Friday, April 29, 2011

Wicker Park Gem at 2138 West Pierce

So . . . you’re walking south on Leavitt in Wicker Park, admiring lovely late nineteenth-century homes of sandstone, maybe thinking about the first- or second-generation Germans who found fortune in the fastest growing city in the world when you make a left onto Pierce, walk a dozen paces or so and come upon 2138 West Pierce, a home unlike anything you have ever seen before.

2138 West Pierce (JWB, 2011)
You have to see it to believe it . . . and you won’t regret making the trip.

The firm of Fromann and Jebsen designed the house for Hans D. Runge, and it was finished in 1884.  Emil Henry Fromann and Ernst Jebsen designed homes all over the city in a variety of styles (See “The Case of the Mysterious Wine Merchant” in the April 4, 2011 Connecting the Windy City blog).  The firm’s claim to fame is the Humboldt Park Refectory, finished in 1895.  If you’re up on Belmont and Southport, Schuba’s is another Fromann and Jebsen design, one of the 27 “tied-houses” that the firm designed for Edward Uihlein and the Schlitz Brewing Company.

Mr. Runge was the treasurer of a large wood milling firm, and his choice of architectural style featured over-the-top wood embellishment -- from the massive turned table leg supports of the veranda roof to the finely wrought Masonic symbolism beneath the eaves.

Eastlake detail in porch support
(JWB, 2011)
The house is a classic example of the Eastlake style of design, a name that comes from an Englishman, Charles Eastlake, whose 1872 Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details attracted a wide following.

Eastlake designs feature porch posts, railings and balustrades that appear massive.  They were turned on a lathe, giving them the shape of heavy legged furniture popular during the latter part of the nineteenth century. 

Large brackets are placed at every corner.  Beneath the roof of the house on Pierce you see such brackets beneath the overhanging roof.  Looking closely the bracket on the left contains the Masonic pyramidal symbol we are accustomed to seeing on the back of the one-dollar bill.  On the right are the square and compass most commonly associated with Freemasonry.

Note Masonic symbolism in left and right brackets (JWB, 2011)


In the late Victorian period the Eastlake style saw a much greater use of color.  2138 West doesn’t show this to a great extent, only in the rear supporting posts beneath the roof on the upstairs deck, a deck that features the row of spindles common to this architectural style.  You can see these supports in the photo to the left.

But the real story of the house is the story of the second owner—Samuel F. Smulski, who served as a city alderman for two terms, State Treasurer and Chairman of the West Park Board.  He practiced law in the firm of David, Smulski & McGaffey and was the President of the Pulaski Lumber Company. In 1906 Smulski founded the Northwestern Trust and Savings Bank and also served on the Board of Directors for eight other banks in the city.

Samuel Smulski (Left) &
Ignacy Padereski (Chicago Daily
News Archives)
As important as his endeavors in Chicago financial affairs were, his efforts on behalf of Poland won him international acclaim.  He served as Chairman of the National Polish Committee during World War I, a committee of which the great Polish composer Ignacy Paderewski was also a member.  This began a friendship that lasted the rest of Smulski’s lifetime.

After the war, as Poland struggled to survive as an independent state, Smulski helped to negotiate loans from the United State to stabilize Poland’s economy.  During this crucial time Paderewski was Poland’s Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, so it’s easy to assume that the two men further strengthened their friendship during the trials of 1919.

There are two myths concerning Smulski and the house on Pierce, one of which I can disprove, the other of which must remain an interesting tale without verification.

The first story involves Smulski’s suicide, which occurred on March 18, 1928.  There are two parts to the story as it is most commonly told.  First, is that the banker took his life as a result of the stock market collapse.  Clearly, this is false since that event took place nearly 20 months later.

The second part of the story has it that Smulski took his life inside the house on Pierce Street.  But The Chicago Tribune on March 19, 1928 reported (beneath the front page banner headline “Smulski Ends Life”) that “. . . Mr. Smulski entered a bathroom on the sixteenth floor of the Seneca hotel and shot himself.”

In any event, the coroner concluded that Smulski, who had suffered through three operations in the previous year for sigmoiditis, had taken his life “in temporary insanity induced by despondency over ill health.”  This contradicts the statement of Smulski’s doctor who had examined him the week before and found “He was in splendid condition . . . The sigmoiditis was a long and protracted affair, but he had practically recovered from it . . .” [Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1928]

Front Entrance to 2138 W. Pierce (JWB, 2011)
The other myth surrounding the house on Pierce Street is that the Polish composer, piano virtuoso and patriot Ignacy Paderewski gave a concert on the veranda of the home.  No account of such an event is given in the newspapers of the time.  

Paderewski gave concerts at Chicago’s Symphony Hall in 1928 in the dead of winter.  It’s unlikely he would have played piano on a front porch during that trip.  He also played a concert at Symphony Hall on April 1, 1932.  Again, not the warmest weather in the world . . . and his friend, John Smulski, would have been dead for over four years.

Still, there is nothing I’ve found to prove that he DIDN’T entertain a crowd on the Smulski porch, either.  Certainly, his friendship with Mr. Smulski may very well have brought him to the Pierce Street home.  And the fact that Smulski was married to Harriet Mikitynski, an accomplished operatic singer in her own right, might have us envision informal gatherings around the piano in the Smulski parlor.

In any event, when he died the President of the United States sent a letter of condolence to Mrs. Smulski and United States Vice-President Dawes said, “He was a man of irreproachable character and of a great public spirit.  In all positions of public trust, of which he occupied many, his career was one of the strictest honesty and high usefulness.”

2 comments:

Gillian Fletcher said...

Jim this is right by my apartment! I pass this house on Pierce every day on my way to the train.

jim said...

If this is the Gillian I knew years ago . . . you are living in a rocking part of the city. Stroll through those neighborhoods, and history comes alive! If it's you, Gillian, I can't tell you how great it is to hear from you!