What is it about the vacant building at West Fullerton and North Janssen avenues that deserves the word "Perfection" carved over the front door?
It turns out this handsome city landmark has had a few different uses, but has resisted redevelopment for more than a decade. The reason why may have to do with one of its past lives.
Two clues to the building's past
There are two hints at the building's history etched into the stone above the building's doors. At the top of the building's main arch is a big letter F in a shield, and carved just above the door is the somewhat mysterious "Perfection."
The F stands for Fullerton State Bank, which was the building's first occupant when it opened in 1923. But the bank crashed just a few years later during the Great Depression and a company called Perfection Burial Garments took over the building.
If the Fullerton Bank was killed by the Depression, Perfection was born from it. In those impoverished years, families often couldn't afford to bury loved ones in expensive clothes, so entrepreneur Harry Eckhardt launched Perfection as a way to offer cheap alternative outfits they wouldn't mind burying, according to a memoir written by his daughter, Agnes Nixon. The clothes had no backs, so they were easy to wrap around a corpse as it lay in its casket.
Nixon wrote that the people who sewed the clothes in the Perfection building were often sad when customers came in because it meant they had recently lost a loved one, but her father would say that the grieving families were keeping them in business. Eckhardt wanted to pass the business down to his daughter, but she didn't like the idea (she didn't like her ladies-man father much, either). She instead went on to create the hugely successful soap operas One Life to Live and All My Children.
Why it's been vacant for so long
There have been two recent attempts to turn the building into residential units, once in 2014 and again in 2018. The building last changed hands in 2017, when the it was sold to Norridge-based builder Rafal Stopa for $3 million. Stopa got approval from the landmarks department and a building permit to start work on the conversion in June 2018, but nothing has changed on the site since those approvals.
The Chicago architect who designed the 2014 plan, Tim LeVaughn, points to two built-in limitations that might be getting in the way.
"Two of the coolest things there are the hardest to work around," he said.
The first: a bank vault in the basement. The second: the soaring two-story windows. The bank vaults would be costly to move, if they can be moved at all, and the windows can't be altered because of the building's landmark status. The combination of those two immutable features, LeVaughn said, makes it hard to to divide the building into residential spaces in configurations and sizes that would make a profit for developers.
So what's next for this building?
Melissa Govedarica, a real estate agent representing Stopa, said construction can't start until the builder gets another permit for additions. She said the plan is to convert it into to eight condominiums, reusing the few interior details that remain like ceiling tiles and flooring. The basement bank vault would be repurposed into a wine room for one of the condos. However, it's still unclear when construction might actually start.
The name of the condos hasn't been decided yet, Govedarica said, but they hope to use the word "Perfection," since it's right there, carved over the front door.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and Morning Shift's "What's That Building?" contributor.