Engineer fought to save city’s vintage buildings

SHARE Engineer fought to save city’s vintage buildings

7-8-09 Vorwaert Turn Hall, 2431 W. Roosevelt Rd., Chicago Building owners Kelsey Lavicka and his dad, Bill Lavicka standing in front of their building. (for Busk real estate story) [Keith Hale/Sun-Times]

William Lavicka was a champion of neglected, forgotten things.

He saw promise in crumbling city buildings that others dismissed as obstacles to be removed to make way for something gleaming and new.

“Boy, he loved older buildings, and he would do anything in his power to save them,” said his long-time friend and former Chicago Sun-Times real estate editor Don DeBat. “He always said any building could be saved if it was structurally sound.”

Mr. Lavicka – a structural and civil engineer who fought to save dozens of vintage home and churches in the city throughout the years – died Wednesday at his home on the Near West Side, his family said. Mr. Lavicka was 67.

Born in Evanston in 1945, Mr. Lavicka was a boy when he first discovered the pleasure of making things with his hands. On one occasion, he made a jewelry box for his mother, said his daughter, Amber Lavicka.

“It was kind of his personal philosophy – he thought America had gone in the wrong direction when it stopped encouraging people to work with their hands,” she said.

A hankering for old things – and old ways of doing things – became a hallmark of Mr. Lavicka’s life. While a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mr. Lavicka yearned for buildings that curved and bowed at a time when Mies van der Rohe’s straight, soaring lines were in vogue.

Mr. Lavicka spent most of his life renovating old buildings. He did it to make money, but in the process, he never lost his love of restoring things to their former glory – often something as small as a tarnished brass doorknob or a creaky wooden banister.

Mr. Lavicka was vocal and determined, but not loud in his opposition to efforts to tear down the city’s heritage. He’d show up at public events then-Mayor Richard M. Daley attended and urge him to save this or that building – or to create more park space. And sometimes Daley would stop and talk to Mr. Lavicka, even inviting him to chat in his limousine, Amber Lavicka recalled.

In 2010, while renovating the Gut Heil Haus – a turn-of-the-century Near West Side building that had once housed a German social and athletic club – Mr. Lavicka slept in the property at night with a baseball bat at his side to guard against possible intruders, DeBat said.

“He was worried about his building supplies getting ripped off because it was in a rough neighborhood,” DeBat said.

When he renovated buildings, he did much of the work himself – whether it was laying bricks or refinishing wooden floors.

“He had big hands – kind of gnarly,” his daughter said, adding that they got that way from the hard, physical work he did.

Mr. Lavicka’s historic graystone home on Jackson Boulevard is a jewel, DeBat said. And almost every square inch of wall space is covered with art or bookshelves, Amber Lavicka said. In the basement, Mr. Lavicka pressed grapes and bottled his own wine under the “Chateau Chicago” label, DeBat said.

“He was a very literary guy,” Amber Lavicka said. “He thought it was a shame Americans didn’t display more books, and so he built his own shelves. … He must have had a couple thousand volumes.”

In addition to his daughter, survivors include two sons, Kelsey Lavicka and Corey Lavicka, who both live in the city; Mr. Lavicka’s wife, Alys Lavicka, died in 2007.

A memorial service is set for May 19.

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