Friday, January 4, 2013


On December 31, 1954, the property at 301 Asbury Avenue was sold by the heirs of Henry Didier, Sr. and his wife Barbara.  The purchasers were Wladyslawa (Lottie) Jencz (nee Michalska) and her husband John Jencz (although the title was listed in Lottie's name).

Wladyslawa (Lottie) Michalska was born in 1889 in Russia/Poland. She came to the United States in 1911.  John Jencz was born June 25, 1882, also in Russia/Poland.  He came to the US in May of 1909 just short of his 27th birthday.  

Lottie and John had three daughters:  Jennie (Jane), Josephine, and Cecelia (Celia).

In the summer of 1955 the property on Asbury was subdivided, and the northerly portion was sold for townhouses to be built, which can be seen in many of the photos of the house at 301.

By the time the mortgage had been paid in full (May 31, 1962) the property was in the name of Cecelia Jencz Olson and her husband Norman A. Olson.

Lottie Michalska Jencz died in 1963.  Here's her obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of January 12, 1963:

Some views of the property from 1967:

John Jencz died in 1978.  He and Lottie are interred in the mausoleum of Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie:

One interesting side note - when John Jencz registered for the draft in 1942 he said that his employer was my grandfather, Jacob Kramer, at 1008 Sherman Avenue, Evanston.

Before we look into what caused the demise of 301 Asbury, let's take one last walk around it, from the late summer of 2012 - the last summer for 301:

Take a look at one of the architectural details that remained, and you can imagine what the original house must have looked like before the front of it was sided with aluminum siding:

So, what happened to cause 301 Asbury, which had housed families securely since it was built in 1883 to be declared a health hazard to the citizens of Evanston?  We'll just call it an exercise in stupidity.  You see, the house that had stood against the harsh winters, blistering summers, torrential downpours and gale force winds of Evanston for over 100 years was brought down by the excess zeal of an unknown person.

Celia Olson died on June 10, 2009, and Norman followed closely behind, dying on July 8, 2009. They are both interred in the mausoleum of Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, just down the hall from Lottie and John Jencz:

After their deaths, the house was closed up - as is.  Everything was left exactly where it had been after Norman's body was removed in July of 2009.  Both Celia and Norman died with no direct heirs, so the house was locked up until a determination could be made as to how to proceed.  The law moves very slowly and after some time had passed the executor of the estates was able to locate some distant relatives, but they were not interested in 301 Asbury or its contents.  (Too bad they didn't ask me...).

So what happened?  The house was closed up in July of 2009 after Norman's death.  As the seasons rolled past, nobody thought to turn the heat on at 301.  If the thought even occurred to anyone, they probably figured, "Why waste money heating an empty house?"  The thing is, if a building is unheated in the sub-zero Evanston winters, you need to shut the water off and drain the pipes.  Pipes left unattended in an unheated house will burst, and that's what happened to 301.  One day when the next-door neighbors on Asbury and Mulford were coming out of their house, they looked over and saw water running down the windows of 301 from the inside.  No one knows how long the water had been running before the neighbors discovered it and called the City of Evanston.  The wreckers told me that the water in the basement had been over four feet deep.  They opened a tackle box on a shelf four feet above the basement floor and it was full of water, so they know they water had been at least that high.  They estimated that there had been thousands of gallons of water standing in the basement of 301 after the pipes burst and the water ran unchecked.

The water was pumped out of the basement and the house was closed - again.  This time what happened was even worse.  If you leave a damp, moist place closed up, it's not too long before mold takes over - and that is what finally sealed the doom of 301 Asbury.  The mold had been allowed to grow unchecked until the entire house was filled with it.

Here are some photos I took of the inside of 301 during the summer and fall of 2012:
The Front Staircase
The Living Room - Note fallen plaster from the ceiling

Another view of the living room
Basement - Note mold growing on the walls
Another view of the basement
Another basement view

I took the first floor photos through the front window, so I was not able to get a photo of the mold, but it was in huge patches on the walls.  I took the basement photos after someone had knocked out all the basement windows.  I just stuck my head and shoulders through the window opening to snap the photos and the smell was almost overpowering.  You can see the mold growing on the basement walls.

I was told that someone was still interested in buying the house and remediating the mold, but it was the City's opinion that the mold was so overwhelming that removing it completely was not possible.  In the fall of 2012 the City of Evanston condemned the house as a health hazard and ordered it torn down - as is.  Nothing was allowed to be removed from the house before it was razed.  The wreckers told me that the house seemed frozen in time - there were coffee cups on the kitchen counters and a Christmas tree still standing on the second floor.  They told me that it appeared that vandals had rifled through all the drawers and turned over the mattresses to make sure there were no valuables still in the house, but that it looked like the Olsons had just closed the doors on their way out to do some shopping, and that they would be back shortly.

A temporary fence was erected around the property, and sadly, the house and barn were razed in December of 2012.  The barn was torn down first, followed several days later by the house.

It's a painful thing to see so much history destroyed.

The last man standing:

I talked at great length with the wreckers.  They could not believe that there was so much stuff left in the house.  They said they could hear the china in the china cabinet smashing as the steam shovel clawed its way into the house.  They salvaged a few pieces for themselves - an old sewing machine, some furs (with the heads and paws still on them). They offered me a Victrola, but it had been in the basement and was waterlogged.  I did tell them that there was one souvenir I wanted:  The numbers "3-0-1" from the post at the front of the house.  One of the wreckers very kindly climbed up on the rubble and tried to pull it off.  "It doesn't want to come off," he said.  Why should it?  It had been doing its job for over 100 years. He took a crowbar and pried it off for me. Here it is:

Eventually all the debris, and history, was scooped up and hauled away.  here's what's there now:

It looks slightly better with a covering of snow:

The property is still for sale - as vacant land.  It's still a prime piece of property.  I'm sure someone will come along and build a bunch of condos or townhouses on the lot - squeezing as many people in and as much profit out of the land as possible.

I was able to find a few photos in the rubble:

Ceil and Norman Olson with unidentified man.

Other than the photo of Ceil and Norman Olson, I have no idea who the other people were.  Were they Didiers? Jencz? Olsons?  We may never know.  The people who could identify them are all dead themselves and the photos aren't talking.

Why does any of this matter?  As a historian, I am always more interested in what happened at a place 100 years ago than what happened there yesterday.  The buildings at 301 Asbury reached back to the earliest days of Evanston, and even further, to the Village of South Evanston.   The purpose of this blog is to see that the people and the stories of days gone by are not forgotten.  So here's to the Didier Family, Lottie and John Jencz, and Norman and Ceil Olson.  They may be gone, as is their home at 301 Asbury, but they are not forgotten.
May they rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. Great job telling the story, even though it's a sad story, of this house. Unbelievable that the house was left to fall apart like that.

    This is a lesson for anyone who owns a house to be sure that a will is written and current, and heirs, whether close or distant, are named so that an old house like this can be saved by an interested party.