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Living in the Past

The building I live in is a monument to the lives of people who began their careers before my mother was born. I share the space with them, explore the halls where they used to work, and imagine what it was like here 80 years ago.



It feels like I live on the screened-in porch I played on as a little girl. Air and light pour through my 4,000 square feet of industrial space, grand space that lets the mind wander, free to concoct dreams and ponder why people buy those pink flamingos. The el roars past the endless windows facing a western sky that's sometimes blue, sometimes gray, sometimes purple, sometimes orange. The sound rumbles through the steel I beams and old brick, drowning out all communication, interrupting thought. A giant pendulum now stored in a sixth-floor closet once kept time in the soaring clock tower that tops this former factory, beating like its heart.

Unlike most industrial structures, the Larchmont Building is part of the neighborhood. Children ride bikes and play in the unpaved lot in back, just like they did in 1914, when Bell & Howell erected the first portion of what would be its corporate headquarters for almost 30 years. The original three-story building squats on the corner of Larchmont and Ravenswood, overshadowed by the four- and seven-story additions that make the structure distinct, majestic, and massive. The newer sections--alternating layers of glass and brick--look seamless; the only telltale sign of separation is inside, a single step up from one section to another.

The building feels ancient. Its walls of hardy red brick recall medieval German castles. In the summer the temperature in the building's entryway belies the weather outside; the thick walls provide a barrier against the sweltering heat and humidity. Even though the walls absorb the August heat, it's far from toasty in February.

Turning 80 this year, the Larchmont will soon be converted from industrial space to luxury condominiums. Current residents may sew, write, build, photograph, and design, but they do it within the same crusty walls, floors, and ceilings that once housed machinery for Bell & Howell, and later the Speed-O-Print company, at the end of the industrial age. The rehab, scheduled for sometime in 1995, will forever change the face and the guts of the building. The clues to its past will be removed with the dust, cracked glass, and peeling paint. The building is a monument to the lives of both bosses and workers, people who began their careers here before my mother was born. Yet I turn the lights on by touching the same electrical switches, sending current through the same maze of thick wiring, now covered in decaying cloth.

Two strips of grass, fenced in by wooden stakes and rope, frame the sidewalk that leads to the front door of the Larchmont. Four trees shade the entrance. The Speed-O-Print logo, painted in gold and silver script, once gleamed through the glass arch above the door until it was scratched off a couple of years ago. A slab of heavy corrugated black rubber lies on the floor of the gray marble lobby; white block letters embedded in the black surface spell out "Speed-O-Print." A stairway rolls to the left, curling behind the elevator. Dark shadows cast on the walls make you wonder what's lurking on the landing, just out of sight. Labyrinthine stairwells lace the entire structure, connecting the three sections and seven floors. To reach back in time to discover the stories this building still holds, start with the grimy back stairwell; the grit in those corners probably predates Prohibition. Despite the low light and mysterious echoes, the stairs still provide the safest form of travel through the building, because the elevators often stick between floors. Escape is easy from the passenger elevator--roll up the grate and the heavy metal door, then climb out. But the cagelike freight elevator is a more harrowing challenge, with heavier doors that are harder to pry open and a single bare bulb that lights up the shaft just enough to let you see you're in trouble, but not enough to show you a way out.

The four- and seven-story sections housed Bell & Howell's main machine shops, huge expanses of concrete divided by seemingly random sections of drywall and imposing pillars too wide to reach around. The windows start at your hips and soar up 15 or 20 feet, stopping just shy of the ceiling. Windows wrap the building like ribbons, encircling each floor. The glass panes push out on hinges halfway up the frame and are propped open with metal rods, letting the sky and city in.

Deep silver ashtrays jut out from the hallway walls, matching light fixtures made of brushed aluminum and thick pebbled glass. The diffused light illuminates the way to the washrooms, where industrial-size white porcelain sinks still sit. Eight spigots hang over a basin the size of a shallow bathtub. A window in the fourth-floor bathroom leads to the expansive black roof of the 1914 building, which we use as a huge outdoor playground bounded by chest-high walls. We call it Tar Beach Country Club. There's no golf course at this country club, but it has a huge hazard--a hollow cut into the middle of the roof looks down on a skylight two floors below. From Tar Beach you can navigate up the fire escapes to the top of the seven-story tower and lean against the old clock face. You can watch passengers on the el journey to and from the city and wonder if the letters SBM on a rusting metal sign stand for Speed-O-Print Business Machines. Imagine how different the view was 40 years ago.

The clock watches over Ravenswood in four directions, independent on the skyline, looming above the city even though it's a thousand feet shorter than the Sears Tower. You can get into the clock tower by climbing narrow ladders on the inside walls. Standing next to the clock makes you feel larger than life, like you're in a movie. You're the protagonist, triumphant in the end. You want to take a deep breath and throw your arms up and scream as the el goes by. The experience is amplified by wriggling to the edge of the seventh floor, holding on tight because there's no rail or curb. I lie on my belly and wait until the el shakes the building as it blasts past. I pretend it's a toy train set, showering blue sparks into the black Chicago night.

Bell & Howell revolutionized the nascent motion picture business by inventing a standardized system of movie cameras, projectors, and perforators for 35-millimeter film. Until around 1910, Chicagoans usually couldn't view a movie made in Milwaukee because the projector and film often weren't compatible. Standardization made movies an international enterprise rather than a local business.

Bell & Howell earned a reputation as an innovator. Company founder Albert S. Howell personally held 147 patents on inventions that changed the way movies were made and exhibited. In 1912 Bell & Howell introduced its 2709 standard 35-millimeter camera, the first all-metal movie camera. It was produced in response to the plight of explorers Martin and Osa Johnson, who lost their state-of-the-art wood-and-leather model to termites and mildew in Africa. Thirteen years later the company created the Eyemo, a small, versatile camera enthusiastically picked up by newsreel crews. Filmmakers continue to use the 2709 as a rotoscope camera, which allows live-action footage to form a frame-by-frame basis for animation. Walt Disney animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a 2709 camera manufactured in 1914. The Eyemo is still regularly employed as a "crash cam," getting smashed by cars and dropped off cliffs. Bell & Howell focused on professional equipment, but it also manufactured 8- and 16-millimeter products for amateur moviemakers like your parents, who probably recorded your first steps with a Bell & Howell device.

During the Depression Bell & Howell invited neighborhood kids to free film screenings in the factory. Soon the company was producing equipment for educational use in schools and churches across the country. The Bell & Howell Filmosound projector that brought you all those educational movies in grade school was built inside the walls of my building as early as 1932. The Filmosound projector was my hero, a savior from handwriting class. The size of the film reels sitting on the teacher's desk was the key to how long you'd get to sit and veg in front of a movie on photosynthesis or the heart. Today, it's an honor to live in the birthplace of that projector, walking the halls where it was assembled, riding the freight elevator down to the loading dock where it was shipped off to my elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas.

Skylights once brought sunshine to Bell & Howell employees in the Larchmont Building. But in the early 1940s, the skylights were covered with black tar to conceal wartime tasks performed for the U.S. government. Bell & Howell adapted motion picture cameras like the Eyemo for military use, even painting them regulation army green. The company made tiny cameras to record the accuracy of guns and other artillery. When blockades prevented getting critical supplies from overseas, Bell & Howell started crafting sophisticated lenses, its most important contribution to the war effort. The Bell & Howell retriflector sight was called the "eye" of the B-29 bomber.

It's hard to believe the space around me once housed automatic screw machines and punch presses that ran not from electricity fed directly into each machine, but from energy generated and passed along by huge spinning belts and wheels that hung from the ceiling like a web, each strand powering a machine. Some of the guys who operated this equipment liked working at Bell & Howell. It was considered a good job. The company boasted that one employee on its industrial league baseball team chose his job at Bell & Howell over a spot on the Cubs roster. Workers who bowled were never kept late on Monday night, even during inventory.

Bell & Howell left their building on Larchmont in 1943, but not before Charles Percy worked there for five years. The future Illinois senator started his association with the company when he was just a kid. He asked his Sunday school teacher, Bell & Howell president Joseph McNabb, if there was a job for his unemployed father at the factory. Percy's dad was hired as an office manager, and Percy himself worked for the company during summers off from New Trier High School and the University of Chicago. McNabb took an interest in young Charles, and the two corresponded while Percy was in the navy during World War II. In 1949 Percy was named president of Bell & Howell at the tender age of 29.

The company would go on to win Oscars for technical contributions to the film industry, and it would develop more sophisticated communications products in such areas as microfilm and aerospace. Sales increased almost 13-fold by 1963, when Percy resigned as chief executive to run unsuccessfully for Illinois governor (he won his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1966). The company's longtime ties to government prompted Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to call its headquarters after Bell & Howell two-way radios were found in the possession of the "White House plumbers" at the Watergate Hotel (Woodward's inquiry found no connection between the company and the break-in).

Bell & Howell sold the building on Larchmont in 1949 to the Speed-O-Print company, makers of mimeograph machines. Speed-O-Print was a different kind of operation than Bell & Howell. The Bell & Howell guys were a pretty straitlaced bunch. They watched their inventories and profit margins, doing business in a frugal, 90s sort of way, which may explain why Bell & Howell still manufactures equipment and Speed-O-Print only distributes what others make. I saw a Speed-O-Print machine once in the bathroom of a thrift store. The proprietors had stuffed it into the corner of my stall. Coated in dust and obviously dead, it bore the same logo that once graced the entrance to my building. The machines produced the black or blue copies your teacher cranked off in the principal's office. Freshly mimeographed paper felt cool and damp and smelled so good, so pungent and chemically clean.

Abe Samuels, the president and owner of Speed-O-Print, was a fiery basketball star at Marshall High School, despite his diminutive size. Samuels took the energy he unleashed on the basketball court and poured it into his company, endowing Speed-O-Print with his grand personality. He relished the art of entertaining, and he redesigned the space to meet his needs, much as the artists who occupy the building today have done. He put sales and management offices on the second floor, in space that had probably been occupied by heavy machinery. His office included a long, curved bar and rich wood paneling. He lowered the ceiling and installed recessed lighting that gave the blond wood a soft sheen. He converted Bell & Howell's seventh-floor cafeteria into a penthouse--an executive lounge, complete with a kitchen, walk-in safe, and full bathroom. But the barbershop, spa, and rustic stone fireplace made it a true penthouse. The fireplace stands like a monument to Samuels. The penthouse still contains his furniture, armchairs and couches covered with thick brown leather tacked down with hundreds of brass studs. A single barber's chair faces a wall of mirrors and wood shelves in a deco-styled shop. Samuels and his associates probably got a haircut and a shave with a straight razor before walking into the spa, a room with massage tables, a sauna, and a shiny chrome exercise bike (outfitted with an electric motor to turn the pedals and move the handlebars up and down for you). The sauna was a white enameled metal box with a hole in the top for your head to stick out. The box opens up to reveal a row of sunlamps and a little metal stool to sit on while you cook.

Samuels entertained girlfriends and conducted business with clients and suppliers up on the seventh floor. The penthouse clearly brought in more deals than a cafeteria. He socialized with Bears owner George Halas, and many of Halas's football players frequented Samuels's sanctuary. His good friend Albert Broccoli, who produced the original James Bond films (partially funded by Samuels), brought Sean Connery and Ursula Andress up to see the panoramic view of the skyline. Former Speed-O-Print employees report that Frank Sinatra once climbed the narrow staircase to the penthouse.

But Samuels didn't confine his charms to dealings with celebrities. He liked to hang out at Schulien's, a nearby restaurant on Irving Park Road. Samuels's friend Charlie Schulien still owns the place and does magic tricks for diners. Local folklore says Samuels handed one of his girlfriends the keys to his shiny new Packard after she gushed over it at Schulien's bar.

Years after the Speed-O-Print sales and management guys vacated the space, it still felt like an intrusion on their territory when you'd turn the oversized brass doorknob and push open the door that guards the second-floor office. I envision factory laborers in ink-stained coveralls complaining about the sales and management guys as they scrub away the grime and grease on their hands in the eight-spigot sink I now use. But former employees say Samuels was a generous guy. Workers liked him despite (or maybe because of) his man-about-town image.

By the late 1980s Samuels was ready to sell the space because the mimeograph business wasn't exactly booming. Speed-O-Print only occupied a couple of floors and leased out the rest. It tried to break into photocopier manufacturing but waited too long. The copier giants--IBM, Xerox, and assorted Japanese firms--already owned the market. Maybe the sales and management guys thought teachers were addicted to the smell of mimeograph copies and wouldn't give up their machines. Speed-O-Print tried distributing office equipment, but the proliferation of office-supply megastores put the squeeze on the company. A group of investors--Eli Fishman, Bernie Leviton, and Norm Litz--made a lowball offer for the factory that was immediately rejected. A different deal sweet enough for Samuels was almost sealed, but negotiations for the old structure broke down when the stock market crashed in 1987. Samuels eventually took the trio's money, and the Speed-O-Print Building became the Larchmont Building. Speed-O-Print leased a little space from the new owners and stayed around for a couple of years. In 1989 the company moved to Gurnee, and it was later taken over by a New York firm.

When Speed-O-Print left, Fred Nerroth and his bucket of sour mop water stayed on. Fred started as a Speed-O-Print employee and evolved into the building's caretaker. He tends the yard and swabs down the stairs, leaving the stale scent of pine behind. He sorts mail, unclogs drains, changes light bulbs, fixes blown fuses, and tends the loading dock. The loading dock is Fred's domain--it's where he writes terse, cryptic notes that he posts around the building or slips under tenants' doors. The messages document infractions and tell you to stop doing what you're doing. He writes each note by hand and gives you a photocopy, as if to let you know that the original is going into some secret file. I used to imagine Fred living inside the clock tower with the pigeons that work the nearby Irving Park el stop.

He wears tattered sweaters with lint balls and snags all over them. One side of the collar on his polyester shirt pokes out from underneath the sweater. His clunky black shoes with thick soles seem almost fashionable in this age of Doc Martens. But Fred holds a secret to success. He owns real estate in Lincoln Park. This is solid infomercial material, a program worth watching. Three-dimensional metallic letters spin into place on the TV screen in a pitch created to entice late-night viewers and lost souls who want to get rich quick: Send $49.95 to F-R-E-D and mop your way to millions.

When the Speed-O-Print era ended, none of the new owners wanted to lord over the mixed bag of tenants scattered throughout the former factory. It became a building with no rules. Fred is about as much law and order as you get. But it's an anarchy that works. Tenants settle disputes among themselves. No one who lives in a building by the el complains about noise. We open the Dumpsters at night and play gravity darts with bags of trash. The wind keeps the game interesting. The building management stays away, almost like they're afraid of what they might find. Except for Eli Fishman, an owner with a Kellogg MBA and a master's degree in sociology from the University of Chicago. Maybe this building is some sort of experiment for his dissertation.

An odd collection of people inhabit the building. Silk screen printers, a futon factory, and photographers have come and gone. There's Steve and me--refugees from ad agencies. Bill next door is a computer artist. His wife B.J. is a graphic designer who creates children's books. Between the two of them I think they've got enough processing power to launch nuclear weapons. Tiffany designs and manufactures clothes. Tom is a well-known sculptor. There are a couple of light machine shops, a guy who builds and installs fireplaces, and a combination record collector/dealer and cat sitter. The Bruno Sport people run fitness camps. And then there are the guys from a direct-marketing company downstairs; they sell computers by phone and grunt like animals while loading equipment into trucks.

When luxury lofts started taking over old industrial buildings in Ravenswood, the neighborhood began to get soft. Car burnings were once a real source of entertainment. Vehicles would combust regularly. The culprits weren't malicious criminals--more like hoodlums with a flair for marketing their pyromaniacal hobby as a service. The owners wanted their cars torched, probably for insurance reasons. The process could take weeks, beginning when a fairly dilapidated vehicle gets parked on a side street. Then invisible hooligans break a window or two. Next they slash the tires and break any remaining windows. Finally, flammable materials start to pile up inside. At this point I'd stay away from the vehicle after dark.

The Larchmont Building's conversion is tentatively scheduled to take place next year. The concrete floors I walk on will be hidden by plush carpet and shiny varnished wood. I share the space with my predecessors; I can easily imagine what it was like to work here 80 years ago. But the developers will soon sanitize the building's character and paint over its history. My successors will live in sterile units, not open spaces, with limited views.

Will some Melrose Place clone appreciate what happened here before the contractor installed her Euro-kitchen? Will she ever imagine what the real ceiling beams looked like? Or that the windows consisted of small panes, not huge expanses of glass? Management will bar her from exploring the clock tower. Forget about climbing the fire escape to sit against the clock face and stare at the skyline and the fireworks launched from every corner of the city on a warm, clear Fourth of July.

The management company will probably install a plaque that succinctly reports what the building used to be before it was a home, condensing an 80-year history into two or three lines. Maybe my successor will read the plaque while she waits for the elevator one day. She'll know that the Bell & Howell Company built the place and made camera equipment, and that Speed-O-Print then took it over and made mimeograph machines. That plaque will be her only link to the past. Even the elevators will be replaced.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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