For decades into the 1970s, the Lilac Farm grocery store stood near the southwest corner of Milwaukee and Devon. Customers rarely gave a thought to the old frame farm house behind the store. Neighborhood kids knew it only as "the haunted house."
Then, in 1978, a developer bought the 5.2 acres of land that included Lilac Farm, the farm house, and a few other buildings. He planned on replacing everything with a strip mall and some condos.
Now the old farm house attracted some more attention. It seemed the structure had been built by a German baker named Henry Rincker as long ago as 1851, when Milwaukee Avenue was still a wood-plank toll road. Besides being the earliest surviving example of Chicago balloon-frame construction, the Rincker House was also the second-oldest building in the city!
In 1979 the city council approved landmark status for the house. The developer opposed the action and sought a demolition permit. A compromise was reached, with the developer agreeing to move the Rincker House to another location on the property.
The house was still standing on its original site in February 1980, when vandals set it on fire. Despite heavy damage, firefighters saved most of the building. But the worst was yet to come.
Bright and early on the morning of August 25, 1980 a bulldozer appeared on the property and leveled the Rincker House.
What about "landmark preservation?" The wrecking company had gotten a permit to knock down a structure at 6384 North Milwaukee Avenue, the lot where the Rincker House stood. But the house's official address was listed as 6366. When the demo permit was issued for 6384, the city computer had not recognized a building with protected status.
What about the large signs on the Rincker House that proclaimed it a city landmark? The bulldozer operator said he hadn't seen them.
An investigation was launched. Lawsuits were filed. A prominent state senator was brought to trial for allegedly trying to fix the case--and acquitted. Meanwhile, little more than a mile from the Rincker site, the Mark Noble farm house was confirmed as Chicago's oldest building, dating from 1833. That took some of the sting out of the demolition "mistake."
A strip mall now occupies the southwest corner of Milwaukee and Devon. And the Henry Rincker House remains notorious as a Chicago City Landmark that was destroyed.
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