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The House on LeMoyne, aka Blanche

by Rosalie Lindberg

Posted July, 2008

 

For most people in Chicago, LeMoyne is a street that was once named Blanche.  In 1923, Anthony Jankowski and his wife, Martha (Netzel) purchased the property at 1344 Blanche.  In 1932, courtesy of the city of Chicago, the house on Blanche became the house on LeMoyne.  For the Jankowski family, LeMoyne was not only the pie shaped lot at 1344 with a main house and small cottage, but also the hub of activity and place of many memories.  When anyone in the family talked about “LeMoyne”, we understood the reference.

In 1890 both Anthony Jankowski and Martha Netzel had been born in Chicago’s Polish Downtown neighborhood only a few blocks from each other.  They attended St. Stanislaus Kostka School and sang in the Junior Choir together.  Much to the chagrin of Martha’s mother, who had her eye on a certain good-looking doctor for her daughter, Martha and Anthony were wed at St. Stanislaus on June 25, 1912.

        When they bought the house, it was out of necessity.  By that time the Jankowski family included six children, Aloysius, twins Florence and Theresa, Edward, Loretta and Dorothy and by the end of 1923, the seventh, Eleanor, had entered the picture.  But as it stood, the house was not quite ready to accommodate a family of six (going on seven) children.

The property consisted of two houses on a somewhat pie shaped lot about 40 feet in width at the front and 25 feet across the back.  The main house was sturdy with a red brick front that faced LeMoyne/Blanche and common brick on its sides.  A tiny frame cottage squeezed onto the property between the brick house and the back property line and faced the alley on the east.  It was the alley, which followed the angle of Elston avenue about 250 feet to the east, that fronted the triangular side of the property, that provided its interesting shape.  Sometime after the house was built in 1881 the sidewalks were “raised” to accommodate sewers, and so like many homes of its era, it was necessary to go down the stairs into the side yard to reach the entry on the “first” floor. 

At the end of the block to the west was Noble Street which had an interesting “architectural feature”— “the viaduct”.  It wasn’t just a simple railroad bridge but a huge, cave that darkened the houses that faced it and extended almost a full block south from the corner.  Anyone traversing its menacing length was always glad to emerge into the light.  At its north end, Noble Street, the top of the viaduct continued on a built-up section of land.  Buildings and homes on the east side of Noble looked across the street at the un-lovely view of the railroad embankment and the trains that rolled by, spewing their soot and smoke.

The location did have the advantage of access to streetcars and other public transportation available on Elston, North and, within a short walk, Ashland avenues.  On the corner of Elston and LeMoyne was “Shelling’s store”.  It sold candy, newspapers, milk and bread and, best of all had wonderfully delicious ice cream.  Further north on Elston closer to North Avenue was Rzeszotarski’s bakery and “Mix, the butcher” had a store under the viaduct. And, of course, all the stores at the heart of Polish Downtown (Milwaukee/Division/Ashland) were close by, too.  For school and church, St. Stanislaus Kostka was only two blocks south on Nobel Street.  What could be better!

In 1923 the main house at what was still 1344 Blanche had 4 “flats”, 2 on each floor, and the cottage had another flat.  Except for this potential for rent, it would have been impossible for my grandparents to become homeowners.  However, before the main house was ready to accommodate the Jankowski family, there was a lot of work to be done.  Until that was accomplished, the entire family lived in the cottage.

The cottage had 4 rooms on the “second floor”—a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms.  According to my Aunt Florence, the kitchen and living room were “for company”.  Busia and Grandpa Jankowski slept in the little bedroom off of the kitchen and ALL the children slept in the other bedroom in two double beds (with the baby in a cradle in-between).  To accommodate everyone, the children, who thankfully were still small, slept across the beds.

The real living space was the lower floor, which included a working kitchen, and all-purpose dining, study, play and laundry room as well as a work area for Grandpa.  Heat came from the coal stove and gas lamps furnished the light.  Grandpa was the only one allowed to replace the mantle in the lamps.  Neither the cottage nor any of the apartments in the main house had toilets.  During the night or when it was exceptionally cold a bucket served the purpose.  At other times or to empty the buckets, the toilet facilities under the sidewalk were used.  (Rumor has it that this gave rise to the name “Joe Posadwokem”)

As time and finances allowed, Grandpa, my Dad (who was 10 years old), and other volunteers worked to prepare space in the main house for the family.  The kitchen in the front apartment was turned into a dining room but the 2 bedrooms and the living room didn’t change.  In the back apartment the living room became a bedroom, a little bedroom became Grandpa’s workroom, and the kitchen remained “as-is”.  Off the kitchen was a tiny pantry and another bedroom.  The most significant change was that this bedroom became the first real bathroom on the property.  It not only had a sink and toilet but a bathtub as well!  Over the years, since the apartments were often rented to family members, it wasn’t unusual for the other adults to come in to use the tub.  Most children, though, were usually bathed using a large galvanized tub in the kitchens of their own apartment.

The challenge of the merged apartment was to find a way to make the front and back ends accessible.  Separating the two was the entryway from the yard and the stairs that went straight up to the second floor apartments.  The logical solution was to break through the wall between the (new) dining room in front and the kitchen in the rear.  That was what Grandpa did.  However, since the opening had to go under the stairs, it was only an angular opening about 5 feet at its highest point.  Unless you were “vertically challenged”, you quickly learned to duck. 

Eventually the cottage and each of the second floor apartments got their own toilets.  To accommodate the one for the back apartment upstairs, Grandpa built out a wall on the second floor landing.  The front apartment had to sacrifice the tiny closet off its back bedroom that, fortunately, was adjacent to the hall, simplifying the plumbing challenge somewhat.  With these “indoor amenities” in place, the toilet space under the sidewalks were turned into storage and coal sheds.

For the most part, the Jankowski family spent many satisfying years in the house on Blanche.  But a tragic event occurred in February of 1938 while Mom, Dad and I were living in the cottage.  By then all the apartments had the “luxury” of electricity and the story is that somehow a “short” in the lines started a fire that burned the inside of the cottage, destroying most of its contents and making it uninhabitable.  Several months later we were able to move into the second floor front flat which had become vacant.  About 10 years later, the youngest Jankowski (uncle Tony, born in 1927) put a lot of sweat equity into making it livable again.

As Anthony and Martha’s children married most occupied, at least for a few years, one of the apartments and when those tenancies were exhausted, other close family members frequently replaced them.  It seemed that the house and neighborhood would always be there to welcome and be a part of the family.  Fittingly, even when Grandpa Jankowski died in 1946, his wake was held at the Reisel Funeral Home, 1501 Elston  (the southeast corner of LeMoyne and Elston). 

During this time our own small family was growing and the 4 room, second-floor front flat was over-crowded with three young children.  Recognizing the advantages of home ownership Mom and Dad were able to make an arrangement with Busia’s brother, Frank, to buy his house on George Street, and in 1944 we became the first family in my parent’s generation to move out of the neighborhood.  But at least we weren’t too far away as our new home was in St. Alphonsus parish about two miles north.  

  As years passed there were rumblings about an expressway connecting downtown Chicago with the northwest suburbs.  The noises got louder and louder and it was said St. Stanislaus and other churches in the area could be threatened with demolition.  Being the oldest, my Dad reassured Busia, that if it became necessary for her to move, he would see to it that she would not be without a roof over her head.  But possibly because of the threat to the churches, after a while the potential for an expressway appeared to be a dead issue.

So in 1955, ten years after what we assumed our family was complete with 4 children, my sister Annie was born.  Since the expressway no longer seemed a threat to LeMoyne, Mom and Dad opted to buy a brand new house without tenants in Edison Park . . .a long way (at least so it seemed) from the old neighborhood.

But less than a year after our move, an ominous letter from the city of Chicago appeared in Busia’s mailbox.  The expressway project was back in full force and, while the new plan would save most of the churches, our part of LeMoyne and the rail lines using the viaduct at the end of the street, were directly in its path.  Busia and all the tenants would have to move!

Ten miles from the old neighborhood, our family felt the impact.  Since our house was a single story, Dad proposed building a second floor apartment.  But the city refused citing zoning ordinances.  The only choice we had was to move again and Mom and Dad gave up the new single-family house and bought an old two-flat in Jefferson Park.   It was older than the house we had left on George Street and in desperate need of repair and remodeling.  It was a far from cry what the folks wanted, but it was all they could afford and available immediately.

In the meantime the remaining tenants on LeMoyne and many others in the expressway footprint scrambled to find places to live.  As the road sliced through the neighborhood it took with it thousands of existing homes.   By 1960, 2000 families had been displaced and the only choice most residents had was to move to other parts of the city.  The old neighborhood would never be the same again!

In the last few years, photos of LeMoyne just before its demolition came to light.  It was heartbreaking to see the house that had held so much love for so many years sitting  with its windows full of gaping holes looking like someone terrified of the destruction that was about to take place.  It wasn’t just a building, it was our protector, our friend . . .and we couldn’t do anything to save it.

Today, the place where LeMoyne once stood is at the very edge of a narrow street sometimes used as a cutoff from North Avenue to Elston.  To the south are walls of gray stone and above it the trains still come rumbling by.  The only remnant of what was “our” neighborhood is a narrow corridor of homes on Elston Avenue.  Although gentrification has come to the area, this little island of homes remains untouched and a sad reminder of what once had been. 

 We all hope for progress and know that change is inevitable.  But when change comes to your neighborhood, it can be heart wrenching.

 

1344 W. LeMoyne (aka Blanche) . . . . .Dear Friend, Rest in Peace!

 

Editor's Note:  Rosalie Lindberg is a past president of the Polish Genealogical Society of America.  The story above is part of the family history she has prepared.  Rosalie Bock and Rosalie Lindberg are contemporaries and lived within blocks of each other growing up.  However, they attended different schools and never met as children.

Gallery of 1344 LeMoyne

Today: 1300 block of LeMoyne, looking West from Elston

1344 LeMoyne (Blanche) circa 1935 and W. Anthony Jankowski

Corner of 1200 block of LeMoyne and Magnolia, looking Southwest toward St. Stanislaus

Looking West on 1200 block of LeMoyne. Stop sign at Elston.

1344 LeMoyne: House and Cottage layout

Today: Homes on East side of alley facing Elston

Today: 1300 block of Elston, between Elston and alley

Demolition of 1344 LeMoyne, side view

Demolition of 1344 LeMoyne, front view

 

 

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