An old house, a new life and a good memory

A house I know well is now in a movie; a good one!

09/27/2009 12:24 PM

By Bonnie McGrath

7 Comments - Add Your Comment

Thirty-plus years ago, my friend Clarence Peterson was telling me one day about his friends: fellow Tribune reporter Steve Pratt and his wife Joy Darrow--grand-niece of Clarence Darrow and a stellar journalist herself, as well as a political and community activist.

He was smirking in an affectionate way because although he loved the couple and adored going to their home for parties, he thought they were just a little nuts because they bought for a song--and lived their lives and threw parties in--the rundown Keith mansion at 1900 South Prairie Avenue, built in 1870, and lived in by Elbridge Keith, a financier and philanthropist. The house and the street had seen their better day many decades before.

Joy and Steve had bought the place and moved with three kids to the dark, isolated strip of glorious ghost mansions--most had been torn down over the years and the ones that weren’t were in very bad shape. They made a wonderful life for themselves. They thrived and used the house for all sorts of community activities--from helping down-and-outers to leasing some prime space to a wonderful women’s art gallery.

In subsequent years, I too became friends of Joy and Steve and attended parties at the house many times. But just as Prairie Avenue started to get a brand new life, both Joy and Steve died, both suddenly and both well before their time.

Two of the kids live in the house now. And a grandson. Daughter Tracy Baim is editor of Windy City Times and Marcy Baim is a bookkeeper and a photographer. And both have become my friends. I see their mom’s good heart, wonderful imagination and deep human grace within them both. They, too open the house for all sorts of things that benefit the community--and the world.

But here’s the cool thing: Tracy has produced a movie called Hannah Free, an incredibly moving story starring Sharon Gless, about a decades long relationship of a lesbian couple, which is now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center to rave reviews. And practically all the movie, most of which takes place in a nursing home, was shot right in the house, Gless having moved into the Keith House coach house during the three-weeks-long shoot, not to mention the crew.

What a thrill to see the rooms I have attended many an art show, a fundraiser, a rollicking reunion, a jewelry sale, etc. in through the years totally transformed into the big-screen rooms of a semi-charming hospital-like setting--as well as rooms in the home of one of the characters in flashbacks.

I was pretty impressed. And delighted to see those rooms gussied up in the beautiful film. (The basement plays the role of a New Mexican cafe, as well, in one brief scene.)

“Did you see the name of the nursing home?” Tracy asked me after one of the opening weekend showings at the Siskel. “It was quick--but it said ‘Joy Darrow Home’ on a little sign in front of the house in one of the shots.”

No, I missed that, I confessed. I hadn’t spotted that little touch.

But the truth is I saw Joy in every scene. She was there, Tracy, she was there. And boy, would she be proud. Of her kids. Of her legacy. Of her house.

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By Bob MacGinnitie from Pacific Northwest
Posted: 10/17/2009 4:19 PM

I stayed in this house a couple of times with my cousin Steve and his wife Joy. What great hosts they were on visits to Chicago. Being an avid 'fixer-upper' I could only look at this hugh home that needed more care than I would ever attempt and shake my head. How I enjoyed Steve and Joy. I am so thankful I talked with Steve on his 60th birthday shortly before his untimely death.

By Proud South Looper from Prairie District
Posted: 10/09/2009 10:49 AM

GREAT story! Marcy, Tracy and the Keith House are wonderful for our neighborhood.

By bonnie mcgrath from south loop
Posted: 10/01/2009 3:05 PM

george, the kimball house is now occupied by the soccer federation--and it looks pretty darn good inside.. still!!

By George Spink from Old Town
Posted: 09/30/2009 12:38 PM

I know this neighborhood very well, Bonnie. My first writing job was with Institutions Magazine in the mid-1960's. It was situated in the Kimball Organ Family mansion at 1801 South Prairie. I read about the neighborhood (then in decline) because it looked so intriguing to me. The late James Ward was my boss. He was managing editor of Institutions and hired me. James was the best boss I ever had. He and his wife, Johanna Walsh, were terrific editors! Those were good days, good times....

By Marcy Baim from South Loop
Posted: 09/28/2009 9:35 PM

What a tribute you created to my sister and beloved parents. You captured it all to a tee and we truly appreciate your support then and now. Marcy

By Jenny Davis from South Looper at heart
Posted: 09/27/2009 2:17 PM

Lovely story, and what an amazing piece of history.

By Paul from Wrigleyville I
Posted: 09/27/2009 2:06 PM