Can a building have a soul? The Maxwell Street Station at 943 West Maxwell in Chicago was a building where people shared history—lived history, actually—a building where people’s lives were forever changed, a building some will never forget, a building where people died. I can see my religious friends raise their eyebrows askance. Perhaps “soul” is not the best choice of words. Character. That’s the word, a building can have character and no building had more character for me than Maxwell Street, home for a time to my Area Four Homicide Unit and a plethora of other units over nearly 100 years of operation.
This came to mind as I read of other Chicago Police buildings closing recently in the wake of one of the most major reorganizations of the Chicago Police Department since the days of Orlando Wilson in the 1960’s. The decommissioning of the Maxwell Street Station was marked with great fanfare nearly 15 years ago. I wrote about it that night:
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October 10, 1997. Tonight we celebrated the closing of the “Hills Street Blues” station. Known here in Chicago as the “Maxwell Street” station, it was forever immortalized in the opening scenes every week on that most popular police show.
To those of us who worked at Maxwell Street, it was a unique and special place long before the TV show. That was evidenced by the several hundred officers and their families who showed up tonight to share a hot dog and a beer or pop, take a picture and exchange war stories. There was a live band, police parachutists dropped in, and a great deal of positive media. Built in 1899 and in reality due to actually close early next year, I knew that tonight would probably be my last visit.
I was fortunate to have worked Maxwell Street Homicide for almost six years before our unit was moved to a new station several miles west. I have always said that of my 29 year police career, as patrol officer, detective, sergeant and lieutenant, if I could relive any of it, it would be my years as a Maxwell Street homicide detective. Tonight just reaffirms that in my mind. For a few minutes I manage to tear myself away from my old homicide buddies.
I walk the single long flight of marble stairs, inch and a half deep paths worn into each side. On the stairs, it suddenly occurs to me that my father was born in 1901 and raised just blocks from this station. Did he ever walk these stairs? If he did, why? What were the circumstances? I’ll never know. There was no path worn into the stairs then.
I stand in what once was our squad room on the second floor and I look around. A murder happened right here. A husband and wife had been brought into the station for an interview about a domestic disturbance. The husband dropped a derringer out of his sleeve and shot his wife to death right across the table and then set the gun down to await his arrest. We were always known as “the murder factory,” having the most homicides of any area in the city. But our commander couldn’t believe it. “My God!” he said, “Now they’re killin’ each other right in the squad room!”
As I leave the building, I smile to myself as I think of the dungeon just below, sealed and off limits for the past many years. The basement housed the station lockup in some previous era of this grand old building. “The dungeon” was our terminology, in reality it was nothing more than abandoned cells, and it really wasn’t too well sealed if you knew where to look. Of course “sealed and off limits” to some cops is an overt challenge so my partner Mike and I surreptitiously gained access in the wee hours of a midnight tour of duty.
If the building itself had character, the basement cells, long ago abandoned, were steeped in “character.” The “dungeon” was dimly lit with low wattage incandescent bulbs controlled by old style rotary wall switches rather than the square toggle switches that are more familiar today. The lights cast a dusty orange pall over the entire area, the smell was that of a hundred year old basement. Cell doors had been removed long ago but some bars remained. In the center of each cell floor were holes that appeared to serve as lavatories. But most interesting was the graffiti on the concrete walls of the cells.
Pictured above, “Pretty Boy Forey” and compatriot “Red” gun down a cop. Another body lies below the trio. Note the zoot suit (circa 1940) and wide brimmed fedora worn by Forey and the pork-pie cap worn by Red. (I took literary license with the inscription after noting that Red’s gun was going, “Bong, bong.”)
I leave the building and walk across the street and just stare from the outside. Good heavens, two of my four sons were born while I was assigned to this building! One of them reports to the police academy tomorrow morning for the first stages of recruit processing. Is it any measure of a man if his children choose to follow in his footsteps? Will he make it? Dear Lord, keep him safe. What will his memories be thirty years from now?
I rejoin my old homicide friends. Goodbye Maxwell Street. I raise my beer silently; this one’s for you and all the men and women that ever worked here. Thanks for the chance to remember the past… and wonder about the future.