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'Save Morseland' Effort Misguided; 'Nicer' Building Will Replace It: Owner

By Linze Rice | March 16, 2016 5:35am
 A picture of the Morseland after it opened around 1925 in an advertisement for the Northwestern Terra Cotta Co., next to how the Morseland appeared in September.
A picture of the Morseland after it opened around 1925 in an advertisement for the Northwestern Terra Cotta Co., next to how the Morseland appeared in September.
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School of the Art Institute of Chicago Digital Libraries; Google Maps

ROGERS PARK — A petition signed by over 160 supporters emerged this week to "save" the Morseland building from demolition — though the property's owner and the alderman said the effort is misguided.

"I own the property ... if someone else wanted to save the building, they should have bought the building," owner David Gassman said. Gassman formerly owned SPIN nightclub in Boystown and owns residential properties in Rogers Park.

The petition, created by resident Brian Kaempen, urges community Moore, Gassman and others associated with the 1218-20 W. Morse Ave. building to keep it standing and restore it — mostly because of its decades-old original terra cotta.

"We cannot, and should not, sit idly by while a treasure of Rogers Park gets demolished to be turned into another empty, gravel lot," Kaempen wrote in the petition. "Morse Avenue has embraced a resurgence in recent years."

Gassman said he understood concerns of residents who wanted to preserve the look and feel of the neighborhood and who enjoyed the building's accouterments, and had agreed to give a portion of the terra cotta to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. 

Stephanie Barto, of the historical society, said she was "shocked" to discover the building was slated for demolition.

"I realize the building is in bad shape, but wish some consideration could be given to the possibility of preserving the beautiful facade as part of a new construction," Barto said.

Gassman said there was nothing to discuss with the community: the building was his private property and demolishing it requires no re-zoning or changes that would require community input. 

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said the building wasn't a city landmark or among the endangered list, and there was nothing he could do to stop a private owner from tearing down his own building.

Moore said, in the past, he has had public meetings to share with residents' plans to knock down privately-owned buildings when there were new development plans in place, but said he was unaware of any future plans Gassman had for the site.

"Absent a historical landmark designation, or at least being on the historical landmark watch list ... there is absolutely nothing that an alderman or any city official can do to prevent someone from demolishing a structure on their property," Moore said.

Gassman, who owns the adjacent parking lot, said he plans to knock the building down this week, barring any unforeseen problems with securing his permits, and will then rebuild a similar structure.

Moore said to his knowledge, Gassman hadn't so much as "sketched out a plan on a napkin" for a new development yet, but both acknowledged they had recently met to discuss the property.

The old Morseland bar at 1218-20 W. Morse Ave. will be demolished soon, Ald. Joe Moore said, but no date has been set yet. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

Last week, Moore confirmed the building was due to come down due to its state of disrepair — something Gassman mentioned Tuesday as a significant contributing factor to razing it.

"Why is someone saying we should save the building? There's nothing inside," Gassman said. "The building was gutted before I bought it. There's zero. Four walls and that's it."

October 2013 was the last time the building failed an inspection, which included 38 violations ranging from cracks in the terra cotta mortar, to garbage, standing water and electrical violations.

By February 2015, the city had put a lien on the property for $2,240, of which $1,200 came from trash build-up that caused potential rat nests, $500 in rat abatement and $500 to remove the garbage.

Gassman said to him it made more sense to demolish the building and develop a similar building that includes apartments on top and commercial space on the bottom.

He would evoke the "classic Chicago"-type brick facade with "modern" terra cotta details — not modern in the sense of "brass and steel," he said.

"My plan is to build something nicer," Gassman said.

Gassman said he's had experience before working on landmark buildings with terra cotta and in the past has been able to restore and reincorporate original architecture into updates. He said he would use as much as he could in this process, but doubted it would be much.

If possible, Gassman said he'd like to "work in" the Morseland name into his future development.

Gassman said he's open to hearing people's ideas, whether it be in regards to potential commercial tenants, designs and features, or to inquire about the terra cotta. 

In a digitized photo collection of Steif's with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Steif had clipped out and saved an advertisement for Northwestern Terra Cotta Co. which featured the Morseland building. [Screenshot/School of the Art Institute of Chicago]

The Morseland was built in 1924 and designed by architects from B. Leo Steif & Co.

In a digitized photo collection of Steif's with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Steif had clipped out and saved an advertisement for Northwestern Terra Cotta Co., which featured the Morseland building.

The ad noted the building as an office space and storefront, and touted its "two-tone effect on ornamental features," with the terra cotta's coloring.

The Northwestern Terra Cotta Co. boomed in the 1920s when the Morseland was built, but business slowed dramatically during and after the Great Depression. It closed for good in 1965.

The Morseland's style, however, would go on to serve as the facade for many things over the years, including the Rogers Park Jewish Recreation Center in 1949, and On The Tao Chinese restaurant in the late 1980s.

In May 1960, the building was being used as the 49th Ward Democratic headquarters, and officials were embroiled in a scandal that involved allegedly doling out drugs to help officers believed to be involved in a burglary investigation pass lie detector tests, according to a Tribune article.

Prosecutors argued the drugs were coming from the ward office, but defense attorneys called the story "fantastic," according to the Tribune.

Most recently, the Morseland building was used as a Pilates studio and The Morseland bar before being shut down in 2012 when its business license expired.

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