Judy Blatherwick and her family put in decades of work restoring their graceful, Italianate wood-frame home in Lincoln Park, but after selling the nearly 150-year-old building to a local real estate titan, it now faces demolition.
“There has been a lot of love put into this house, and it’s a living, breathing piece of Chicago history,” the 79-year-old said. “Tearing it down will leave a gaping hole in the streetscape.”
The home at 2240 N. Burling St., part of the national Sheffield Historic District, is one of the few remaining wood-frame homes built in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The building’s new owner is Thaddeus Wong, Blatherwick’s neighbor for many years and the co-CEO of @properties | Christie’s International Real Estate, one of the nation’s largest residential real estate firms. He filed for a demolition permit in November, but city officials nearly three decades ago gave 2240 N. Burling an orange rating, reserved for properties that may be historically significant, and that put a 90-day hold on the permit.
In the meantime, preservation advocates launched a petition drive to save the home, garnering more than 2,000 signatures, and plan to ask the Commission on Chicago Landmarks at its Feb. 9 meeting to either further delay the demolition or make 2240 a local landmark, hopefully saving it for future generations.
“It’s a unique building, finely crafted and detailed,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “It represents what the city looked like before and just after the Chicago Fire.”
The possible teardown fits a pattern seen across Lincoln Park, according to preservationists. Longtime residents sell out, and new owners, frequently very wealthy, demolish and replace old properties with imposing mega-mansions or use the spaces as side yards. Hundreds of homes were lost this way in recent decades, including ones with orange ratings. And unless more protection is offered, perhaps by making the entire district a local landmark, advocates say the neighborhood will lose the elegance that attracts so many eager buyers, as well as its few remaining affordable units.
“There just aren’t that many wood-based houses like 2240, mostly because, for obvious reasons, wood construction became less common after the Chicago Fire, but this is not just about the architectural significance of an individual house,” said Landmarks Illinois Advocacy Manager Kendra Parzen. “We’d really like to see a more complete solution for the district, because right now, the same house-by-house fight keeps happening over and over again.”
Wong and his wife, Emily Sachs Wong, also a well-known real estate agent, purchased in 2003 the building next door to Blatherwick for $500,000, Cook County property records show. They renovated it into a single-family home, and according to Redfin, it’s now worth more than $4 million.
Wong did not return calls seeking comment. But in December, he stated in an email to Fox 32 Chicago that he was “sensitive to the desire to save old buildings. I live in a 100-year-old home, and I have restored historic properties including the landmark Uptown Broadway Building. However, this particular structure is not a viable candidate for preservation, and I believe the city’s Demolition Delay process, which I fully support, will confirm this.”
The Sheffield historic district, first created in the 1970s and later expanded, now covers most of Lincoln Park between Lincoln Avenue on the east and Clybourn Avenue on the west, but the designation doesn’t provide protection to individual buildings, Parzen said. Between 1993 and 2019, more than 350 buildings, roughly one-third of its stock, were either demolished or significantly altered, often transformed from three-flats or other multifamily properties into single-family homes or new condominiums.
When Blatherwick moved into 2240 N. Burling with her late husband in the 1980s after inheriting it from her mother-in-law, who bought the house for about $18,000 in the 1950s, the neighborhood was still mostly 19th-century structures, including a set of orange-rated row homes across the street. But hulking new gray mansions now line many blocks.
“Lincoln Park has a charm to it, and on many streets it’s like stepping back in time,” she said. “But some new buildings in the area look like tombstones, and one replaced a workers’ cottage, so if they keep tearing down houses it will change the look forever.”
Chicago planning officials color-coded thousands of historic properties in the 1990s and following an outcry over the 2003 demolition of the Old Chicago Mercantile Exchange at 130 N. Franklin St., now an empty lot, the City Council instituted the 90-day delay for properties given the top ratings of either red or orange. During that three month-period, neighbors and advocates can push the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to designate the property a local landmark and cancel the proposed demolition.
But the property needs to meet at least two of seven criteria, such as being the site of a significant historic event, somehow identified with a historic figure or forming a critical part of the city’s heritage. That’s a tall order for orange-rated properties, according to Parzen, although Landmarks Illinois does not keep records on how many of these structures in Lincoln Park have been torn down.
“Being an orange-rated building doesn’t offer any protection, other than the delay,” she said. “Ultimately, it usually doesn’t prevent demolition from taking place.”
“The commission does not announce landmark recommendations in advance of meetings, though meeting agendas are published on the Fridays before a given meeting and include potential recommendations that may be voted on by the commission,” said Department of Planning and Development Deputy Commissioner Peter Strazzabosco.
One orange-rated home lost was 2248 N. Burling St., two doors down from Blatherwick. Emily Sachs bought it for $700,000 in 2000, renovated it into a 5,600-square-foot mansion, and sold it for $2.9 million in 2006, county records show. In addition, limited liability corporations managed by Thaddeus Wong bought the two properties south of Blatherwick’s home, including an unrated three-story building already demolished.
“In the past, people moved in because they loved the built environment,” Miller said. “Well, now we’re seeing a new type of buyer, one who wants a bigger yard.”
Lincoln Central Association, the local community organization, is also fighting to save 2240 N. Burling. According to the organization’s December newsletter, its loss would continue a decadeslong process that led teachers, firemen and other service workers to leave the neighborhood.
“They could no longer live where they worked because affordable housing is eliminated every time a 19th century two- or three-flat is torn down, replaced by a single-family home or a side yard for play,” the newsletter said.
Blatherwick still speaks highly of the Wong family, and said they were quite generous. County records show Blatherwick and her sister, who moved in with her to help pay the home’s rising property taxes, were paid $2 million for the three-story, 3,940-square-foot building, nearly twice the Redfin estimate.
“Both of us are retired from Chicago Public Schools and on fixed incomes, so we had to sell because we couldn’t handle it anymore,” Blatherwick said. The two still live in the home, temporarily renting it from Wong, and will soon move to a vintage North Side condo.
“They gave us a nice price, much more than we would have got putting it on the market,” said Blatherwick, who will also avoid paying for repairs on 2240′s massive porches. “We felt that would have cost more money than we could have possibly put together.”
But she can’t hide her sorrow over the possibility her home will be demolished to make a side yard or new mansion, and the loss of so much work and history. She and her husband, who passed away in 2010, spent years replenishing the interior, finding new mouldings, replacing window casings discarded by previous owners and painting it in vibrant colors.
“We made this house look like it was supposed to look,” she said.
Mid-North Association President Melissa Macek said securing local landmark status for the neighborhood would provide more protection for vulnerable properties. She lives several blocks east in the Mid-North District, a local landmark area, and its 19th-century brick rowhouses, Queen Anne-style homes and several pre-Chicago Fire workers’ cottages are largely protected.
“I want my daughter to be able to see all this architecture when she grows up,” she said. “People need to raise their voices, otherwise it will be gone.”