1997 – Chicago Reader – “Salvage Love”
Is Stuart Grannen a preservationist or just a ruthless scavenger?
By J.R. Jones
Stuart Grannen is frustrated. It’s the morning of February 27, and the Goldblatt’s demolition has been scuttled. Grannen, a local dealer in architectural fragments, has bought 14 terra-cotta finials from the condemned Goldblatt’s on Chicago west of Ashland and is scheduled to pry them from the face of the building at ten. But a demonstration by angry neighbors the previous day has generated enough negative publicity to win the building a stay of execution from the mayor’s office. Grannen can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “It’s really a nothing building,” he gripes. “We’ll try again in a couple of weeks. I’ll get ’em eventually.” He usually does.
The next day Grannen has softened his tone. “If the community wants it and they can come up with a good idea of what to do with it, then it should be saved.” But the battle over the Goldblatt’s building, he points out, should be seen in its proper perspective. “They’ll try to save Goldblatt’s, but at the same time they’ll knock down great buildings on Michigan Avenue–which makes no sense to me. Michigan Avenue has turned from a phenomenal architectural street into a big mall.” Having witnessed countless struggles between developers and preservationists, Grannen has developed a sort of tempered idealism. “If it’s a good example of a Victorian building, it should be saved. If it’s a good example of an art deco building, it should be saved. But the buildings have to have a purpose too. They have to make sense in today’s marketplace and in reality. Goldblatt’s, to me, is not a very interesting building. It’s in the middle of the block–there’s just not that much interesting about it. But you know, good for the community.”
After almost a decade of scavenging and selling architectural fragments in Chicago, Grannen has accepted that some people will always view him as a predator, circling the city’s doomed treasures, waiting for the moment when he can move in and strip them of their ornaments. The reality is considerably more complicated.
An ardent lover of architecture, Grannen was collecting stained glass from wrecking sites at an age when most boys were chasing baseball cards. No subject excites him more than Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School, or disgusts him more than the loss of the city’s historic buildings. “We don’t want them to come down, and we have nothing to do with that. But if they’re gonna come down I wanna be the one to save them. That’s happened with a lot of buildings in Chicago–where they’ve said, ‘OK, this one’s gotta go,’ and I’ve invested a lot of money and a lot of man power into saving it. I do this as a business, but I also do it because I love it. And a lot of those buildings, you’d never make any profit on it, but at least you saved some of it.”
Yet Grannen is also a driven, nearly compulsive buyer whose professional ambitions sometimes set him at odds with local preservationists who tend to view artifacts as just that–fossils from a creature that has vanished into the past, dead fragments. To pull an ornament from a building and display it as a decoration divorced from its context, they say, insults the building’s memory. In Here’s the Deal, his book about Block 37, Ross Miller scorns the salvaging of artifacts from lost buildings, imagining a terra-cotta fragment as “a conversation piece placed strategically in a converted loft or left at poolside, a handy thing on which to drape a wet towel.”
The market for artifacts has grown dramatically in the last two decades: in addition to Grannen’s Architectural Artifacts, Chicago has Salvage One and several smaller operations. Some preservationists argue that the increased demand adds to the pressure to destroy buildings. Owners stuck with unprofitable buildings have sold fragments to dealers until there was almost no building left to save, and less scrupulous dealers have subsidized a black market in stolen fragments.
But other preservationists also see the value of salvage operations. “Where there’s a strong market for salvaged architectural items, it can encourage the demolition of significant buildings or the alteration of significant buildings,” says Vince Michael, former director of Chicago programs for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and now a faculty member at the Art Institute. “At the same time, often the only thing that allows the preservation of anything from something like the McCarthy Building, where the city tears it down, are the fragments that you have left. So it’s sort of a two-sided thing.” Time and economic reality dictate that some buildings will fall, and without artifact dealers most architectural art would be destroyed.
The salvaging of architectural ornament in Chicago developed more or less in tandem with the rise of the preservation movement. Richard Nickel, the Chicago-born photographer who campaigned to save Adler and Sullivan’s Garrick Theater and other important structures, had begun rescuing terra-cotta from Sullivan buildings in the late 50s. Having lost the fight to save the Garrick in 1960, he orchestrated the sale of its ornament to museums around the country, contracting to remove it himself. Part of his legend derives from his willingness to flout the law to save fragments from ignorant wrecking crews: in 1963, for example, he was arrested for removing some Frank Lloyd Wright windows from the Oscar Steffens house, on Sheridan Road (the charges were dropped). By the early 70s he was salvaging artifacts from Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building, at the southwest corner of LaSalle and Washington, routing the fragments to the Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sneaking out as much as he could for his own collection. In 1972 he was killed while scavenging for artifacts in the half-demolished building.
That same year Stuart Grannen was a high school student in Lake Dalhalla, New Jersey. The youngest child of a wealthy executive in the chemicals industry, he’d already been exposed to the world’s great art and architecture. “My parents collected period American furniture,” he explains, “so for our family outings and holidays we would just scour the country. Their idea of a good time was going to the Met in New York and the great museums of the east coast, and that’s what we did for fun instead of Disney World.” He’d started collecting stained-glass windows when he was ten, buying them from antique shops and striking deals with wrecking crews–already exercising the energy and aggressiveness that would later characterize him as a buyer.
By the time Grannen entered the University of Tennessee–where he focused on archaeology, museology, and black studies–he’d amassed a huge collection; he rented barns in the Nashville area for $50 a month and managed to fill several of them with stained glass and other relics. When he was 24 he met Mike Wilkerson, an antiques dealer who owned the Bank, a large shop located in an old New Orleans bank building. Amazed by Grannen’s collection, Wilkerson bought him out and offered him a job. Grannen, who hadn’t finished his degree, took the job and worked for Wilkerson for three years, traveling around the country as a buyer.
In 1984 Grannen moved to Minneapolis to work for another antiques shop. “After about a year I owned half the place,” Grannen recalls. But he was unhappy with the arrangement and left after two years to freelance. Operating out of Nashville, he traveled around the country buying and selling; he stored many of the items, hoping to open his own business.
Grannen finally settled on Chicago as the ideal place to sell architectural ornaments to the upscale market. “This is the greatest architectural city in this country and one of the greatest in the world,” he says. “I was here buying all the time, and I just decided I’d move here and try and start something.” He knew that Cleveland Wrecking, one of two companies that handled the lion’s share of Chicago demolitions, had been selling odd fragments in addition to fixtures, lumber, and scrap since the 50s. And that Walter Ratner’s Salvage One, a six-floor clearinghouse on the near south side, had established itself in the 70s as the city’s largest source of artifacts, though its main focus was the rehabber’s market: doors, mantelpieces, moldings, sinks, bathtubs, and other fixtures. By the early 80s the proliferation of fern bars had created a strong demand for stained glass and terra-cotta; the owner of New York’s Irreplaceable Artifacts, a pioneer in the market for high-end fragments, frequently traveled to Chicago to salvage downtown buildings.
In 1987 Grannen opened Architectural Artifacts in a 3,000-square-foot space near Grace on Ravenswood; eventually he expanded it to 25,000 square feet as he carved out a niche for himself selling elaborate architectural pieces. “He came into town and very quickly had an impressive collection of fragments,” says Vince Michael. Grannen targeted higher-end clientele than Salvage One, including other dealers. He treated fragments as objets d’architecture, pieces that “were worthy of just being decorations on their own.” The real estate boom of the 80s and the consequent demolition of so many older buildings had created an avalanche of architectural fragments, and in 1991 alone, the Milwaukee Journal reported, Grannen’s sales increased nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
By 1992 he’d outgrown the location, and in May Architectural Artifacts reopened at an old 30,000-square-foot plastics-molding factory on Ravenswood south of Montrose. By then Grannen had established himself as Salvage One’s only credible rival, cultivating an inside track with the city’s wrecking crews and aggressively outbidding any competition. “I’ve never lost a bid to Salvage One,” he claims, “mostly because, A, they don’t know what they’re doing–and I’m very friendly with them, we’re friends–they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. And B, I’ll just never lose a bid to them. Never ever. Never have, never will.” Has that ever caused him to pay more for something than it was worth? “Sure, but my business is such that I can handle that. And not to sound like a big shot, but it’s an ego thing. It’s me wanting to be the best and having the best. So if it costs me a couple extra thousand bucks and I get the bragging rights, well, that’s worth it to me.”
Architectural Artifacts is a surreal world unto itself, a history museum thrown back from a fun-house mirror. Ecclesiastical relics share the floor with English carnival signs; Greek gods mingle with gargoyles. Customers clearly pick up the tab for Grannen’s bragging rights; a single ceramic tile can cost up to $60. Near the front of the main showroom life-size carved marble statues of Saint Theresa ($3,600) and Jesus ($4,200) wear British seafaring caps. Beside them stands a baptismal font carved from sandstone ($4,200) and a tiered marble fountain from the McCormick mansion ($16,500). Elaborate chandeliers hang from the ceiling, along with door-size stained-glass windows. A pair of stone panthers from Scotland stands watch near the door; below them sits a red stone bull’s head from an English butcher shop ($495). Halfway back, a huge neon clown face leers from atop an eight-foot carnival sign. Off to one side is parked a rolling, five-lamp medical contraption (a castoff of the Belgian army); its swiveling chrome arms are draped with coiled black electrical cords, and a control box sits in the center like a heart. French art deco kitchen furniture fills one back room; another is heavy with armoires, overstuffed European club chairs, and sofas. Anatomy charts hang from the walls, including a diagram of the penis. Posted in one corner is a French tailor’s headless mannequin, its right arm torn from the socket; the dangling price tag reads “Anatomically correct.”
Grannen lives in a loft above the store with two retrievers and a large collection of his own. He sometimes parks his Porsche in the garage that leads to the building’s fenced-in courtyard. “He definitely lives his work,” says Patrick Ottesen, one of Grannen’s assistants. “You have to really like it if you’re going to be around it all the time.”
Among Grannen’s proudest acquisitions, displayed in the main showroom near the front door, are copper-over-cast-iron ornaments from Sullivan’s Stock Exchange: a ten-foot stair stringer ($7,200) similar to the item Richard Nickel was looking for the day he died, a four-foot frieze from a stair landing ($3,200), and a six-by-two-foot elevator frieze ($9,500). On the other side of the room rests a stack of terra-cotta stones from the same building, ranging in price from $275 to $600. Grannen’s collection of Sullivan artifacts is so large that he can display only a fraction of it on the floor; the rest is stored in warehouses or squirreled away elsewhere in the building. His collection, he claims, is “probably the largest in the world. Not the best, but definitely the largest.”
The Stock Exchange items began coming Grannen’s way in 1987, after a customer saw some of his collection and told him he knew where a cache of other fragments was stored. Grannen offered the customer a finder’s fee of $5,000 and the next day was put in touch with a nephew of the Riccio brothers, whose Three Oaks Wrecking Company had handled the building demolition. According to They All Fall Down, Richard Cahan’s biography of Nickel, Three Oaks went out of business in 1973, and Joe Riccio, who’d supervised the demolition, stored several truckloads of ornament in a south-side railroad yard until he could find a deserving buyer. Much of the building had been junked, purchased by universities or museums, or added to Richard Nickel’s collection at Southern Illinois University, but a great deal remained: interior ironwork (including the stairways and elevator doors), tons of terra-cotta sculpture, stained-glass windows from the ceiling of the trading floor.
“About every three months he’d come up and tempt me with something,” Grannen recalls, “and then it got to the point where they were losing their lease on where it was stored. They said, ‘For this amount we’ll sell you everything.'” In a couple of weeks Grannen and a friend scraped together the money, negotiated a lower figure, and bought the Riccios out. The Three Oaks purchase was the most expensive of his career, in the low six figures, but Grannen never blinked. He sold a few of the items, but most of them he’s kept for the small museum of Chicago architectural pieces he hopes to open at some point. “Yeah, I like Sullivan an awful lot,” he says. “He’s kind of my hero.”
Near the back of the showroom, suspended from the ceiling on 15 iron rods, hangs a muticolored dome of wrought iron and stained glass that’s over 16 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. The center section, the size of a platter and framed in iron, is a rosette of red, gold, and blue; the 16 glass sections that form the bowl are a tiled pattern of cream gradating into wine. Grannen bought the dome three years ago from the Christian Science Church in Bloomington, Illinois, but as with many of his larger acquisitions, the purchase was only the beginning. Removing the dome, transporting it safely to Chicago, and reconstructing it in the shop were far bigger headaches. “We had no idea how to do it,” Grannen says. “We just figured it out.”
The glass was topped by a copper dome with slats open to the sky, under which Grannen built a horizontal scaffolding. He and his crew tied themselves to the copper in the broiling August heat and lowered the stained-glass sections one by one to the floor. The wrought-iron frame was the last thing out. The dome finally sold to a restaurant in Winnetka, but acquiring and storing such a large piece was a significant business gamble. “But you know what?” Grannen says. “I don’t ever think about it. It was one of those things. The building was getting destroyed, and I had to have it–just to save it, that’s all. It would have been destroyed. A lot of other people were bidding on it, but I outbid everybody.”
The glass dome and Sullivan artifacts are some of the more prestigious pieces in Grannen’s showroom, but they’re paid for by bread-and-butter items–the French furniture, the mantelpieces, the bars. Near the glass dome, doing double duty as a display shelf, stands a 16-foot solid mahogany bar Grannen brought back from France. Bars are reliable sellers, and Len Cullum, Grannen’s other assistant, says that removing one from a local tavern typically takes about two hours. “It kind of depends on what it is, how ensconced it is in the building,” he says. “We’ve had to tear out walls to get bars out.” The money has changed hands before the crew arrives, and if an item is damaged it’s Grannen’s loss. “I’ve taken out a lot of bars,” says Cullum, “and they have these really nice mahogany cornice pieces and pillars and giant mirrors and stuff. Every time it’s sort of edge-of-your-seat work. Shifting something around the wrong way or picking it up the wrong way can mean destroying it.”
Mantelpieces, also hot items for renovators, are one of the few areas where Grannen goes head to head with other dealers. He recently bought a white marble mantelpiece from the former clubhouse of the Bob O’Link Golf Club in Highland Park that features a beautiful relief carving of three farmers leading a horse. The new owners of the clubhouse, now a private home, considered the mantelpiece too formal and invited three or four dealers to bid on it. Grannen, the first to arrive, started the bidding at $5,000. The owner took a liking to him and decided to let him have it. “He thought it was worth one thing, I thought it was worth another,” says Grannen. “We ended up flipping a coin. I lost, so I paid him his price.” He and Cullum took out the wall behind the mantelpiece as well as a foot of masonry, which had to be removed brick by brick. “Any pressure you put on the marble, theoretically the marble will snap,” says Grannen. “It’s kind of a pain in the butt, but it’s kinda real fun too. It’s like a little bit of surgery.” The piece is now lying on the floor near his shop’s front window; he wants $36,000 for it.
Even his rivals acknowledge that Grannen is a talented buyer. “He travels ceaselessly and works very hard to acquire merchandise,” says Beau Kimball, manager of Salvage One. “I very seldom go anyplace where he hasn’t been there before me or isn’t on his way there.” Grannen spends about a third of the year traveling, mostly to England, Belgium, and France. He spends about ten days abroad at a time, driving from flea market to flea market, filling a third to half of a 40-foot semitrailer, which travels by ship to Norfolk and then by rail to Chicago.
“I went with him on a trip,” says Chuck Kaplan, president of the Chicago Art Deco Society. “I never worked so hard in my life.” Kaplan and Grannen landed at Heathrow and picked up a truck there. “An hour later we were at a flea market in the boondocks–and he was out of the truck before the truck stopped. It was amazing how he ran around. And people knew him–it was incredible how these people in England knew him. He was a very serious buyer. They knew it–they were saving things for him. He’s a hard worker, the hardest working antique dealer I know in the whole country.”
According to Cullum, Grannen knows his clientele well enough to shop for them overseas, and he’s developed an eye for the oddball merchandise that excites walk-in customers. His mania for English carnival items is a prime example: out in the back courtyard are stacks of horses and cycles from merry-go-rounds. “It’s funny, but we’ve sold probably a hundred or so of those things over time,” says Patrick Ottesen. “Restaurants, people putting them in their offices, big kids wanting them in the game room, to liven up their dental office, or whatever.” Most shipments contain a lot of the English club furniture and French art deco Grannen is so enamored of. “For the most part he just buys what he feels like we’re gonna move,” says Cullum. “And he really isn’t ever wrong, it doesn’t seem.” So what are they expecting the next time? “Hopefully a lot of light stuff,” he deadpans. “No terra-cotta, please. But it’s an interesting thing, ’cause we never know what we’re gonna see when we open those doors.”
The truck that arrives in February takes three or four hours to empty. Cullum and Grannen take turns unloading with a hired man, while pairs of day laborers carry items inside or park them in the courtyard. They drag in dozens of busty, white-wire sweater stands (“Ooh-la-la!” comments the price tag later). Off to one side lies a pair of potato suits, big musty costumes from a long-forgotten school assembly. Some of the boxes contain light fixtures worth several thousand dollars; because the bulbs are irreplaceable, one broken bulb damages the entire piece. Soon the garage is filled with armoires, the southeast showroom loaded up with club chairs. Victorian stained-bamboo furniture, bought in Belgium and England, lines the aisles of the main showroom.
Scores of rolling surgical trays, medical equipment, porcelain bedpans, and the multilamp contraption were all bought in a lot almost by chance. “We were just driving around,” says Grannen. “I was in the south of France on a Tuesday afternoon, and somebody told us about a big flea market Wednesday morning in Belgium.” He rented a truck with an English dealer friend, Will Kelsall, and drove all night to the flea market, where they found a yard full of the sort of stuff that engages Grannen’s sense of the absurd. “I’m not real snotty about it,” he explains. “It’s just stuff and I love it. I’m real informal about the whole thing. ‘Hey, you got some stuff to sell? I got some money. Let’s go check it out!’ And that way I get into a lot of weird places.”
Kelsall, who speaks fluent French, interprets for Grannen. “I speak one word,” Grannen confesses, “which is combien–how much? But I’ve never had a hard time of it, and I think it’s because I’m not afraid. ‘Combien?’ And we start writing things on a piece of paper and get the deal done in a minute or two.”
In judging an item’s worth, Grannen draws on a lifetime of experience with antiques and oddities, but he can’t explain how he decides what he wants and how much he’ll pay. “I hope I give the idea that I really have a plan and I’m organized,” he says, “but I’m not and I don’t. Something clicks in my head, and I don’t ever consider, ‘Well, I’m buying this for 10–can I sell it for 12?’ I don’t. I just know that I can make it work.”
Cullum opens up an armoire. “Awesome!” He pulls out a cardboard box containing a detailed wood sculpture of a dragon. “That’s the shit right there.” Grannen bought the dragon around 3 AM at a Belgian market 20 miles from the German border. “A guy pulled it out of the back of a van,” Grannen says, “and I just bought it from him. I was real happy to get that. Unbelievably, it made its way here without getting scratched.”
Grannen has sliced open a finger unloading the truck, but he winds a makeshift bandage around it and goes on working; later he’ll go get it stitched up. When the empty truck finally pulls out of the alley the workmen sit in the courtyard eating pizza, but Grannen barely stops moving. After five years in this building a lack of space is holding him back, and he’s looking for a new location. He stands in the garage in a forest of armoires and shakes his head. “My problem is, I can’t stop buying.”
Grannen would like his new location to be big enough to accommodate his burgeoning collection of French art deco, which is difficult to find in Chicago at good prices because of the expense of tracking it down. “Everybody in the world is an architectural dealer now,” he laments. “I want to go into a market where it’s all new, at least for Chicago. Another reason I want to do it is because I’m looking toward the future–I want to educate myself. I’m exposed to these things. I should learn about them and also try to make a market for them.” Grannen may lack the academic credentials of his counterparts in the preservation community, but he seldom lets that bother him. “I see more in a year than they do in a lifetime,” he says. “And my joy in life is being exposed to it, and if possible owning it. That’s where I get all excited.” He laughs. “To me, quantity is good, because I like it all, and I want to be exposed to all of it. So the more the better.”
Near the middle of Grannen’s main showroom stands a trio of composition statues of Greek gods, which once stood in the lobby of the Manor Theatre on North Avenue. The theater’s owner had been selling Grannen bits and pieces of the interior, including some elaborate chandeliers and lighting fixtures, for more than a year before the building was finally torn down in 1996. This is the kind of practice that preservationists condemn, because a building can be eaten away by piecemeal sales before the city can award it landmark status.
Grannen points out that the Manor was an unimportant theater and not all of its fixtures were original to the building. But the argument that such attrition might contribute to a building’s demise is one he can’t refute. He heaves a ragged sigh and finally says, “I can always make an answer or an excuse that if I don’t buy it somebody else will, because the owners are definitely out there to sell it. But I agree with the preservationists. Things should stay in there if it makes a big difference.” He says that in the past he’s turned down items whose removal would compromise a building’s future, “though it’s very hard, ’cause I personally want to own it. But at the same time you have to have some integrity about it. There’s absolutely no right answer. An argument could be made either way, that it’s whatever fuels the market. But some things should definitely be left alone, that’s for sure.”
A less ambiguous issue for preservationists and dealers is the outright theft of architectural ornament by black marketeers. “This is a problem that every salvage house has,” says Vince Michael. “You have organized groups of brick thieves on the south and west sides who will literally take the bricks out of buildings with floodlights at night.” According to Michael, illegal scavenging of buildings first emerged in the 60s, when the preservation movement created a heightened demand among rehabbers for older materials. The fact that Richard Nickel and other activists snatched pieces from doomed buildings created a dangerous precedent for “pickers,” the street-level scavengers suspected of stripping fragments from older buildings–some still occupied–and selling them to dealers who are only too willing to buy them, no questions asked.
Lisa DiChiera, Michael’s successor at the Landmarks Preservation Council, says that while most local salvage houses aren’t pickers, some have been suspected of buying questionable merchandise from pickers in the past. She says that many architecturally significant mansions in her native Detroit have been stripped by pickers who brought the fragments to Chicago. And she says that in the early 90s scavenging became so extensive at the Uptown Theatre, now a landmark, that eventually the FBI began working with the owner and local preservationists to stanch the flow of fixtures from the building.
“Most dealers, in my opinion, are savvy enough to know if they’re being offered something that has no business being offered to them,” says Salvage One’s Beau Kimball. “And it’s just a matter of whether they have the self-control to avoid it.” He points out that Salvage One is a member of Salvo, an organization begun by English antiques enthusiast Thornton Kay to ensure the highest level of ethics among dealers. (Kay explains that Salvo’s current ethical guidelines apply only to dealers in Great Britain, though the organization is in the process of formulating a code for the States.) Grannen and Kimball say they now follow guidelines similar to the British ones: when someone approaches them with questionable merchandise they ask for a state ID and then pay by check, so the seller can be tracked down if a sale goes bad. Kimball also says he’ll hold on to an item for a while if he has any doubts about it.
Asked about questionable merchandise, Grannen says, “I don’t buy it. I learned my lesson about five years ago, when I had bought something that was stolen. I learned my lesson the very hard way.” He says he didn’t know the item was hot. “There’s definitely guys that have been doing it for 20 years, and I just don’t buy from them. That’s part of the reason I started going to Europe–I didn’t want to be involved in that. Not that I’m an angel–I’m not. I just don’t need the hassle.”
The demolition of so many of Chicago’s movie palaces in the 80s was a windfall for Grannen, who was able to obtain salvage rights to nearly all of them–the Granada, the Sheridan, the Woods, the United Artists. A pair of 39-inch cast-stone medallions from the United Artists–reliefs of Comedy, Tragedy, and Drama–lie in the courtyard behind Architectural Artifacts. The demise of Chicago’s movie palaces elicits from Grannen a typically conflicted response: “That’s a crime is what it is, and I got almost all of ’em. I’ve probably done 20 major theaters in Chicago.”
The battle over the Granada Theater on Sheridan near Devon was particularly emotional, pitting the neighborhood against the city and the developers who wanted to erect an apartment building and shops in its place, but Grannen, who got a firsthand look at the gutted and vandalized interior, says the debate was already over. “It’s really half the city’s fault to let it go as far as it did, but that building had been destroyed, unfortunately. But at the time that was going on Block 37 was also coming down. Nobody paid any attention to that whatsoever, and I got all that. And some of those buildings were national landmarks! They knocked ’em down.”
The leveling of the Loop’s Block 37 in 1989 is now widely considered a tragedy. Along with the demolition of the movie palaces, it put Grannen in a position he’s occupied frequently: the gray area between preservationists, who claim to operate purely in the public interest (though sometimes maintaining personal collections of their own), and developers, who typically are motivated only by profit. National Wrecking billed the city a half million dollars for the demolition of Block 37 and sold the salvage rights to Grannen. Demolition of the block began in November 1989 and continued for six months. The McCarthy Building, the Unity Building, the Springer and Kranz buildings, Hillman’s Stop and Shop, the United Artists Theater–Grannen salvaged material from them all.
The work was often hair-raising. At one point Grannen and a crew had to hoist themselves 40 feet above the ground on ropes to remove an assortment of bronze art deco plaques, each weighing 400 pounds, from the front of the Stop and Shop. “That wasn’t a lot of fun,” he recalls grimly. The 14th floor of another building was decorated with terra-cotta caryatids. To claim them, Grannen had to remove an eight-foot-high section of the wall behind each of them. “We tied ourselves off around the waist–there was no scaffolding. We tied [the rope] to a beam, or a big table, or something in the building. Pretty stupid is what it was! We’d get everything out from behind them, but then you had to actually get ’em out. So we’d walk out on the little ledge and wrestle with the things. That was pretty hairy.”
The largest and most expensive piece at Architectural Artifacts is the massive blue-and-white terra-cotta pediment that topped the Sheridan Theatre (later the Palacio) at Irving Park and Sheridan. Measuring 20 feet high and nearly 90 feet long, it features the sort of wacky neoclassical tableau typical of America’s working-class dream palaces. A winged figure at the apex is flanked on one side by a Native American leading a stallion and on the other by a Roman charioteer. Lions and Renaissance musicians complete the bizarre scene.
“A monument to my stupidity,” Grannen calls it. The entire facade and its removal cost him $80,000; a crew of 20 workers labored for several days in March 1994 to pry loose more than 200 separate panels from the face of the building before the theater was demolished. “If somebody gave me the right amount of money I’d sell it just so I could buy more things,” he says. “But I paid a lot of money for it. It was one of the first buildings I really remember liking in Chicago because of the pediment on it. And it wasn’t the sort of thing where I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna make a lot of money on this.’ I had to do it.”
Just after he’d taken down the pediment an Italian couple made him an offer, but Grannen couldn’t part with it. At one point he considered donating it to Loyola University, but that didn’t pan out either. Grannen says he wants to be certain that whoever buys the pediment treats it with proper respect. “Luckily business is good enough where I can afford to take those chances and do some preservation,” he says. “Most people, if they did that and got $80,000 into the thing, it would be the end of ’em. So I’m lucky in that way, that we can take a few good chances. It’s a pretty phenomenal thing, and it’s a big part of Chicago–it should be saved. I might add that that was a city demolition, and they couldn’t have cared less.”
Someday the pediment might wind up in his museum. “I’ve been saving the stuff for a couple of years, buying back stuff that I sold to other people if I can, buying stuff from other dealers when I can,” he says. “I’ve got the Granada, and I’ve got the Stock Exchange, and I’ve got all the important buildings. But there’s also buildings like the Marlbro Theatre, which was a replica of the Granada.” He has statuary from the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 and paneling from the Playboy mansion that he’d also like to include. “I think this business has given me a lot. And I just owe something back to the business–not to the business, but to the stuff, to the elements. So I can accomplish a couple of things with a museum. A, I can have an excuse to buy things that maybe I normally wouldn’t, which is always good. B, I can give the public opportunities to see things that they normally wouldn’t or never would. C, it’s a good investment, I think. It’s something I can be proud of and invest in. And I can probably get some sort of tax write-off. I don’t know.”