So a few weeks ago, I happened to know that my first National Register nomination has finally been approved (thanks Laluce!). Read Blair’s blog on this, click here.
The building is former Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak’s house that he inhabited for 10 years until his assassination in 1933. I’ll skip the whole Significance section here (in case you are interested to know more, leave a comment), and reveal some of the more interesting trivals that can’t secure a place in the National Register nomination but make the story really pop out.
The house is located in South Lawndale, a heavily Mexican neighborhood. My first visit was on a sunny fall day with golden leaves sweeping the streets. The two-story brick building looked very ordinary, nothing particular to be distinguished from its neighbors.
The building was now owned by an extremely friendly Mexican couple, who rather to my astonishment, knew a lot about the building’s famous previous owner and his life story.
Cermak was prominant in establishing the Democratic Machine in Chicago, which has been Democratic ever since. His death, however, was an extreme tragic and worth a few lines here. On February 15, 1933 while in Miami with FDR on a presidential campaign, Cermak was shot by a bullet that some claimed was intended for FDR. The mayor struggled for 20 days until he met his final fate. The story goes that while in hospital, Cermak told FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” A few months after Cermak death, 22nd Street in south-side Chicago was renamed uanimously after him, now Cermak Road. Somewhere down in Lawndale, a portrait of Cermak was hanging in a bar, and completed with his last words to FDR.
You might wonder why 22nd Street? It is obviously not for his home–this little building blends in so well that you might not call it architecturally exciting. Cermak has been largely a neighborhood’s man, who lived in the same area for more than forty years. Incredible. Especially for a mayor.
In the 1870s, Cermak, like many immigrants of the time, came with his Bohemian parents on a ship. Young Cermak was tough even in his Bohemian circle. He never received high education; his strong accent was more than once criticized when he gave political speeches. Cermak, however, never felt ashamed of his Bohemian accent and was even proud of it. His first job was like his father’s, mining. He later started his own businesses, and got into the political world, not without obstacles. From 19 to 60 when he died, Cermak has always been living in Lawndale, then a popular Bohemian neighborhood.
And congratulations if you get this from above: Anton Cermak is so far the only foreign-born mayor in Chicago.
Cermak’s close knit with his Bohemian neighborhood goes far beyond just maintaining residence there. He has been financially supportive for a neighborhood Bohemian bank–Lawndale National Bank for years before and during his mayoral term, which interestingly was designed by the same architect who built Cermak’s last home. During Depression, Cermak’s daily burden to collect money for the city got heavier and heavier. But indeed, even during this extremely difficult time, Cermak was providing money from his own pocket to support Lawndale National Bank and prevent it from bankruptcy. How’s that?
And let’s not forget Prohibition. Cermak was politically known “wet” at the time: as the Mayor, he still frequented a Lawndale bar on Saturday nights. Indeed very Bohemian.
Cermak did not enjoy his good fortune for too long though. Elected Mayor in 1931, experienced Depression right away, and eventually hit by a disastrous bullet in 1933.
While Cermak was in hospital, his three lovely daughters were all weeping at their father’s bedside. Cermak, an exceptionally tough man, believed that this was not going to be his last stop. After the girls left, Cermak blamed his sons-in-law by “not taking my daughters to parks and making them happy.” He determined that his girls should not be mentally burdened by the little bullet and shedding tears in the hospital.
The tough man was not tough enough for that bullet obviously. Cermak’s body was carried back to Chicago on March 8, 1933. It stayed at his last residence for one full day before the city funeral on March 10.
It was really at this moment that you may understand what I was talking about Cermak’s neighborhood connections. Freezing winter night (remember this is Chicago), hundreds of neighborhood people were lining up in front of this little building to have a final glimpse of their Mayor. Free hot coffee and cookies were brought to them as a treat.
The final destination for Mayor Cermak was the Bohemian National Cemetery. I noticed one of the plaques on the modest structure: “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” That was what left to us by the first foreign-born Chicago Mayor.