TL;DR: The twilight years of a Waukegan landmark.
History: 48-year old Francis X. Sauter and his family left their Württemberg, Germany home for America in 1859; settling in the flourishing city of Waukegan, Illinois for the rest of his life, and opening a tavern and livery business on South Genesee Street. Just before the turn of the century, Sauter contracted renowned local masons: John & Lyle Price, to construct his namesake legacy on the same site: a three story red brick building with ornate masonry, copper trim, copper-clad bay windows, and a grand copper-clad turret on the corner overlooking the intersection, capped by a hand-made, ornamental copper tip and finial.
Dubbed the Sauter Block, with Francis’ own name inscribed in brick along the Genesee Street facade: it was completed in 1894, and Sauter himself would live out his final years continuing to operate a saloon, there, until his death in 1899.
The Sauter Building anchored the northeast corner at Genesee and Water Street. Its upper two floors featured eight, rentable, two or three-bedroom apartments uniquely laid out so that all tenants had abundant sources of natural light throughout the day. Two units – one on each floor – shared the corner turret, while the rest all featured a bay window overlooking the street. Each apartment had a fireplace. Three stairwells (one for 1-2, one for 3-6, and one for 7-8) provided access from the street, and all apartments were accessible to each other via a series of wood porches in back.
The ground floor was reserved for retail space – occupying 33, 35, and 37 South Genesee; the latter becoming home to a Waukegan institution for nearly a century. Founded in 1912 by Max Stern: Stern’s Store for Men would become the building’s longest tenant – the business inherited in the 1950s by Max’s son, Mel, and later sold to Harry Stackhouse and William DeVore in 1975, who kept the Stern’s name. At some point in the second-half of the century, the store underwent a complete renovation which added a huge flashing sign to the Genesee Street facade, and briefly changed the name of the store to Stern’s Fashions Unlimited. The name later reverted back to Stern’s Store for Men, but the sign remained. DeVore became the sole-owner in 1983, and made a name for himself over the following decades for his store’s renowned customer service, bargain cellar, affordable tailored suits, and for the longest time being the area’s only retailer for Stacy Adams shoes.
In celebration of the American Bicentennial, the Waukegan Historical Society honored it and many other sites in Waukegan with historic landmark status, and presented a plaque to Spose Real Estate, who oversaw leasing at the time. However – not being a governmental declaration – there was no protection clause, and by then upkeep had already taken a downturn: with two brick chimneys along Water Street already missing, presumed befallen by the strong winds of Lake Michigan. In 1986 the upper floor apartments were condemned by the city and vacated, they were never occupied again despite some attempts to renovate. The roof was, however, re-covered sometime afterward. By the building’s centennial: Stern’s had taken over the entire ground floor – 33 South Genesee reportedly last owned by a butcher shop, and later used as storage for Stern’s sidewalk sales during the summer; the floor becoming treacherous with holes reportedly reaching the basement, toward the end.
In 2005 the building would be immortalized in the music video for R&B singer, Sharissa’s “In Love with a Thug”, which featured an appearance by superstar R. Kelly. The album was only released by Virgin Records in Japan, however the Bille Woodruff-directed video for In Love with a Thug saw some airtime on American MTV. Stern’s can be seen dressed as a convenience store, and some night scenes show the sign on Genesee Street still proudly lit and flashing. Other parts of the video were filmed in the vacant lot directly north, and in the alley behind the Waukegan Building (4 South Genesee).
In February 2010: Stern’s, which survived the Great Depression, finally succumbed to the then-current economic recession and went out of business, leaving the building completely empty. That same August, the city condemned the structure entirely – leaving it to crumble for the next four years as numerous redevelopment proposals came and fell through; the price tag for stabilizing rumored to be high in the seven-figure range. The lack of an elevator for ADA-compliance, vandalism, and unconfirmed reports of a bitter divorce for DeVore leaving ownership in-question, further hindered restoration efforts.
Meanwhile, the building became both a popular canvas, and source of inspiration for the city’s budding artist community, who saw its potential following the successful restoration of the Karcher Hotel into the Artspace Lofts. Following Stern’s closure: various works of art would soon find homes on the boarded up windows of 33 S. Genesee; including an assortment of wheatpastes; and later: wood assemblages by Eric Marston. In later years, the store windows that were once displays for Stern’s would also be covered in Beatles lyrics, reading: “All you need is LOVE”.
However those words would almost be ironc; as with no clear future in sight, and code violations rapidly piling up: in 2013 the city initiated legal proceedings to take possession of the building – an effort that would take eighteen months to fulfill.
Explore: Like Karcher, the Sauter Building caught my attention the very first day I took a serious look at downtown Waukegan – at the 2010 incarnation of what was formerly known as the Scoop the Loop car show. From there I began establishing myself in the city, beginning with the Karcher project the following year, and in 2012: partaking in the city’s monthly ArtWauk. It was only then when this particular door would finally open…
Part I: Stern’s
February 2012: I made a run down to Harvey for the first shoot of Dixie Square Mall demolition. That month’s ArtWauk also happened to fall on the same night, so I detoured there instead of home. I made some new friends that night at the now-defunct Water Street Gallery, which was kiddie-corner from Sauter. Walking past it, I went to the door of Stern’s, and gave it a, now-routine, half-hearted tug – freezing in awe upon realizing that after a couple years of doing this: the son of a bitch was unlocked!
How? Why? Who the hell cares – he who hesitates sees bulldozers…
I rejoined the group for some lame after-party at a bar up Genesee – giving that a whole ten minutes before deciding being an underage loner at a bar was an utter waste, and ducked-out to grab my gear from earlier. On arrival: I quickly ducked inside Stern’s, unsure what to expect. With the power still on , a continually-buzzing alarm in the corner, and feeling the risk for a visit from the Waukegan Police was still fairly-plausible: I reluctantly threw the camera in
idiot Auto-mode and ran like hell. Other than a few stained or fallen ceiling tiles, the store still looked almost exactly as it did the day it closed two years prior- right down to the still-stocked Stacy Adams display…Heading into the back rooms was where things got a bit messy, and the internal decay of the structure became more apparent. Some of the worst black mold I’ve seen on an explore could be found in an area that was probably where suit tailoring was done. A mangy suit, and matching-pair of pants could be found nearby, still on a Stern’s hanger.
In this same area is where I found the only exposed section of original tin ceiling remaining. The rest was likely covered up by the drop ceiling in the store’s postwar renovation.I moved downstairs from there, into what I learned was originally known as the Stern’s “VIP Lounge”, and later became its bargain basement called The Cellar. At this point, though, it was nothing more than a dungeon for crusty mannequins. I didn’t get far, however, upon hearing the chirp of what I originally believed to be a motion sensor tied into the alarm system. Expecting heat, I hastily packed everything away and aborted.I quickly hiked back to my car, but upon peering down the street and not seeing a squad in front: drove back and staked it for awhile; leaving after 20 minutes or so without a police response, and dismissing what I heard as a dying smoke detector. After seeing how expectedly-terrible these photos came out, a return trip was planned later that week, to give it a more respectable shoot.
That return trip came the following Saturday, after shooting an update on the ongoing Karcher Hotel rehab. On arrival I was worried about some people fixing their car across from the front door, but they gave no notice as I walked back in like the store was open for business. I went behind the counter this time, and being my nosy-ass self started rummaging through the drawers. There wasn’t much to be found beyond some Stern’s-branded garment bags and hanger stickers – which I looted and for the life of me can’t find, now. Both cash drawers were still there but the rest of the registers were long-gone. The safe could still be found under the counter, though – locked, of course.
I began shooting part of the sales floor – namely the 35 S. Genesee part of the store. A table and chairs had been set in the middle of the floor, with boxes and photographs strewn about – I can only picture DeVore, employees and friends sitting here a couple years prior, reminiscing after the store had closed for good. As I moved to shoot the glass light fixtures hanging from the wall, a fresh stream of water pierced the ceiling and began spilling onto the floor, mere inches from my camera. It was a relatively warm February afternoon, and despite the sunny skies: the melting snow on the roof made things inside sound like a heavy downpour.Moving into the basement, I first found myself in Billy’s office – still littered with papers on his desk as if he had just gone home hours ago. Calendars, a VCR for the security system, and pictures of him and family still hung on the wall. I was impressed by the amount of decay in the floor under his chair, one can only think true workaholics, who loved their job, occupied this office over the near-century they were in business.
Regrettably, I did not rummage through here – not knowing what the future of the building might be. Later, much of what was here would just end-up fluttering around in the wind, landing on the embankment between Sheridan and the Amstutz Expressway.
Investigating a stockroom, I came around the corner to find a bright-red “Double Cola” sign leaning against the wall. Unbeknownst to me at first: this sign is actually visible in the Sharissa video, in the window on the corner. Someone later told me an antique Pepsi machine was also down here; unfortunately I never found it.
Other treasures hiding down here included an ancient, well-worn cash register in a part of the basement being used to store hangers and mold-encrusted boxes of old paperwork. The register’s service would probably date around the early-60s through at least the late-70s; evidenced by the Master Charge sticker (who became Mastercard in 1979), and early Visa sticker, who had changed-over from BankAmericard in 1977.
The last room in the basement, before heading back up an employee stairwell, housed all of the store’s Christmas decorations for its locally-famous Holiday window display. All of which had been tossed about the floor, along with a severed mannequin head – which I could only make terrible, Christmas-themed innuendo jokes about.
On the way up, I passed a ratty, hand-painted “Men’s Furnishings” sign on the landing. Working in retail at the time (in the men’s sportswear department, no-less), you’d be surprised how bygone the term is. My store still used it, however many who I directed toward that department often thought I was referring to furniture.
Thrilled as I was to check this place off my bucket list, my only disappointment was that none of these stairwells led upstairs, to the apartments. After thinking it over, I decided an improvised climb to the second floor would be the only way in, as the more I learned about the property’s status, the more complicated I found obtaining legal access would be. A few ideas came and went, but it would be another two years before an infiltration would be executed.
A couple weeks later, I checked the door again after an event at a nearby art gallery, and found it was once again locked – however the window display lights had, curiously, been turned on. It would be the last time the building was lit; power was cut sometime afterward, and by 2013 the store had become infested with raccoons.
Part II: Sauter Apartments
November 2014: I got the news through Facebook, on the 7th: the city had Sauter, told everyone who had crops in the neighboring community garden to piss-off by next week, and Public Works was already tasked with ripping the copper from its bay windows, for scrap. No warning. No public announcement. No press. Nothing that could have led to a last-ditch preservation effort. Sauter’s fate was sealed, and save for practically a single rogue: no fucks were given by those relevant at City Hall.
The only thing I could do, now, was stop procrastinating and carry-out a plan hatched in the months that followed my first venture…
Still freshly-stocked with lumber from my annual Halloween installation, and some battle-grade metal brackets and hardware looted from my regular job: within two hours I had a sturdy ten-foot contraption of a ladder that only looked sketchy in aesthetics – capped with a metal hook – pieced together that could support me and my bag’s weight with ease. The idea being to latch it onto a low point at the northeast corner of the building, and scale the wall onto the second floor.
I arrived that night and began shooting exteriors – partially as a lowkey ruse to scope the area’s activity out. The bulk of the action was down toward Green Town Tavern, so the east side of the building – which fortunately had no working street lights – was virtually clear. The only area of concern was a bright-ass parking lot light for the bank, at the opposite end of the block, which could brighten the community garden like daylight. However, shooting exteriors for a bit had given a chance for the cabbies sitting in the parking lot – the only people who might squawk to the authorities – to disperse.With a window now open: I channeled my inner-Spiderman, hitched the ladder to the ledge, and scaled the wall – pausing momentarily to peer into the severely-derelict butcher shop but deciding it wasn’t worth it. I ducked into apartment seven for cover and immediately gagged at the smell and sight of a shag carpet-like coating of pigeon shit on the floor. With this door blown clear off the hinges, the city’s avian population had no trouble making Sauter their roosting place. Unfortunately, as I ventured deeper inside, I found many birds that never made it back out – some crashing into glass or walls, or otherwise unable to escape and succumbing to starvation. There may even be other, more gruesome reasons; as ascending the stairwell to apartment eight, I came across severed pigeon wings and other body parts along the way.Shooting video as I went: these two apartments, on the eastern side of the building, were in the worst condition – the second floor unit (number eight) suffering damage from its porch roof collapsing around 2011-2012. These were the only areas where I seriously questioned the building’s stability, particularly around a dark, soft spot in a large room of apartment eight. They were, however, the only parts of the apartments where personal belongings were left behind: an empty, rusty fridge adorned with stickers for the 1986 Thompson-Ryan Illinois gubernatorial campaign in apartment seven, and a combo stove-oven in eight that had been pulled away from the wall. Everything else, down to the furniture and garbage – without even a single beer can to be found, was long-gone. All that remained were bathroom and kitchen fixtures of varying ages.
Because of the strong lighting on the nearby bank, a quick dash had to be made to get to apartment four, the entrance to which was at the end of an elevated alley, under the porch. Despite a brief scare of detection, from standing in the doorway too long (casting a strong silhouette from the bank lighting, which could be seen from the street); I ultimately spent much time shooting this apartment, and through the dirty windows of its turret overlook. This unit was probably in the best condition. A modest, wood mantle with a mirror still surrounded the stone fireplace, here; as I moved through the other units, I found either where the fireplace once was, or where it had simply been walled-over in presumably an energy saving effort made following the later-installation of a gaudy system of exposed HVAC units, and ceiling-mounted duct workings. I eventually found the stairs which connected apartments three through six to Genesee Street (between Stern’s entrance and window displays); which featured some elegant woodworking that may easily have been original to its 19th-century construction. Simple pencil and crayon graffiti still littered the walls, here – decently preserved for the last several decades. I also noticed a skylight on the ceiling, but there was no telling whether it had been covered by the newer roof or not. Moving into apartment three I noticed all the doors still had, each in varying condition, bright-orange “UNFIT FOR HUMAN HABITATION” stickers affixed from when the city condemned the units in 1986. Apartment three wasn’t too remarkable beyond finding a central, open-air shaft that had windows to units 1-3 and five, which had ultimately been covered by the newer roof. I also found a small closet which was actually shared by, and had access back into apartment four. I moved back into the stairwell and headed up to the third floor, taking particular interest in apartment six – which occupied the third-floor windows of the turret. A space coveted by many for its overlook of Genesee Street: unfortunately, this unit was in far worse condition than that below it. The fireplace was completely torn out, and no lighting was left behind. Mounds of pigeon shit also coated the floor of the kitchen, so I spent minimal time, here. Five was only slightly better-off; still retaining a fireplace, though the mantle itself was long-gone. I decided to chance the third floor balcony over to the remaining two units, which was in terrible condition and a walk I would never repeat – the vertical supports only forcibly held close to the building by a series of hastily-added 2×4’s. Apartment two was in fair condition, however the hallway floor was in questionable shape so I didn’t linger for long. The stairs down to unit one and Genesee Street were also kind of sketchy – the steps completely covered in debris and downed tarps that were probably on the ceiling at one point, keeping water off the stairs.
Moving back toward land: I found that apartment one’s interior was radically different from the other units – the walls adorned with warped veneer paneling (much like the upper floors of the nearby Waukegan Building), and featuring a drop ceiling which nicely concealed the HVAC ducts that are exposed in all other units. Because pigeons had easy access, however: the conditions were only slightly better than those in seven and eight, and regrettably I made no effort to photograph or thoroughly explore this unit. A few days later I had the pleasure of meeting several members of the Cantu family, where I learned that ten children were actually raised, here. One of their student ID’s would even be found in the rubble, following the building’s demise.
With the initial video run complete: I moved back into apartment four and left the camcorder to shoot a time-lapse from the turret; spending the rest of the evening shooting still work. It was about 11PM when I finally called it quits and climbed back down, the night going largely without a hitch. A celebratory beer was in order that night, for a long-standing bucket list spot had finally been checked-off.
Except I went over my work, and decided the video and most of the photos were crap due to poor lighting… so after hastily hacking my ladder in two so it would fit in the trunk of my car (rather than borrowing a pickup truck), to be re-assembled on-site: this one-night job eventually turned into a weekend of return trips that included more exterior time-lapse videos shot on the 8th, and another, last-minute climb executed at around 4AM on the 10th; where I shot a complete second video, and more still work. This second climb and shoot was completed, and the ladder packed-away just minutes before Public Works showed up to fence the property off – nobody ever suspecting I had spent the night, there.
Epilogue: The Murder of Francis Sauter
Hours later, Public Works was tearing the ornate copper cladding from the turret – while, in an attempt to justify his impending crimes against architecture: the city’s building commissioner spent the morning touring the same rooms I had just been in, before condemning the structure one final time and pitching some exaggerated fearmongering to the Lake County News-Sun, who finally ran a story the next day.
The excavator – one which had to be rented because the city-owned one couldn’t handle the job – made its first punch at 11:10AM that Thursday the 13th, and by nightfall: 120 years of history had been erased from existence. No plans for the site are currently known, but I can guarantee whatever comes will never match the grandeur, charm, and legacy of what formerly stood at this corner.
On the plus-side, however: the loss of the Sauter Block ultimately inspired reborn interest in other architectural gems in the city of Waukegan, along with efforts to preserve them – particularly the long-vacant Carnegie Library, only a block northeast from Sauter.
The first anniversary of the demolition was also marked by the opening of the Explore Lost Waukegan exhibit at the Karcher Artspace; an amazing effort and experience created in partnership with some of Karcher’s great resident-artists, and the Waukegan History Museum – the latter being fortunate to rescue several artifacts at the very-last minute, before and during demolition.