Sisters wind up as historic building’s occupants
By Maria Traska For The Herald-News July 4, 2012 4:00PM
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 6, 2012 6:01AM
This story is the second of a two-part series.
JOLIET — The KSKJ Building was a guaranteed standout.
What architect Charles Wallace created for the Slovenian benefit society was a three-story building with a trim facade, executed in sandstone with a slightly reddish cast. Not the softer, locally ubiquitous Joliet limestone.
That choice alone would set the building apart, but the use of Art Deco style would trump that — only a tiny handful of Art Deco structures were built in Joliet.
Carved into the stone façade were long, flat columns, fluted at the top, between which ran vertical rows of individual double-hung windows, all of which were meant to stress height and distract from the squatness of the building. A row of carved stone trim sat along the top of the façade, between the columns, and in the center of that trim was the organization’s shield in bas relief.
Crowning the front door was an Art Deco-patterned glass transom, and above that, on a sandstone tablet, were carved the words Glavni Urad (home office) and KSKJ. The organization’s directors, who’d wanted a distinctive building, must have been pleased.
New KSKJ headquarters
The office building was built on a northwest corner at Crowley Avenue and Chicago Street, providing passers-by with an excellent perspective. The cornerstone was laid on July 3, 1938, and construction was completed in early 1939.
The contractor wasn’t a local man but Frank Vertovec of Elmhurst. Wallace had probably made his acquaintance a decade earlier while designing a combination church and school for Immaculate Conception Parish in Elmhurst.
On April 2, 1939, Wallace’s building became the new KSKJ headquarters. The total cost was $125,000 in 1939 dollars, and that included all the equipment. Within 15 years, the building alone was worth more than twice that — about $300,000, according to an expert appraisal in 1954. KSKJ’s directors wrote about it with pride in the society’s 60th anniversary booklet.
Wallace didn’t know that: He had died Feb. 12, 1949, at age 78, survived by his wife, three sons, two daughters and four grandchildren. His obituary ran the following day on the front page of the Joliet Herald, as befit a favorite son. Of his sister and professional partner, Elizabeth, there was no mention.
As might be expected, KSKJ’s requirements eventually outgrew the Wallace building. The organization had branched out into a number of family-friendly activities, including annual sports tournaments, scholarships and youth programs.
After 71 years on Chicago Street and 41 years in its trademark building, KSKJ Life moved across town in 1980 to a newer, more modern facility on Glenwood Avenue and away from its roots in Slovenian Row. Its members are no longer limited to Slovenians or even to Catholics but include Christians and spouses of Christians of many nationalities, and its focus continues to be on supporting families in a number of ways beyond the financial instruments it offers.
As upwardly mobile Slovenes gradually began to move away to other, newer areas of Joliet, the number of Slovenian businesses declined in Slovenian Row and the neighborhood began to change. Eventually, other residents began to move in.
Mexican workers had been a part of the labor force for the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway for as long as the EJ&E had had a Joliet railyard. Now the Hispanic community began to expand into neighborhoods north of the commercial district. That included the affordable and well-kept, if somewhat aging, Slovenian Row.
By the early 1970s, Mexican-Americans had a significant presence there. The Rev. Victor Lopez of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Hispanic parish east of Slovenian Row, invited the Josephine Sisters to the Diocese of Joliet.
The order, known as Las Hermanas Josefinas de la Caridad, was founded in 1871 by Spanish missionary the Rev. Jose-Maria Vilaseca and is based in Mexico City.
In 1974, the sisters began a day care program for children of kindergarten and preschool age. At first, they operated out of a house on Herkimer Street where eight sisters cared for 25 children, but the program grew quickly.
When KSKJ put its former headquarters on the market in 1981, Bishop Joseph Imesch took note. He knew the sisters needed a larger space for the day care center and offered to loan them the price of the building. They accepted and later repaid him.
Moving into the KSKJ Building on Chicago Street allowed the sisters to expand their child care and educational services. Today, Vilaseca Day Care Center has 20 staff members caring for 91 children ages 6 months to kindergarten level. The first two floors are devoted to day care and classrooms. There is also a 15-computer lab that trains children 3 years and older, plus adults via evening classes.
The building’s third floor has been transformed into a convent and chapel for the sisters. Remarkably, Vilaseca, too, has a family connection: the building is run by twins. Sister Araceli Perez is the director of the day care center, while her sibling, Sister Judith Perez, leads the sisters’ religious community.
Thus, in its 73rd year the KSKJ Building has a new lease on life — it’s not ready for retirement.
Its facade is slightly marred by a black, hand-painted sign that sticks out perpendicular to the building, but the structure otherwise is intact and well maintained. More important, it’s been repurposed without major alterations to serve its surrounding community, for which preservationists and residents alike must be grateful. And it’s still on historic Route 66, a reminder of the past in present day view.
Maria R. Traska is an independent journalist and co-author of the upcoming book “The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago,” from which this article is partially excepted.