Throughout its 40-year history in the neighborhood, the South-East Asia Center (SEAC) has enjoyed preserving, beautifying, and enhancing the vibrancy of the Uptown-Edgewater neighborhood.
In 1981 SEAC (“seek”) moved into the terracotta-wedding-cake 4707 North Broadway building formerly owned by Al Capone’s cohort. A secret passage to the nearby Green Mill has not been confirmed or found, nor a stash of forgotten loot in the basement walk-in safe.
With volunteer sweat equity SEAC removed the aesthetically challenged bank of glass-block windows on the third floor replacing them with duplicates of the unique originals including the original brass hardware with central pivots allowing the large windows to swing open or closed. The building was sold to Preservation Chicago when banks would not consider a $330,000 mortgage to the young SEAC.
SEAC moved north to two row houses on Ainslie Street purchased by President San O and Executive Director Peter Porr in 1985. There they began rehab of their homes for commercial use by the Center’s then current and promised programs needing much specialized space. With 62 shovels purchased with donations, an equal number of volunteers dug the foundation in the backyard for SEAC’s preschool, school-age childcare, Golden Diners, LIHEAP, and social services programs at 1124 West Ainslie. Volunteers carried by brick brigade 15,000 used bricks purchased from a building two blocks away on Winthrop near Leland. Likely the only school in Chicago and maybe the State in recent history built by its community and, in this case, with no taxpayer or foundation assistance, the project took ten years before the building was completed including compliance with all complicated childcare building codes. During the ten year construction, all clients and staff had to climb a ladder to the social service offices (including the former bedroom of the ED who donated his house) to apply for the LIHEAP program, or to obtain Victim-Witness and other social services.
Over 20 years, with continuing major volunteer assistance, and frugality beating that of even the refugees, SEAC managed to acquire house-by-house the entire block of seven row houses on Ainslie between Broadway and the CTA elevated tracks. The Center’s ED, President, and maintenance crew hired from the neighborhood have preserved or enhanced the original facades of these circa 1895 working middle-class townhomes. The row houses now include two settlement houses for staff coming from outside the neighborhood to better know and serve that neighborhood — in the manner of Jane Addams Hull House. One called David Tom Settlement House was home to a Chinese man of that name incarcerated in State mental institutions for 31 years with no proper diagnosis in his own language. SEAC’s ED, President, and childcare director (titles evolving) cared for Mr. Tom for another 31 years after Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy won a case against the State’s mental hospitals for maltreatment and mis-institutionalization of Mr. Tom (and others). Mr. Tom became a well-known fixture on Argyle Street, and sympathetic restaurant owners complied with his meal orders or offered him chunks of roast pork hanging in the window of BBQ shops although they knew he had no money to pay and had wandered away from the settlement house once again. Other buildings house Bridge School’s offices, the Bridge School library with thousands of specialized infant to 12’s books, and two teacher resource centers with pedagogically selected toys, furniture, and materials, plus maintenance workshops.
With little outside assistance, SEAC also has reconfigured the traffic flow of Broadway north of Ainslie to relieve the weekend traffic jams while opening on exit on Ainslie Street to divert traffic. The previously 150′ bleak lot frontage with 12′ chain-link fences is now handsomely wrought-iron fenced and permeable, environmentally-friendly pavered. Hollies, rhododendron, berberries, yews, and ornamental trees now enhance the former used-car lot. The lot’s former garage and office are now stuccoed and converted to more precious use as an infant-toddler childcare center. The center provides infant to two year old continuous care along with its Ainslie classrooms and in-house commercial kitchen at the east corner of the lot at 1124 Ainslie. Parents driving children to Bridge School may park all day there, and local business customers are allowed to park for free for up to two hours.
Bursting at its seams, the organization expanded again to 5120 North Broadway and Winona saving the now historic Schlitz Beer “tied house” landmark building circa 1904 from the wrecking ball. Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson are reported to have enjoyed meals there during one of the buildings’ iterations from a Schlitz beer hall, to Luigi’s, to Azuma Japanese Gardens, to House of Thailand, before becoming South-East Asia Center. This building also consumed much sweat equity and ten more years with ED Porr, out of financial necessity, needing to become electrical engineer plan designer, HVAC designer, cupola architect, landscaper, interior design decorator, construction manager, etc. to restore the building to its former glory. SEAC restored the unique distinctive masonry and replaced 60-some stained glass lites, only to have all windows stolen, and then re-replaced. SEAC’s ED designed from archival pictures a copy of the original now-missing cupola and had it manufactured in Kentucky and shipped to Chicago for installation. All social services, LIHEAP, ESL classes, preschool and school-age childcare, and Golden Diners moved to the new site for more breathing room and leaving more classroom, office, and settlement-house living space on Ainslie.
Shortly after finishing work on Broadway, SEAC’s school required more space for its afterschool programs. It acquired a rather mundane strip of vintage retail storefronts with a painted 14′ high storefront -window and plywood facade at 1108-1112 West Foster Avenue across from Goudy School. To polish up yet another ancient site having seen better days, this at the Foster gateway to the Uptown-Edgewater community, ED Porr designed a charming edifice featuring three gables, a massive wooden header of ancient-looking stressed wood, and a slated mansard roof finished with original slate reclaimed from a luxury suburban Lake Forest residence. The storefront windows are now adorned with large graphics depicting the extraordinary effort of children around the world just to attend school (part of SEAC Bridge International School’s theme of Valuing Education).
The Valuing Education message can be found elsewhere around the various properties including a series of banners on the wall adjacent to the 4915 N. Broadway parking lot and emblazoned on the once graffiti covered CTA embankment in the adjacent alley.