In early-November 2014 I was sitting in the waiting room getting my oil changed, dicking-around on my phone, when I saw a post on Facebook I had dreaded for years. The historic Sauter Building on the corner of Genesee and Water Street in Waukegan – a regular subject of mine – had been acquired by the city through the courts. The news was only broken by said Facebook post by Waukegan Main Street, showing Public Works stripping the copper paneling off the bay windows along Genesee Street for scrap; ending any hopes of the building’s preservation.
There are varying sources regarding its construction date; most have said it was built in 1894, however recent articles claim it was a decade older. Built by Francis X. Sauter, who previously-owned a saloon on the site; with work contracted to architect William Price & Son: the three-story F. Sauter Building’s red brick, ornate masonry, and copper-plated turret became icons of downtown Waukegan in the decades that followed. The ground floor and basement was reserved for retail space – with a mens store (known as Stern’s for the majority of its time) occupying 37 S. Genesee for nearly a century, and the other space to the north last-occupied by a butcher shop. Two floors of apartments were built above it.
In 1976 the Waukegan Bicentennial Commission designated it a Bicentennial Landmark and presented it a bronze plaque. It was around this time, though, where downtown Waukegan had slid into decline amid the closure of its lakefront industries, and the opening of Lakehurst Mall not far away drove away most businesses. Stern’s held on, however, though a decade later the apartments above it were condemned by the city of Waukegan, and slowly began to deteriorate.The butcher shop closed sometime around then or after, and the space – with its floor rotting away into the basement – was used as storage by Stern’s, with employees often moving merchandise into there for the night during the summertime Sidewalk Sales.
Save for the bank on Washington and Genesee, the entire city block was otherwise left vacant after the start of the new millennium. In 2005 R&B singer Sharissa filmed the music video for “In Love With A Thug“, prominently featuring the building’s exterior. Stern’s ultimately closed in February of 2010, unable to survive the recession and deteriorating state of the building. Efforts to restore it were thwarted by the owner’s bitter divorce, and the rumored $5m in damage it had sustained from decades of neglect. Meanwhile water started leaking all the way into the basement, and a family of raccoons infested the ground floor and basement.
In 2012 I found the door to Stern’s unlocked and hit it twice, but that will be saved for a separate post.
After an 18-month court process: the city acquired the property, ordered the adjacent community garden to vacate in two-weeks, and immediately began stripping the copper panels off the bay windows, which would be scrapped and the money would return to the city’s funding. In the following days before workers moved toward stripping the turret, I shot the piss out of the exterior from wherever angle I could get it from. Over the weekend, someone actually slipped-in and planted the letters “SAVE STERNS” in the turret windows – reportedly infuriating the city’s building commissioner, who gave it a final tour the next Monday, and with claims that it was in “imminent danger of collapse“, publicly-sealed its fate.
Over the week, the signage was removed and given back to the family who once-owned the store, and a copper ball was rescued from the northwest corner for preservation. Beyond that, nobody was allowed inside to rescue anything, under threat of prosecution. On the morning of November 13 – the day it was scheduled for demolition – I arrived to, surprisingly, find it still standing. Apparently the city-owned excavator was too-small for the job, and the city was waiting for the larger one to arrive. During that time, several artifacts were finally smuggled-out at the last minute by the city’s PR team, which would be donated to the local historical society.
About an hour later the excavator arrived, and the first-strike came at 11:10 AM…
Unfortunately I had to leave at this point – I was filming and my camcorder battery died, and the backup failed, so I had to hit Walmart for a 12v power inverter and grab the charger from home. I returned and was parking the car literally as the turret collapsed, so I missed it…
I soon noticed the copper ornament which peaked the turret had been pulled from the rubble. The city intended to save it as-is, however removing it proved to be too-dangerous, and it was left to topple with the turret. It still was donated to the Waukegan Historical Society, in its damaged-state.
It had been snowing off-and-on throughout the day, and around the time the bay windows started coming down it really picked-up…
Throughout the day I had the pleasure of meeting a few Waukeganites who lived and worked in the building; including some members of the Cantu family, who lived in apartment one, on the second floor in the northwest corner of the building. I learned ten children were actually raised, there!
By 5:34pm, 130 years of history had been permanently erased… naturally, there are no-known immediate plans for the site, or the adjacent community garden.