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Notre Dame—The Historic Heartbeat Of France Resounds With Us

Notre Dame. The name of one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful cathedrals is on the lips of every Chicagoan, every Frenchman and most of the world.

This journalist, who is proud of his French blood, first visited the amazing cathedral in 1983 on a travel junket for the Chicago Sun-Times.

It was a historic edifice of beauty, with its high flying buttresses and massive stone walls, a landmark often studied in architecture and humanities classes in U.S. universities. I remember sipping cognac at a small street-side café across the Seine River and marveling at its ancient beauty.

When I stepped through the heavy wooded doors of this 11th Century icon, the light was dim, the air was stale and seemed more than 800 years old, and it was.

The ancient light filtering though Notre Dame’s beautiful stained-glass windows was dim, filled with dust and it was mystical. Because I was reared as a Catholic, and attended St. Michael’s Church in Old Town, visiting Notre Dame was a religious experience. I will never forget that brief visit.

It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to restore this international treasure. And the French government seems to be behind the project 100%. Hopefully, with some new-construction innovations costs will be reduce, but work will take years, maybe decades. The original construction of Notre Dame took 200 years.

Where are they going to find 800-year-old oak beams from long-ago ravaged and cleared forests that once graced and supported the roof of this historic icon? Thanks to global warming, there likely are no trees in the world that old, except the redwoods of California.

Going forward, the tragedy of Notre Dame should create focus for saving many vintage Chicago churches and historic buildings. As architectural expects note, the new, porous, split concrete-block junk developers are building can’t measure up to Chicago’s century-old solid brick and stone historic buildings.

When I saw Notre Dame burning, the first person I thought of was the late William L. Lavicka, a master architectural preservationist who renovated Chicago churches and restored countless vintage buildings in the city.

Lavicka helped co-fund the 1970s preservationist movement for urban pioneering of the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard, now listed as a national landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.

He headed Historic Boulevard Services, a design and construction firm specializing in historic preservation, a business that has helped to save more than a dozen Chicago churches as well as build or renovate 200 urban housing units.

“A fierce advocate of the greening of America's cities, he planted at least 500 trees in his lifetime, on private properties and city parkways,” said Amber Lavicka, his daughter.

“Urban pioneer Lavicka was a tough, innovative guy who served in the Seabees during the Vietnam War, often told war stories about his adventures renovating abandoned properties on the Near West Side for the past 35 years,” said Kelsey Lavicka, one of his sons.

A true renaissance man, Bill Lavicka saved crumbling churches, snatched them from the devil’s wrecking ball and danced with cherubs while renovating the Angel Lofts. Now, Bill likely is soaring in the clouds with angels, and drawing sketches to renovate the pearly gates of heaven, and even thinking about renovating the graceful façade of Notre Dame.

The voice on Lavicka’s answering machine always said he either was out “chasing butterflies,” or “smelling flowers.”

More than likely, this wiry little man with incredibly strong hands forged from manual labor on the construction site, was at City Hall trying to save a building from the wrecking ball or urging the then Mayor Richard M. Daley to create more parkland on the Near West Side.

Lavicka worried about city blocks ravaged by teardowns that look like “a mouth with missing teeth.” He championed saving the city’s churches, turn-of-the-century brick and stone buildings and battled to save many structurally sound properties on the South and West sides.

In 2010, while renovating the Gut Heil Haus, a turn-of-the-century fortress-like building that formerly was a German Social and Athletic Club at 2431 W. Roosevelt Road, Lavicka slept in the property at night armed with a baseball bat to guard its beautiful interior appointments.

The renovation of the old West Side German beer hall is just one of dozens of vintage properties Lavicka personally saved from the wrecking ball while serving as an urban commando.

His swashbuckling victories against the urban pirates range from helping save vintage mansions on the South and West sides to the spirited renovation of a dozen churches, including the Church of the Epiphany, at Ashland and Adams, Holy Family Church on the Near West Side, and St. Mary’s of the Angels in Bucktown.

A few years ago, a developer was planning to raze an aging mansion on Ashland Avenue, around the corner from Lavicka’s Jackson Boulvard home. His solution? Buy the mansion, hire a crew to move the building around the corner to Adams and Laflin, where Lavicka poured a new concrete foundation, anchored the property there and proceeded to renovate it.

One of Lavicka’s last renovation ventures was his plan to save the landmark Raber House, an 1860s mansion at 5760 S. Lafayette Ave. The plan called for renovating the mansion and transforming it into a boutique winery and a wine-making school while planting 5,000 grapevines on nearby vacant land, said Corey Lavicka, his youngest son. Unfortunately,

Lavicka passed away before the project was launched.

Lavicka, the artist, also excelled in the art of public sculpture. His Viet Nam Memorial at 815 S. Oakley designed around cast-iron columns discarded from the razed Page Brothers Building in Chicago’s Loop. He also created the whimsical 25-foot-tall sculpture of a forearm and baseball glove catching a ball on the Near West Little League playing field.

These works of renovation and art are just a few of dozens lovingly outlined in “Urban Structure,” a self-published book authored by Lavicka to remember his life’s work in words and pictures accomplished over the past four decades.

The self-published book, completed in 2011 while Lavicka struggled to recover from illness, is an amazing record of accomplishments by a creative and tenacious man.

In 2011, to recognize Lavicka’s contribution to the city, former 2nd Ward Ald. Robert W. Fioretti presented a resolution to the City Council and Mayor Emanuel to honor his good work as “a recycler of epic proportions, a master of creative reuse long before it was a popularly accepted and touted practice.”

If Lavicka was alive today, he likely would be involved as a pro-bono engineering consultant to the French government to resurrect Notre Dame.

Maybe Mayor Lori Lightfoot should read this column and Bill Lavicka’s obit for ideas about saving what is left of the South and West Sides.

For more housing news, visit Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit

“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”


Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

By Don DeBat

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