158 W Erie Street in Chicago’s River North
Most who have lived in Chicago for any period of time know that the city has an incredibly rich architectural history. From the Water Tower to the Sears Tower, the marquis buildings in Chicago are well chronicled. What I have found, however, is that nearly every commercial property has an interesting story to tell, and as a Chicago commercial real estate investor I try to help unearth and preserve these stories.
One such building owned by BCH is the three story, commercial structure at 158 West Erie. While most real estate sell-sheets identify the building as having been a fire station branch, few details about the building’s history are offered. It took more than a bit of digging, and the help of a UIC student film from 1971, to piece together the story of 158 West Erie.
After the great Chicago fire of 1871, the City of Chicago endeavored to build multiple fire stations north and west of the Water Tower. There was a building boom in the 1880’s with dozens of simple, two and three story fire stations built to service the exploding populous. These small brick structures were capable of housing an on-premises crew of a dozen men, a fire wagon and later a ladder truck.
In 1884, the fire station at 158 West Erie was built in the same, simple fashion described above. I have not been able to locate any images of the building from the early 1900’s but the photo below grabbed from a UIC student film of 1971 shows the fire station much as it likely looked at the turn of the century.
The snippets of information available about 158 West Erie’s service as a firehouse prior to 1960 suggest it was a fairly typical CFD operation. So typical that Truck #3 had a firehouse Dalmatian named Nardi as its mascot! This photo, taken during the 1951 heatwave by fireman Bill Allison, shows Nardi cooling off in front of the station.
An untitled documentary film was produced about this Chicago fire station in 1971. Shot and edited by UIC student Joseph Oner, the short film won a Chicago Public Library’s Young Chicago Filmmaker’s Festival award. The film offers vignettes of the firemen’s lives at 158 West Erie including meals, equipment maintenance, drills and even some action on a handball court located on the third floor! If you have a moment to watch the seven minute film found here, you can begin to imagine what life might have been like for the men of Company #3.
Though released in 1971, the footage had to have been filmed several years earlier as the station as we know that the station was closed in November of 1968 when Truck #3 and its crew were moved to a brand new, state-of-the art building at 55 West Dearborn.
Another interesting tidbit about 158 West Erie is that despite its fairly non-descript exterior, it was considered for purchase by Chicago’s patron saint of architectural preservation, Richard Nickel, according to biographer Richard Cahan. If you look closely, you’ll notice some of the details that Nickel might have found worth saving including limestone medallions and Federalist embellishment at to the top of the structure. Sadly, like many of Nickle’s intended projects, his early and untimely death left many of his dreams unfulfilled.
For a several decades or so after the firehouse was decommissioned in 1968, the building served as a warehouse of sorts for the City of Chicago Streets and Sanitation department. Like many decommissioned firehouses of the time, it had been essentially gutted and had fallen into disrepair.
With the revival of the River North area in the late 1980’s, 158 West Erie became an attractive parcel for business use and in 1993, the property was purchased by attorney Jim Kaplan and his partner, Sheldon Sorosky. In a Tribune article from April of 1994, Kaplan indicated that he planned to install a fire pole in the renovated space indicating, “It’s going to be our home-it will give us a separate identity.” This explains why the fire pole is oddly placed in the front corner of the reception area where it stands today.
As part of the 1994 renovation, the delicate limestone carvings that topped the building were removed and replaced by the stark, simple post-modernist touches in favor at that time. The owners also updated the building with an elevator, conference rooms and kitchen facilities.
Boardwalk Capital was pleased to purchase the property in 2014 and we look forward to respecting the building’s history while insuring that our tenant-partners are provided exceptional service in a Class A commercial structure. We’re proud to announce that we have a new tenant-partner at 158 West Erie that specializes in team-building and corporate adventure challenges. We look forward to sharing more information and photos as their build-out progresses.
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