Linda Culver always knew the coach house behind her family’s West Side home was old.
But it wasn’t until the city moved to tear it down that Culver learned the building could date back to the late 19th century — a time when Austin wasn’t yet part of Chicago.
The city is seeking a demolition permit for the coach house behind Culver’s family home at 710 N. Lotus Ave. due to concerns the building is unstable and unsafe. There have been hearings to discuss tearing down the building since May 2020, with the next hearing scheduled for June 28.
Culver’s family has lived on Lotus Avenue since the 1970s. Her mother rented the coach house to several families over the years, but her family hasn’t been able to keep up the maintenance and it’s fallen into disrepair.
Still, Culver said she could tell from its construction and the style of architecture the structure was built in an era long passed. Hoping to confirm her hunch and gather evidence to prove to the city the house was worth saving, she reached out to Preservation Chicago.
“We didn’t know just how old or just how significant it is until recently,” Culver said.
Executive Director Ward Miller and Max Chavez, director of Research and Special Projects, said they could tell from just a glance the house was a relic with a valuable history that should be preserved.
The coach house appears to be built in an Italianate style of architecture, which can be identified by the narrow windows with carved hooded moldings. That style of building was popular in Chicago during a narrow window between the 1860s and 1870s, Chavez said, potentially making the house up to 160 years old.
“It has a physical structure to it that looks very singular and very different than anything in the area, and even Chicago overall,” Chavez said. “Rough condition doesn’t always necessitate demolition. This building is really significant and you can tell just by looking at it.”
After researching records and archive materials, Chavez found the coach house likely was built on land owned by C.C. Merrick, a railroad executive who owned much of Austin before the neighborhood was incorporated into Chicago.
Records show there were very few homes in the area at the time the house was built. Much of the land that would become Austin was farmland, Chavez said. The building was likely designed to serve some agricultural purpose, like housing farmhands, Chavez said.
“If it is an agricultural building … I think that certainly speaks to a time in Austin that you don’t really see reflected in the city anymore,” Chavez said.
Today the coach house is in serious need of repairs. The roof of the building has a hole in it caused by a tree branch. Culver’s family was unable to repair the roof, which eventually led to one of the walls deteriorating.
Mimi Simon, a spokesperson for the city’s buildings department, said the city is pursuing demolition because there are signs the coach house could soon collapse and the city “does not have any records that indicate the coach house has significant historic or landmark value.”
“The City’s top priority is public safety,” Simon said in a statement. To stop the demolition case, “at a minimum, they need to present a structural engineer’s report stating the building is structurally sound, which the City has not yet received. That said, it is ultimately up to the judge to postpone a trial date or to proceed with demolition.”
Culver hopes to eventually get the funds to fix the roof, stabilize the walls and gut the interior, she said. She hopes the house can be saved and restored instead of torn down because it still has a lot of potential. Its old construction style gives it a “vintage chic … architectural kind of swag” that shouldn’t be forgotten, she said.
“What was really gorgeous was the windows. … Those huge gorgeous long windows go all the way to the floor,” Culver said.
In the meantime, Preservation Chicago is trying to find documents, permits or physical proof to bolster their appeal to the city to spare the coach house. Buildings as old as the coach house aren’t well documented, Chavez said, so they are hoping “there’s enough contextual evidence that demonstrates this is really significant.”
If the building is preserved, it could still be useful to the neighborhood once restored as a rental apartment, or as a community asset like a museum that documents the history of Austin.
“It does speak to a time in Austin’s history — and Chicago’s history, really — that is just not well documented. Especially since so many buildings burned in the Great Fire, you don’t necessarily have many old structures of this age around anymore, especially this far out,” Chavez said.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.