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Wolves at the Door

When Ed Magnus bought his crumbling Prairie Avenue mansion, no one cared what happened to it. Now developers and their friends at City Hall can't wait to sink their teeth into it.

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To let visitors into his home, a 35-room remnant of Chicago's Gilded Age, Ed Magnus has to undo two deadbolts, two padlocks, and a barrage of other safety measures. Before he bought the former Marshall Field Jr. mansion at 1919 S. Prairie, the house had been all but abandoned to vandals and pillagers. A carpenter and rehabber by trade, Magnus doubted he could restore the 1884 building to its former glory, but he was the first person in 20 years willing to give it a shot.

He started with the coach house adjoining the rear of the mansion and six months ago was finally able to move into its second and third floors. It had taken almost six years to render the 8,000-square-foot space habitable. There are now four bedrooms, four bathrooms, several skylights, and a smattering of furniture. In his combination kitchen and office, there's a computer, a fax machine, a microwave, and a nearly empty bag of Starbucks coffee. A few boxes of cereal and some canned goods are spread out over the counter. He doesn't have a refrigerator yet. Nearly everything is coated with a thin layer of plaster dust.

Magnus says he read somewhere that his living room used to be a squash court. There would have been ample space--the ceilings are 20 feet high--but more likely, he says, it was a storage area for hay.

He draws up the plans for his restoration projects on a makeshift coffee table--several stacked-up pads of insulation. "I'm fascinated with old, historic buildings," he says. "I do it out of necessity, really." Accompanied by Beethoven or sports talk radio, he divides his time between the 17,000-square-foot main residence and the lawn. "When I got it, that was the main thing," he says, "to fix the yard, because it looked like a garbage dump."

Over the last year he's intensified work on the exterior of the big house, and he'd hoped to tackle the interior soon. Now all that has changed. This south-side neighborhood is beginning to bloom after being declared a tax increment financing district five years ago. Developers are anxious to take the house off his hands and they may have the power to force him to sell. Not happy to see it torn down, Magnus has hired a lawyer and chosen a real estate agent.

Coldwell Banker agent Patrick Fegan has fielded more than 150 phone calls from people wanting to see the property. "Maybe we should charge admission," quips Fegan, who's averaged a few showings a day since Magnus put the mansion on the market July 19. "People are looking at it because they're into the history of the place. But it seems more like their main objective is to take advantage of the city's tax incentives. If it were me, I wouldn't tear it down, even if it's uneconomic."

A group of four prospective buyers, each with flashlight in hand, is preparing for a tour of the mansion. "They don't want their names used," confides Fegan, as he steps inside the coach house. "They're working with a big developer."

As four sets of discerning eyes inspect his living quarters, Magnus stands off to one side, shifting his weight from work boot to work boot.

"So, did you do all this?" asks one man.

Magnus nods.

"So, which one of these rooms can I pee in?" asks another.

Magnus shows him the bathroom.

When one of the men can't find his cell phone, Magnus leads the search. They joke that a ghost may have made off with the phone, which later turns up in a car.

"This house is only haunted if you want it to be," Magnus assures them with a smile.

In the years following the Chicago Fire, an era of open space and no income tax, the wealthy had few obstacles to owning their dream house. In the 1947 book The Marshall Fields: A Study in Wealth, author John Tebbel writes that department store titan Marshall Field hired Richard Morris Hunt--architect to the Astors--"and instructed him to spare no expense in the building of a three-story, red brick palace at 1905 South Prairie Avenue."

Opulent homes lined Prairie Avenue from 16th to 22nd, making it the social center of the city's well-to-do, including the Pullmans, Kimballs, Armours, and Glessners. By 1890 Field's son, Marshall Field Jr., had moved into the luxurious spread next door with his new wife, Albertine Huck, the daughter of a Chicago brewer. This place, which Magnus now calls home, was designed in part by Daniel Burnham's architecture firm. The Field mansions were on either side of the yard where Magnus has planted black-eyed Susans, butterfly bushes, and honeysuckle. Ivy climbs up the side of a warehouse that now occupies the site of the elder Field's home, which was demolished after World War II. In 1886 a lavish soiree was held there. The Mikado Ball, according to Tebbel's book, was thrown in honor of Marshall Field Jr., then 17, and his 14-year-old sister, Ethel. Guests came costumed as characters from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and mingled in a Japanese garden as a mandolin orchestra played. "For years afterward people talked about the party," Tebbel writes. "It was all the splendor that $75,000 could buy."

In spite of his privileged background and a Harvard education, the younger Field never demonstrated the business drive of his father. Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan's 1966 book, Give the Lady What She Wants: The Story of Marshall Field & Company, describes Marshall Field Jr. as "a sensitive man who enjoyed good books and good music and liked to hunt and ride." He worked as a $15-a-week clerk in the wholesale side of the business, but "he found the tasks there dull and uninspiring."

Tebbel recounts that Marshall Jr. and Albertine had four children: a son who died in infancy, Marshall III, Henry, and Gwendolin. During this time, the elder Field was widowed and withdrew from the social whirl. At 71 he was reinvigorated by marriage to Delia Spencer Caton, the widow of a wealthy lawyer. Their September 1905 nuptials were a happy affair, but the Field family was in mourning two months later--Marshall Jr. had died from a bullet wound in his abdomen.

Before his death, Tebbel writes, Marshall Jr. had frequented the notorious Everleigh Club, "where liquor, women and roulette wheels were easily obtainable." His cause of death was ruled a suicide--he was found in his bedroom--but it was rumored he had been killed by a female companion.

Tebbel concludes that the shock of Marshall Jr.'s death "undoubtedly hastened" his father's demise seven weeks later. Albertine Field sold her home and took her children to London, where in 1908 she married a British army captain.

The area around Prairie Avenue had already started to change. Boardinghouses and wholesale stores had grown up along State and Wabash, and the vice trades had also moved south from downtown, creating the infamous Levee District on State between Polk and 16th. Nearby freight and commuter rail lines were expanding, and the 1915 arrival of the Hump Hairpin factory--directly across the street from the Marshall Field Jr. mansion--marked the end of the neighborhood's exclusivity. By the 1920s most of the wealthy residents had sold their Victorian showplaces, many of which were turned into rooming houses. In 1923 Marshall Field Jr.'s mansion was turned into an outpost of the Chicago Sanitarium. Magnus's grandfather Alexander Magnus, a respected psychiatric clinician, was among those who practiced there until 1928, when it became the Rest Haven Home for Convalescent Women and Girls. In the 1950s it became the Monterey Convalescent Home. "My grandfather's working here always kind of intrigued me," Magnus says. "I think that's why I feel a lot of connection with the house."

In the ensuing years most of the mansions were demolished, including the pile owned by railway tycoon George Pullman. The Field mansion didn't become endangered until the 1960s, when the owners of the Monterey Convalescent Home defaulted on payments for an interior sprinkler system and eventually declared bankruptcy. By that point the neighborhood was among the city's least desirable. Automobile dealerships reigned by day, and a red-light district came out at night.

The home of John J. Glessner, who made his fortune in farm machinery, still stands a block north of the Field mansion. For a while, the threat of the wrecking ball hovered over the Glessner House, but in 1966 a group of preservation-minded architects stepped in to save the H.H. Richardson-designed home. Now a tourist attraction, it's owned by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

The Marshall Field Jr. mansion wasn't so lucky. It served a final stint as a convalescent home in the early 70s, and then it was vacant. It seemed a likely candidate for preservation when the Prairie Avenue Historic District was created in 1976. But unlike the Glessner House, the Field mansion was never declared a national historic landmark. The Chicago Architecture Foundation owned it for a time, but years of deferred maintenance made its rehabilitation too costly. In 1981 the mansion was sold to a private owner who never got around to renovating. The house was left open, exposed to the elements and petty thieves, until Magnus bought it in April 1993 for the fire-sale price of $62,500.

In August 1994 the City Council passed the ordinance establishing the Near South TIF Redevelopment Project and Plan, which includes the Field mansion within its boundaries. "Although the downtown north and west sides of the central area have experienced dynamic growth in office, entertainment and residential development," the ordinance reads, "the Near South area generally south of Roosevelt Road and east of Michigan Avenue continues to decline....The area is in significant need of revitalization and redevelopment."

The TIF has had its intended effect--from Congress to 21st and from Lake Shore Drive to State, not one potentially tax-producing parcel has been overlooked.

Rosalind Edwards is a saleswoman for the Rezmar Development Group. On a Sunday afternoon in late August, she's talking up its latest town house project--the Commonwealth on Prairie Avenue--to a stylish couple interested in buying a new home.

Edwards lists the various models: the Armour, the Palmer, the Burnham, and the Field. Though none have been built, the Field units are already sold-out. The couple wonders when they could move in. Ground should be broken by this winter, Edwards replies, as soon as the rest of the land is cleared. Hump Hairpin is already history, and Rezmar now owns the land on either side of Magnus's mansion.

When asked, "What's going to happen to that huge old house anyway?" Edwards replies, "All I know is it's up for sale. That is one of the mayor's favorite projects."

Exactly when Mayor Daley took an interest in the Field mansion is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps he didn't fancy the looks of the place when he moved his family in 1993 from Bridgeport to a new town house a few blocks away. Back then the mansion had weeds sprouting from its chimneys. Its gutters were askew, and broken windows were set in rotting frames.

Magnus's uncle Alexander had already invested in the area: in 1989 he purchased the eight-story Atwell Building a block down from the mansion for commercial loft space. "Ten years ago, this neighborhood was really rough," says Ed Magnus. "A woman could not walk unescorted down here."

A native of Burr Ridge, Magnus, who's 38, had majored in business and economics at Southern Methodist University in Texas. But after college he went to work for his uncle. Then he struck out on his own, buying neglected architectural gems to bring back to life. He knows a bargain when he sees one--stacked in a corner of his yard are century-old cobblestones that he rescued from city blocks destined for asphalt paving. The plan was to incorporate the stones into the mansion's landscaping, but he'll probably have to find another use for them, possibly at another rehab project at 42nd and Ellis.

Though Magnus has done well, he doesn't have the $2 million he estimates it would take to fully restore his 115-year-old mansion. Nor does he feel compelled to move out of the coach house that took him a half dozen years to overhaul. "At this point in my life," he says, "it's a good place for me to be."

The city has tried to speed Magnus along--first by citing a host of code violations for the chimneys, the gutters, and the windows. But Magnus's years as a rehabber have taught him the ways of housing court, and he promised to get to work. He started on the chimneys, an involved process requiring several sets of hands. "It was kind of dangerous," Magnus says. "We scooped out the weeds. Then we had to pull out all the big stones because they'd become so weathered. Then we cleaned out the flues. Once the stones were put back into place, we tuck-pointed. It's kind of interesting because there's seven fireplaces connected to that one chimney." Rooftop and other refurbishment projects bought Magnus some time, and he managed, with some hassle, to comply with the city's demands.

Still, he knew he wasn't in the clear. "You think you're the master of your domain, but you're really not," he says. "The city is making a fair share of roadway improvements down here, so I guess the TIF sort of works for what they intended it to do. It's just their bullying nature that gets you frustrated."

Magnus was half expecting the phone call he received in the spring of 1998 from Jerry Olson, a real estate broker who knew of a potential buyer for the mansion. Magnus said he hadn't been planning to sell, but when Olson asked for a survey Magnus faxed him the property's parameters and the building's dimensions. Olson called to say thanks, but Magnus heard nothing after that. A few months later, he decided to sink serious money into the coach house so he could start living there. Magnus says he's spent nearly half a million dollars on the mansion so far.

This past April, two months after settling into his new home, Magnus got a call from assistant planning commissioner Ron McDermott. The city was interested in acquiring the mansion, Magnus learned, and would do so by condemning it and claiming it through eminent domain. As a city-owned property in a TIF district, the mansion could be sold at a price much lower than market value. Rezmar had recently purchased the Hump Hairpin factory and other parcels surrounding the Field mansion. They would soon erect a sales office in a trailer a few yards from Magnus's front door. "At that point, when they started talking about eminent domain, it was starting to get sticky," says Magnus.

Surprisingly, the city appeared to back off. Then Olson called to say he had a client by the name of Rezmar willing to offer $525,000. Magnus declined.

Within a month, Rezmar had taken Magnus to court. In its May 25 complaint Rezmar claimed it would "suffer irreparable harm as a result of the continued failure of the Property to be in compliance with the City of Chicago Municipal Code." It asked to be appointed receiver of the property.

Magnus says his only alternative was to put it on the market. "It's in reaction to Rezmar's lawsuit, to make it more difficult for them," he says, "but also because if the city comes back and tries to do eminent domain, they're just going to lowball. I have to have some comparable offers as evidentiary selling range. Just because they think they can take your property away from you doesn't mean they can." He's asking $1.25 million.

The first deposition date in the case is scheduled for Wednesday, September 15.

The prospective buyers turn off their flashlights as they leave the coach house and walk around to the front door of the mansion. There's plenty of room to spread out over the 60-by-178-foot lot, but they march in single file. The sun is just beginning to set over the razed remains of the Hump Hairpin factory as Magnus bounds up the steps to remove the padlocks on the front door. He picks up a rock to hammer at the deadbolts until they finally inch aside.

"There has to be a parlor somewhere," one man says as the group walks through the wood-paneled foyer, past the grand staircase, and fans out across the debris-sprinkled first floor.

"I don't know the exact designation of the rooms," Magnus replies, explaining that the mansion underwent alterations during its days as a convalescent home. The layout changed, and some of the floors were covered with tile. Magnus's favorite room is an octagonal space in front; some of the original inlaid wood is still visible.

"If somebody wants to bring it back, it would be quite incredible," muses Fegan. "But what a job--there must be 20 layers of paint on here. Cheap paint too."

Magnus sizes up the situation differently. "Even though it's peeling," he says, "it's still kind of nice."

The wooden banister is in good shape, retaining a shade of the rich color it had a century ago. The bedrooms, sitting rooms, and bathrooms on the second and third floors haven't fared so well. Much of the intricate plaster ornamentation on the ceilings is cracked and eroded, due in part to strain from the still unfinished sprinkler system. Graying paint flakes are everywhere, but Magnus looks beyond them. "Aren't the ceilings beautiful?" he says. "I always wanted to learn how to make those kind of moldings."

In a room with a breathtaking view of downtown, a dusty Mickey's Big Mouth lies in a corner, a souvenir from a past resident. Down the hall "Rest in Peace" is scrawled across a fireplace mantel. "The floor's a little mushy over there," Magnus warns the group. "Don't charge over there." Their flashlights flicker toward the master bedroom in the east wing.

Despite the disarray, the prospective buyers seem awed by the place. "These people weren't just keeping up with the Joneses," one man marvels. "It's more like they were staying way ahead of them."

Back downstairs, a slight opening in a cardboard-covered wall draws the group's curiosity. It's the mansion's former library and the current home of Steve Swafford, a former Sun-Times street vendor who moved in after the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum moved into the building at 18th and Indiana where he'd been squatting. Magnus agreed to take in Swafford after a caretaker from the Glessner House brought him to the mansion's doorstep three years ago. Swafford has been living there rent free as Magnus's watchman ever since, warning off trespassers with a baseball bat and sometimes stepping outside in his underwear for an extra menacing effect. Sometimes he helps out with the gardening and other maintenance. His living quarters are decorated with dated newspaper ads and a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. that says "Free at Last." Magnus is worried about what will happen to Swafford, who has been acting anxious lately. "I think it's because he's not buying my bullshit anymore that these are all just insurance people coming to look at the house," Magnus says.

Returning from his day job selling Streetwise, Swafford detects interlopers the minute he walks through the door. "Cheap-ass sons of bitches," he declares as he drops his bags in the foyer and stalks down the hall. "Steve, be nice," Magnus says, but Swafford has already disappeared into his room, which only a few minutes before one of the prospective buyers had declared "the best in the house." Magnus had tried to discourage them from walking inside. "We can peek in there, but Steve's stuff is in there. Come on, be realistic, it's square footage--what are you seeing that's different from the rest of the house?" Flashlights focused on Swafford's possessions for a few seconds before the men filed out.

"This is the man, this is the man you want to see," the group exclaims to Magnus as one of their colleagues, a fellow in a dirty T-shirt and khakis, strides through the wide-open front door, an hour late. His associates immediately lead him back to Swafford's room.

Fegan is confident the mansion will soon be under contract. While that could stave off Rezmar's lawsuit, selling his house to the highest bidder was never Magnus's first choice. Whoever buys it, he promises, will have no connection to Rezmar. "I don't think they've got a snowball's chance in hell of tearing it down," Magnus says, "but I think they think they do."

Magnus's ideal buyer would try to finish the work he's started, maybe even turn the mansion into a restaurant or a bed-and-breakfast--something elegant, like it was a century ago. If that's the plan, Magnus may try to keep the coach house for himself. But if the mansion is converted into condominiums, it might be too painful for him to stay.

"I'm going to feel so out of place when these town homes come in across the street," Magnus says. "I don't know if it'll even be worth it to stay.

"You know, for a long time I felt like nobody cared about me over here. And to tell you the truth, I kind of liked it that way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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