Preservationist Bill Lavicka dies at 67
Pioneer credited with saving dozens of buildings, laying groundwork for Chicago's preservation movement
04/25/2012 10:00 PM
Bill Lavicka, the Near West Side preservationist who made it his life’s goal to rehab and preserve dozens of historic homes and buildings around Chicago, has died. He was 67.
Lavicka passed away at his home in the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon, April 18, after a year-long battle with colon cancer.
Chicago Journal visited Lavicka several times over the years to talk about his projects, most recently last November when cancer forced him to retire from restoration.
Lavicka started his rehab career in 1974, when he bought his stately but rundown old mansion on Jackson with a group of other urban-renewal-minded young people who had been spurred on by a University of Illinois at Chicago architecture professor.
The stately stretch of mansions on the 1500 block of Jackson had been spared from the wrecking ball, unlike so many others on the Near West Side, because they were whorehouses, Lavicka told the Journal in November.
But by the 1970s, they were out of the business of prostitution and were mostly just old women running boarding houses — and many were ready to move out.
Lavicka, a recently returned Vietnam veteran, decided to buy what he called “the mother house,” right in the middle of that block and renovate it. But after a few months of watching contractors unproductively work on the home, he decided to quit his job as an engineer at ComEd to quarterback the job himself.
That was the start of his career. As his neighbors saw the work he’d done restoring the beautiful old house, they asked him to help with theirs. Eventually, he did eight other houses on the block.
“Everyone was leaving Chicago,” Lavicka said. “There were drunks sleeping in my front yard. But it wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood, just a poor one.”
Jonathan Fine, head of Preservation Chicago, credited Lavicka and his cohorts with laying the groundwork for his organization today when he spoke to the Journal in November.
“Being a preservationist can be really demoralizing sometimes. We don’t win a lot of battles — we lost a lot,” Fine said. “But Bill’s seen it all, and he’s been through hundreds of fights. He kept plugging away and plugging away and saving buildings. That gave us hope.”
Historic Boulevard Services, the preservation and construction firm that Lavicka ran his projects through, will be on hold for the time being, said his son Kelsey Lavicka. As both a civil and a structural engineer, Bill Lavicka was uniquely qualified to run the show, and neither Kelsey nor his brother Corey have both those licenses yet.
“It takes somebody like my dad that has that vision and has the ability to do it,” Kelsey Lavicka said. “I can fix anything out there, but I’m not at the level of an artist.”
At the time, Lavicka said that when he died, he wanted to leave the world along with the leftovers from his life’s work — a stash of dozens of heavy wooden doors.
“I suppose you could stack up 50 feet of doors underneath me,” he said. “Set me on fire like a Viking.”
A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for May 19. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Chicago Hope Academy or Lavicka’s Vietnam Survivors Memorial. Donations to the memorial should be sent to Lavicka’s home address, 1520 W. Jackson Blvd.