got scholarships."

In the early 40s she was working in a public aid office in Cleveland, and so was Charles Boyd, a native Clevelander. Maxey-Boyd says she was impressed that Charles wasn't afraid of her quick wit and bold personality. The two were married in '43 or '44 while Charles was serving in the navy. After he was demobilized in 1945, the couple moved to Chicago, he to study law at DePaul, she to teach sociology at Roosevelt.

Maxey-Boyd had grown up in a big house and wanted one for herself and Charles, but they discovered these were at a premium in Bronzeville, the logical place for a middle-class black couple like themselves to live. Turning her attention to Prairie Avenue, Maxey-Boyd found that most of the housing stock, while externally grand, had been gutted and subdivided into cramped apartments. But she also found the Wood house, and persuaded Earl Walker to let her look around inside. Excited by what she saw, Maxey-Boyd got Charles to research the owner, Anne Meadowcraft, and in 1946 they started writing letters to her.

Meadowcraft, then in her 80s, didn't reply at first, but the Boyds persisted and eventually elicited a polite but noncommittal response. Maxey-Boyd continued to write Meadowcraft regularly, sometimes weekly, articulating her appreciation for the house, her desire that it be kept whole, and her concern that it would disappear unless someone undertook its renovation. "Every time it rained I wrote her," says Maxey-Boyd. "When it rained, it rained inside the house."

In time, Meadowcraft began to show signs of acquiescing. But before she could think of selling it, Meadowcraft said, she had to meet Maxey-Boyd to make sure she was right for the house. Maxey-Boyd made an appointment to visit Meadowcraft at her home downtown at the Webster Hotel, but the meeting nearly didn't take place because she balked at being told by the hotel staff to take the service elevator. When Maxey-Boyd held her ground in the lobby, Meadowcraft dispatched a servant to escort her upstairs via the guest elevator.

"Mrs. Meadowcraft told me, 'I have never been unescorted,'" says Maxey-Boyd, deploying a comic posh accent. According to Maxey-Boyd, Meadowcraft quickly decided she liked her on the strength of the fact that both women had "small hands and feet" and were similar in stature.

Meadowcraft offered to give them the house outright, asking only that they see to its rehabilitation. Maxey-Boyd says she was prepared to accept the offer, but that Charles refused: "She was in her 80s. My husband said somebody would say I took advantage of her."

Two and a half years after they first wrote to Meadowcraft, the Boyds bought the house from her for $6,500.

Then they set about restoring it. Some of the work, like wiring and plumbing, was beyond the abilities of a lawyer and a sociology professor, and in these instances the Boyds enlisted the help of their neighbors, sometimes bartering Charles's legal services for skilled workmanship. For a while the Boyds boarded a plumber known as Popsicle, who traded his labor for a third-floor bedroom.

But the Boyds did most of the work themselves. Maxey-Boyd recalls learning to hold a hatchet at a certain angle so as to chip the old warped plaster off the walls without damaging the laths underneath. Charles did the replastering, Alva the tuck-pointing. Both spent countless hours on their hands and knees sanding the floors. At the time many Chicago property owners were complacently burying fine old Victorian woodwork under white paint. Uncomprehending visitors sometimes asked the couple when they were going to get around to painting the oak and cherrywood panels and wainscoting.

When the seemingly interminable work of rehabilitating the house was done, the Boyds began refinishing and reupholstering the original furniture--a massive carved mahogany desk, mahogany settees, carved walnut armchairs, an ornate four-poster bed--much of which was likely custom-made for the home.

By 1950 the renovation was complete. Three years later the Chicago Plan Commission ordered the house demolished as part of a "land clearance program" making way for the construction of the Prairie Courts public housing complex.

Determined to save their home, Boyd took his case before the City Council Housing Committee. Because he didn't want the committee to know that he was acting on his own behalf, he appeared as Alva's lawyer but identified his client by her maiden name only. "My husband always said that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client," says Maxey-Boyd. Boyd was also representing a neighbor, Bessie Montgomery, who owned a Queen Anne mansion nearby, in which she ran a hospice for chronically ill seniors. Maxey-Boyd says she tried to interest other neighbors in joining Charles's legal initiative, but the offer was spurned. "I think they felt it was better that they had white lawyers," she says. "They would have done better with me. One told me, 'I got a white lawyer, and he'll tell me what to do and when.'"

In a brief he submitted to the committee, Boyd emphasized the soundness of both structures, the difficulty of relocating the hospice residents, the unique architectural merits of 2801 S. Prairie, and the fact that its owners had taken the precaution of consulting with the Chicago Housing Authority before they bought the house and had "obtained a written statement from them that this property was not included in any of their prospective development projects." In asking that the houses be spared, Boyd also made a shrewd appeal to the council's vanity. "We understand," he wrote, "that the Council made a recommendation of this kind once before, when it excluded the property at 556-554 East 37th Street from the Ida B. Wells Project Extension. Judging from their public utterances, it appears that officials of the Chicago Housing Authority now are proud that the property in that case was spared. They have found that fact useful in their public relations, and it has served as a satisfactory rebuttal to the claim in some quarters that the redevelopers want to 'tear down everything in sight regardless of condition.'"

Boyd's reasoning apparently made sense to the committee, because the CHA redrafted the plans for the Prairie Courts complex, locating a 326-unit apartment building just to the north of Montgomery's house and another 203-unit building to the south of 2801 S. Prairie. All the other houses in the neighborhood were razed.

Just eight years later, in 1961, the Boyds were again faced with the prospect of seeing their house demolished in the name of the public good. This time the city's Department of Urban Renewal decided that both surviving mansions should be pulled down in order to create green spaces out of the 11,500-square-foot lots they sat on. The city offered the Boyds an $18,000 compensation package--less than they'd invested--then issued an order that their house be condemned, effective July 30, 1962.

The Boyds fought their second round against City Hall without Bessie Montgomery in their corner. Maxey-Boyd says she remembers walking into a City Council meeting room and seeing large photos of her house and Montgomery's, with the word sold emblazoned across the latter. "I guess I was supposed to tremble," she says. "[Montgomery] told me that her son had decided to sell to the city because they had offered him a 'fabulous sum of money.' I said, 'All right, this time I will fight for myself.'"

In the spring of 1962, Boyd was able to get Cook County Circuit Court judge Charles S. Dougherty to schedule a hearing on the condemnation for July 31--a stay of execution. All the while, Maxey-Boyd was gathering signatures on a petition opposing the demolition and presenting her case before various civic bodies, including the Old Town Triangle Association, the Near South Planning Board, and the Chicago Heritage Committee. The last, a pioneering preservation group, hosted an elite reception in the Boyds' home early in July to show it to the city's movers and shakers.

On July 30, Mayor Richard J. Daley announced that he had asked the Department of Urban Renewal to withdraw its condemnation order and referred to the Boyds' restoration of the house as "the sort of thing we should encourage." The boss had spoken, and 2801 S. Prairie was saved a second time.

The Wood-Maxey-Boyd House now stands alone, flanked by piles of rubble and grassy lots left by the demolition of the Prairie Courts complex earlier this summer. The city's redevelopment plans for the area entail the creation of a mixed-income neighborhood of private residences, a certain percentage of which will be reserved for low-income families.

Maxey-Boyd's long-term plans for her house--once she's finished with it--call for its conversion into a cultural center and architectural museum, to be run by a nonprofit trust under the supervision of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. Having no immediate heirs, Maxey-Boyd has arranged for her goddaughter, Tammy Thurman, who grew up in the coach house behind the mansion, to serve as one of the original trustees.

Asked why, in an age that placed so little value on old houses, she worked so hard to restore one and then fought so hard to keep it, Maxey-Boyd gives a straightforward answer: "Because I wanted it. I liked the wood."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Tom McPheron.

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