TL;DR: Historic high rise hotel standing vacant and severely-neglected since a deadly Christmas fire in 1984.
History: Built with a pricetag of $460,000 as the first of downtown Waukegan’s two lux hotels: the Karcher Building was designed by architects BK Gibson of Chicago, and welcomed its first guests on June 28, 1928.
The hotel’s 150 rooms were frequented over the following decades by families attending graduation ceremonies at nearby Naval Station Great Lakes, and those who could not find rooms in Chicago. For those latter guests: the Hotel featured a rooftop-mounted spotlight aimed at the lake to help guests find the hotel from the train station – a feature the hotel proudly advertised wherever possible with the tagline: “Follow the beacon light to the Karcher Hotel.” Though dark, it’s still there, today.
Rates for a room at the time of opening ranged from $2-3.50 for a single, and $3-5.00 for a double. Amenities included two dining rooms, a cocktail lounge, basement billiard hall, third-floor patio, and ground-level retail space which housed a cafe and various other businesses; which could be accessed from the street or hotel lobby. The exterior features ornate Spanish-revival architecture, and had terracotta molding along the roofline. Inside: the ornate lobby atrium spanned two floors and featured a beautiful tin and plaster ceiling, with bronze hand railings on the stairs and balcony, and polished terrazzo flooring throughout.
In 1965 the building was sold, renovated, renamed Collins-Karcher Hotel after the new owners, and remained open as a transient hotel into the early 1980s. It was late in this period that an abusive church: Christain Fellowship Church Ministries, and its pastor, Lloyd R. Davis, began occupying the building; filling the rooms primarily with the Naval recruits he preyed upon from Great Lakes. The perv himself had an office in room 701. This dark period lasted until approximately 1982, when the hotel was sold again and restored to be used as housing for active senior citizens. While CFCMI remained in the Waukegan area until 2008, in 1992 LR Davis was finally tried and convicted of multiple sex crimes; living through just seven of his 31-year prison sentence.
Two years after the million-dollar conversion to senior housing: a deadly fire broke out in the wee hours of Christmas Day in a ground-floor tailoring parlor, casting dozens of elderly residents into the dangerously-frigid night, hospitalizing four, and killing eight after smoke raced up the hotel’s elevator shafts. Today it’s still called the worst fire in Waukegan’s history, though the fact it happened on Christmas may have saved many lives, as many of the hotel’s residents were staying with their families that night. Unfortunately with downtown Waukegan already devastated by the decline of its industrial base along the Lake, and the 1971-opening of Lakehurst Mall: the fire now left the Karcher on a rapidly growing list of vacant buildings in the immediate area – many of which would be demolished in the following decades, or still remain so to this day.
Sporadic sales of the property, partial-repairs and renovation attempts, and even a demolition attempt by the city took place over the next 27 years. In the early-1990s the exterior was restored to a “presentable” state after locals filed suit, though its interior remained ravaged by the fire and began to suffer water damage from pipes that burst in a remodeling attempt that was ultimately aborted. It was also during that period when the sixth floor up was completely gutted, and the debris was tossed down the elevator shafts into the ruins of the once-grand lobby – piles of old wood, plaster, carpet and trash rising into the lobby past the second floor. Worse, yet: scrappers broke in through the fire escape and stole copper wiring and metal fixtures from many of the hotel rooms; tearing the walls up in the process.
The only sign of progress, and hope, came in 2002, when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places – entry #02000845.
Explore: The Karcher first caught my attention in 2008, when I would pass through Waukegan en route to a cruise night in Winthrop Harbor. It would be another two years, though – at the “underground” reincarnation of what was originally known as Scoop the Loop – that I would really begin to explore downtown Waukegan. At that time, Waukegan was strongly reinventing its downtown area as a community for the arts, opening “pop-up galleries” in the many vacant storefronts on Genesee Street, with hopes of attracting future long-term tenants. I kept a close eye on Karcher into the next year, and in 2011 it was sold to Minnesota-based nonprofit Artspace, Inc; who through a door-to-door donation campaign organized and funded by Waukeganites, and federal housing and preservation grants planned to renovate the building into 36 living/working units exclusively for artists. From there, I got in contact with Artspace and – seeing it as a way in – volunteered to document the building’s transformation; in-return allowing them to use my photos as-needed.
On a sunny August afternoon I met the city’s awesome PR guy, David Motley (who I met a few weeks prior, at that year’s Scoop), who unlocked the door to one of the Washington Street storefronts and led me in. Donning respirators for probably the only time in my life (in this case it was a legal thing): we’re immediately greeted by a 5-foot high pile of rubble in the dead-center of the lobby; and across from it: the once-grand iron staircase which leads to the balcony and basement. The entire left-side wall of the staircase was missing after the fire, leaving most of the hotel lobby and retail stores open as one huge space – divided by the stairs, piles of crap, and a hanged doll whose face had been spraypainted green. The scorched remains of the two elevators stood beyond the stairs, their doors closed and cars buried under debris chucked down from the above floors. On the other side of the lobby, on the second floor and spilling into the atrium, we could see yet another mountain of debris rising from floor to ceiling, which had been thrown down some kind of ventilation shaft and continued up into at least the third floor. The fireplace of the lounge barely poked above the piles in-between, while the windows beside it were all boarded up.
Past where the front desk would have been was a long corridor, likely retail space, that spanned the entire west-east length of the building; debris and collapsing duct workings blocked a good portion of it toward the west end. The entryway to this storefront, however, was still intact and the walls even sported vintage wallpaper. The floor was recessed down a few stairs, due to the natural incline of the terrain (the Waukegan River is only a few blocks away, down a steep ravine). Back to the front of the building: a second, smaller flight of stairs that lead to the street takes you up the north side of the atrium, where warped veneer paneling is the only remaining trace of the offices or whatever once-overlooked Washington Street. On the other side: the original iron handrailing stops you from falling to a violent death-by-impalement. The railing was said to be bronze, originally, but it appeared anything but at this point. Beyond the remnants of a steel-framed wall (of newer construction) were traces of what may have been the hotel’s Coral Room lounge or a dining room of sorts, with double swinging doors leading to yet another flight of stairs to the basement and west alley, along with a service elevator – parked back on the first floor – which was the only elevator accessible in the building.
On the other side we head down a hallway toward the stairs to the roof, and on the left we came across a couple of intact offices; one of which had clearly been used as an office and breakroom for contractors, whose equipment and trash were still scattered about. A couple of televisions, a microwave, some office furniture, and a fridge were still in there as well – the latter still contained unopened 2005ish-expired Coke and moldy bread – the smell was as bad as you can imagine.
Back into the hallway we find yet another corridor on the left, containing some mold-encrusted shitters and I believe another stairwell beyond it that only led from the second floor to the first and basement. We turned-around, however, and continued onward toward the roof, using the only stairwell which spans the building’s entire height; briefly glancing at each floor until about the 6th or so, which from then on up was gutted down to the bare exterior brick and concrete-encased steel structure – advertised as “completely fireproof” back in the day.
Kicking-open the roof door, you’re facing north with the elevator penthouse to the left; the machinery was all mounted on the roof to minimize noise for the hotel guests. We couldn’t get in it. A ladder led to the top, where I found the hollow remains of what was the Hotel’s famous “beacon light”. I started shooting around, toward the lake, when I noticed yellowjackets hanging around an old TV antenna to the side. Fearing wasps more than any bum or crackhead, I had enough and started toward the ladder only to find at least three or four of them “sunning” on the warm steel – effectively leaving me trapped atop a 9-story building surrounded by probably my greatest fear. “Fuck”.
I assumed my new friend probably wasn’t down for hauling my ass, with a broken ankle from jumping to the main roof, down 9 flights of stairs, so I booked it down the ladder (unstung) and we started back down the tower. We toured each room on each floor; spending less time on the gutted upper levels, but thoroughly exploring the untouched areas. Signs of life resumed on the 5th floor with a long L-shaped hallway spanning from the stairwell to the fire escape on the other side of the building, with rooms on each side of this hallway and a small alcove for the elevators. This floor probably was the most-intact overall, though that isn’t saying much as it was still utterly thrashed, with obvious signs of fixtures and fittings torn out of the walls by scrappers. Room 501 was one of the larger rooms, situated with a door across from the elevators and another on the other side, opening in from the longer hallway. Apparently all the upper floors from there-up were of a similar layout. The fourth floor was largely unremarkable – I believe it was in probably the worst shape of any surviving floors, with entire walls separating rooms missing. The third floor was laid out fairly similar, but featured the huge wooden party deck on the second floor roof (while the rest of the tower was L-shaped.) It was about then when David had to bail for a meeting, so with his cell number in-hand I gladly allowed him to lock me in until I was done.
Continuing back down into the lobby area I checked out the service elevator a bit before heading into the basement; it was an old manually-controlled unit whose manufacturer was indistinguishable. The doorway to the alley was wide-open so I closed and tried to prop it shut with something, to no avail (people got in, later). Heading downstairs I was surprised to find it was in relatively clean shape despite the fact it had flooded sometime before. It was a maze of long rooms and corridors; some of which contained all the spare parts and stuff for the rooms (doors, hardware, etc.). In the former billiard hall was a huge mural spanning the entire length and corner of that part of the building, depicting a rooftop view of downtown Waukegan as it appeared in the early 1930s. Unfortunately I missed it at the time, and wasn’t told of its existence until afterward.
Another hour or so later: I packed up and called Motley to let me out. We shook hands and then split, glad to know that the future could finally only get brighter for this place…
Epilogue: Artspace took ownership just a few weeks later and internal demolition began almost immediately. The firm 4240 Architects oversaw the redevelopment, which took a little over a year and had a price tag of $14.6m. During which: the building was covered in scaffolding and sported a temporary elevator grafted to the east facade. While the brickwork and street-level terracotta was preserved, the most-significant permanent change to the exterior, however, would be the loss of the roofline terracotta, which had deteriorated beyond repair and was in danger of falling. The fire escape on the west facade was also removed, and a new stairwell was built within, in the southwest corner of the tower.
A little more than a year after work commenced: some of the finished rooms were decked-out with donated art and furniture, and an open house was held during the November ArtWauk. For that I contributed a few temporary displays featuring my work, which hung in three areas of the building. I was allowed free-reign to re-shoot the place again after crowds dispersed, so we slipped up onto the roof again. By then most of the rooms were complete and the lobby was being finished-up. The restored iron handrailings were re-installed the following month, and after shooting the empty rooms again its first new residents since 1984 moved in the week of Christmas. A formal grand opening ceremony was held the following April.
The lobby was converted into the main gallery, known as Karcher 405; retaining some of the original plaster frieze, railings, and completely restoring the terrazzo floor (which I had no clue it even existed due to the debris). The damaged mail chutes were retained on all floors next to a brand new Otis elevator, and much of the original hotel’s decorative door moldings were replicated throughout the building; the second floor three-bed unit (Evelyn’s) retains some replicated frieze as well. The floorplans for the third floor-up were modified to create more room for the units; moving the hallway from the elevator to the south facade; creating a total of 36 units that range from 665-1441 square feet. The number of retail spots dropped from five to three (currently two), and while the basement mural was preserved, it was later damaged by people and things touching it.
In November 2013 I coordinated with Artspace and a few Karcher residents to shoot some of the completed, decorated rooms for them, and in the following month I was invited by the Waukegan Arts Council to show some of my other work at a holiday event which was hosted in 405 – for which I built three new displays based on the ones created for the prior year’s open house: one for the Hotel, one for the building in its abandoned state, and the third for its new life as its new name: Karcher Artspace Lofts. These displays were donated to the residents of the building and now permanently reside in a lobby-area hallway.
I’ve since been welcomed every month to show my work alongside the residents’ art in 405 during ArtWauk. I’m extremely grateful to have to met some really awesome people, and continue being a part of this great building’s history. I couldn’t possibly think of a better group of people to be in there, who will appreciate the building as much as I do.