Since I was a much younger person I've been interested in "lost" Chicago, the buildings that have been boarded up or torn down and lost to history (you can check out an interview with David Garrard Lowe, who literally wrote the book on that topic, here.) So I had lots of questions for Eric Nordstrom, a molecular biologist-turned-salvager who saves pieces of doomed Chicago buildings for his store Urban Remains and saves the rest in his museum Bldg. 51. He often provides historical context for news items about buildings coming down. And in a funny bit of coincidence, while I was working on this interview my friend Dave alerted me to a story about the old home of Marconi food products being salvaged, because he remembered that I am related by marriage to the Formusa family, which owns the company. Guess who was doing the salvaging? The subject of this interview. You can learn a lot more about Eric by following him on Facebook. I also recommend following Urban Remains' blog, in which Eric faithfully documents (and mourns) each building he uncovers.
What were the primary vibes, thoughts or feelings you had as you salvaged the Chicago Athletic Association? My dad used to take my family there when we were younger to swim and for special occasions and I have vivid memories of that place, and I'm curious about what the spirit of the building was like.
Entering a grand room evoked a profound sense of sadness since the place had been neglected. The spaces were just quiet and stagnant - a far cry from days when numerous souls would go there to socialize or work out. The annex was especially creepy. I distinctly recall one floor that reminded me of the movie The Shining. I was just waiting for little Danny to turn a corner and head towards me in his Big Wheel. Somewhere near the top floor I walked into a room that contained several images blown up to poster size - all victims of accidents. Each man, woman or child was wearing some clumsy looking brace, cast or collar. The way the images were arranged, resting up against the wall staring back at me as if I was an uninvited guest. That was surreal to say the least.
On the other hand, I was overpowered by the abundance of ornament - both in Cobb's building and the additions done by Schmidt, Garden and Martin. I would get lost in the details of a carved wood fireplace mantel, or mesmerized by the vibrant colors of the leaded art glass executed by Healy and millet. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the original architectural design elements were still intact and well maintained. I was saddened however that no one was there to appreciate their beauty - that is of course, until the building was lovingly restored and brought back to life as a boutique hotel with the preservation of the historic integrity giving it the level of distinction it deserved.
What's the most painful or most inconvenient injury you've ever experienced while salvaging?
I have struggled with back pain for well over a decade, with several herniated discs revealed after three MRIs. I refuse surgery despite that "course of action" being shoved down by throat by top spinal surgeons at Northwestern and Rush.
Based on your experiences finding time capsules, what would you place (or not place) in a time capsule if you left one this week?
With so many destroyed through demolition over the years and/or the contents being badly compromised from unintentional exposure to the elements I just wouldn't do it... perhaps I would, but leave something ridiculously stupid and nonsensical like a heavily cerebral tomb "selfie" by none other than Kim Kardashian.
If someone wanted to start doing what you do, what is the best way to begin, especially if you don't have a lot of money for permits or to buy old factories?
Possessing passion, devotion, and maniacal obsession. If you are not willing to commit or sacrifice everything despite any and all setbacks, then move on. The discoveries are beautiful, but equally brutal and unforgiving.
Do you have any nifty solutions for keeping your photos, equipment, or items organized? How do you keep everything clean?
Photo document everything! Back everything up time and again. I have more external hard drives and thumb drives then the number of Cheerios in a cereal box. Label any and all artifacts. That way if I die, my significant other will be able to identify things outside of the image database. Keep everything in a secure, climate-controlled environment with minimal exposure to sunlight.
What have been some of the most interesting or unusual ways you've seen people repurposing items from your store?
A seemingly normal couple from Manhattan bought a giant porcelain enameled cast iron morgue table with drain hole (for bodily fluids and formaldehyde run-off) and neck block that they ended up using as their dining room table. No, it wasn't Rob Zombie.
If a person could only afford to buy one thing from Urban Remains, what do you think is the smartest way to purchase--based on historical value, decorative intent, or simple affection/attraction?
As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I would much rather have a simple brick from the foundation of a building burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 then a pair of solid oak wood vestibule doors with stained glass from a mansion in Chicago. The story behind the objects is why I often buy when I'm not acquiring from salvage sites. I don't care how glamorous something is - well, Tiffany lamps are a weak spot - the object needs to tell a story. That's what gives an otherwise seemingly mundane or utilitarian object such beauty and significance
What have been some of your favorite updates on items in your store or museum that you've received from people who recognized them from their original home?
The latest is the Vincent Formusa business, where several artifacts belonging to the family that may have boarded in rooms above his import/export business have been tied to descendants that kept the business running and display several of his belongings in their shop, where Vincent began, but over the years altered due to growth of the business. To have family members assign meaning to various photographs or decode correspondences that I was itching to understand was incredibly rewarding.
What is your favorite item you've uncovered of late?
A pile of 19th century business cards that were stuffed into a newel post I extracted from a stair landing. Not only did they shed light on the occupants of the building I was salvaging, but provided me with useful information on various businesses that were in existence during that time.
How does it feel to be the 422nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
At the very least, I'm pleased it's an even number. However, it alarms and thus depresses me since it reminded me of sitting at the DMV, given that same damn number spit out through some machine, waiting hour after hour for my number to be called by some weird bang-bong noise, followed by an automated voice. I've been summoned. Last, did you know that the walls of Rome's Flavian amphitheater (coliseum) cracked during an earthquake in 422 BC? I sure in the hell didn't!
Eric is technically 423 due to traffic flow issues with Zulkey.com interviews but that's not his problem.