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Deagan Building in Ravenswood Hits Right Note

By David Byrnes | December 8, 2014 6:04am
 The Deagan building in Ravenswood has a long, musical history that continues today.
Deagan Musical
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RAVENSWOOD — In its heyday in the early- to mid-20th Century, the J.C Deagan Co. turned out xylophones and other instruments so fine they are still sought after today. The company is long gone, but the clock tower of the former Deagan plant on West Berteau Street continues to bear its name.

Today, the old plant, built between 1916 and 1919 at 1770 W. Berteau Ave., supports local businesses of all stripes and sizes, including a glass art studios, a tango dance studio, a restaurant and various offices. But its musical soul also carries on in Century Mallet, founded by a former Deagan employee.

The Deagan Co. was by started in 1880 by John Calhoun Deagan in St. Louis before eventually moving, after a stop in California, to Ravenswood, where it assembled, sold and repaired mallet percussion instruments — marimbas, xylophones and chimes among them.

According to records at the Ravenswood Historical Society, Deagan bought the building, designed by architect F.E. Davidson, in 1912 from the Progress Company, a publishing house.

For much of the early-mid 20th century, Deagan owned the entire block, becoming famous turning out unique instruments — he is credited with creating the modern xylophone. The Deagan Co. name was bought by Yamaha in 1983.

Gilberto Serna, a master tuner who worked at Deagan for 15 years, founded Century Mallet in 1980 with machinery, tuning instruments and tools bought from his former employer.

"It's a continuation of Deagan's work," said Andres Bautista, whom Serna has chosen to carry on the business. The goal: "to provide unsurpassed service for all keyboard percussion owners, from the student to the symphonic professional."

Century operates on the second floor of the building in what once was Deagan's machine shop, tuning, repairing and restoring instruments. Its customers include the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Julliard School of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Many older Ravenswood residents may remember the chimes that once played from the top of the building’s famous clock tower, which, according to the Tribune, was built in 1919 by architect W. Gibbons Uffendell to hide the structure’s exterior water tower.

But according to Bautista, they really weren't hearing real chimes.

“It’s a dirty little secret, but there were never any real chimes in the tower. The space is too small to house chimes that big," he said. What people heard were recordings of a xylophone through speakers.

John Calhoun Deagan died in 1934 and the business was taken over by daughter-in-law Ella Smith Deagan, according to the history of the company on the Century Mallet website. She, in turn, turned the company over to her son Jack Deagan. Employees included Henry J. Schluter, who invented the vibraharp, the basis for the modern vibraphone.

Bautista, 33, a Portage Park resident, said he and Serna, who has reduced his work hours in recent years, are Century's only employees, though they sometimes hire contractors for larger projects. Bautista, who has worked extensively as a percussion instrument repairman, has known Serna for about for 15 years.

"Deciding to hand over my company was tough. But with Andres, I know my reputation is in good hands," Serna said on the company's website.

"If I have anything to say about it, Century Mallet will stay in Chicago and connected to Deagan Building," Bautista said, though he would like to create additional space where people can try out the instruments before they buy them.

“It’s a great old building,” said Joe Hayes of Hayes Properties, which bought the Berteau Ave. property in 2008. “We have a lot of different artists and tenants there… and it’s very recognizable. It’s a Ravenswood icon.”

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