Slovenian immigrants left architectural mark on downtown Joliet
By Maria R. Traska For The Herald-News July 3, 2012 8:12PM
Sister Araceli Perez walks past portraits of the Josephine Sisters founders, Jose Maria Vilaseca (top left) and M. Cesarea Ruiz (top right), in the Vilaseca Josephine Center Friday, May 4, 2012, at 351 N. Chicago St. in Joliet. The center, which houses a daycare and convent, moved in the former K.S.K.J. building in 1981. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 5, 2012 6:00AM
JOLIET — There is an older, stone-fronted office building in Joliet’s Slovenian Row that typically goes unnoticed. Yet at the time of its construction this seemingly nondescript structure at 351 N. Chicago St. was called “one of the most outstanding modern buildings in the city of Joliet.”
It has seen much, and it represents more than a century of history, woven from three different strands that tell the tale of the city’s evolution.
That history begins with the arrival of Slovenians in 1873. Most Slovenians in the region worked either in the steel mills in far southeast Chicago or at the Joliet Iron and Steel Works, or in the limestone quarries along the Des Plaines River between Lemont and Joliet. The Slovenians in Joliet settled in the area known as Slovenian Row, roughly bounded on the north by Columbia Street, on the south by Crowley Avenue, on the east by the railroad tracks just past Scott Street and on the west by the Des Plaines River.
Like many other immigrants, the Slovenians had their own parish — St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic — and their own organizations. One fraternal organization was the Kranjska Slovenska Katoliska Jednota, or Carniolian Slovenian Catholic Union, commonly known as KSKJ, formed to provide burial insurance.
Help for a financial burden
Funerary societies were necessary 140 years ago because there were no welfare agencies or other community resources to help working-class families bury their dead. Funerals were a severe financial burden, and public collections to help pay for them, or to assist widows and orphans, were common. KSKJ was organized to help lift that burden. Even then, however, KSKJ was just as interested in preserving Slovenian family life.
At first, there were only a few independent lodges, no overall organization. In the early days, “they just passed the hat,” KSKJ CEO Tony Mravle said. “That was the reserve fund.”
Eventually, these few independent lodges joined forces. The group was founded in 1894 and incorporated on Jan. 12, 1898.
Known today as KSKJ Life, the American Slovenian Catholic Union is a not-for-profit benefit society with more than $250 million in assets. It has 38,000 members in 12 states and the District of Columbia.
The Joliet area lodges today represent about 4,000 members. At the time of its founding, however, KSKJ had only 333 members and an empty treasury.
First home on Chicago Street
The first national home office was at 508 N. Chicago St., near the five-points intersection by St. Joseph Church. KSKJ had been there about 15 years when Route 66 came through central Joliet down Chicago Street in 1926. The organization remained there for nearly 30 years — until it could arrange the construction of a new headquarters. That had long been planned by KSKJ’s directors but was delayed by the Great Depression.
Enter Charles L. Wallace.
Wallace, an Irish-American, was a locally prominent architect who was raised in Joliet and had offices in both Joliet and Chicago. Born in 1871, he and his firm were responsible for designing more than 100 buildings. He began his career in 1896, the same year that he married local girl Julia Mahoney. He was associated with the Joliet firm of Hoen, Webster and Wallace before setting up his own practice a few years later.
It was an unusual practice, to say the least. Wallace and his sister, Elizabeth B. Wallace, worked together. The brother and sister architectural firm was the first and only one in Joliet at the time, according to Sharon Merwin of the Joliet Historic Preservation Commission — possibly the only one in the state. Their names first appeared together in the city directory in 1899.
Women architects were rare enough during the first three-quarters of the 20th century, and Elizabeth was one of the first to be licensed in Illinois. But because she practiced within the ‘family’ firm, ostensibly under her brother’s name, little is known about Elizabeth’s designs or commissions. Virtually nothing is known about her possible influence on or contributions to her brother’s projects.
Engineer Joseph Wallace was based in the Chicago office; this was probably Charles and Julia’s eldest son, who had attended college and trained as an engineer. All three are mentioned on the firm’s 1924 Christmas card, with Elizabeth listed only as E.B. Wallace, architect, practicing in the Joliet office. By then, Charles and Elizabeth would have worked together for 25 years.
Charles Wallace’s self-designed 1907 American foursquare home, at 709 Campbell St. in the Upper Bluff Historic District, is today an official Joliet landmark. Elizabeth Wallace built the house next door at 711 Campbell at the same time for herself, their sister Ella, and their mother. By that time, Charles and Julia Wallace had been married for 11 years.
Although he focused on commercial and residential commissions, Wallace also designed a number of churches in the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana. These include two in Joliet, St. Patrick Church (1919) and the original St. Raymond Nonnatus Church (1918).
Outside Joliet, Wallace is better known for his churches than anything else. That said, he’s barely known at all outside metro Chicago — probably because he had the formidable members of the Chicago School of Architecture for competition, in addition to church specialists such as Worthmann & Steinbach, William J. Brinkmann and Henry J. Schlacks.
Until 1928, the overwhelming majority of Wallace’s projects and all of his churches had been built in brick. In November 1928, what is probably Wallace’s best known building was completed: St. Viator Church on Chicago’s northwest side. No longer did Wallace build in proletarian brown brick or in the clunky, squarish neo-Tudor style that he’d used for most of his previous church designs. Instead, St. Viator’s rose sleek and pale grey toward the sky, a refined vision of English Gothic executed in Bedford limestone, the same material used for Chicago greystone homes.
Did Elizabeth’s influence cause this dramatic change, was it local Chicago preference or the client’s request for Indiana limestone instead of brick, or was Wallace’s style finally evolving into a more graceful one? The records don’t say. However, planning for St. Viator began in 1926, and Elizabeth still would have been alive at the time (a brief family history by Sister Mary Angela Wallace, Charles’ daughter, says little about Elizabeth but notes her death in about 1927; she would have been living on Chicago’s North Side at the time).
St. Viator Church and the matching parish buildings that bookend it were Wallace’s crowning achievement, well publicized locally and still admired today. They also were his last commission before the Depression-induced halt in construction began.
So, by the time the KSKJ directors approached him a decade later in 1938, Wallace already had been thinking in stone — and not in Tudor Gothic.
Coming Thursday: Part II
of Charles Wallace and the KSKJ.