1935 Roadhouse Fire Chain of Events

This post has been in my drafts for ages! I’ve always been meaning to post it, but somehow it never seemed like the right time. Since the 79th anniversary of this tragic fire happened just last week, I thought it was now time to finish the story.

For a little background, five years ago I had been engrossed with researching our house and neighborhood history and found some interesting stories which you might want to read first. You’ll find them here, here and here.

Now for the original post:

On March 25, 1935, the day after the tragic fire that took six lives at Club Rendezvous in Morton Grove — a club that was owned and operated by a bungalow neighbor — the Chicago Tribune ran a more extensive article about an inquest over the fire and the night’s chain of events. Here are some excerpts:

An inquest will be held today over the charred bodies of three men and three women burned to death in the flames which swept the Club Rendezvous roadhouse in Morton Grove early yesterday.

It will mark the opening of investigations by state, county and village authorities into conditions which permitted a hundred merrymakers to be jammed into a small, flimsy structure provided with only two pitifully inadequate means of escape from the flames.

It will be the continuation of the campaign which started last night to prevent recurrence of such a tragedy when Sherif [sic] John Toman ordered county highway police to visit every roadhouse in the county and determine if there were any other such fire traps among the country and village roadhouses of the county.

Survivors Called for Inquest

At the inquest the coroner’s jury will hear stories of the survivors of the fire which left six dead and 16 in hospitals. Officials of Morton Grove will be asked what fire regulations permitted the existence of the conditions which brought about the disaster.

It appears that this is a turning point for fire regulations in public establishments throughout Cook County. Within days the county board adopted a resolution to cancel the liquor license of any tavern in which fire hazards are found, and to arrange for inspection of all drinking establishments to eliminate fire hazards and to report any obvious fire traps.

The article goes on:

Death Scene: Season’s Gayest Crowd.

The largest and gayest crowd of the season was there Saturday night and Sunday morning in the transformed bungalow about three miles west of Evanston.

In the front was a frame addition to the building proper, comprising the main dance floor, some six feet lower than the level of the main part of the building housing the dining room, bar and kitchen.

There were only two exits. The main one was a narrow, 2 foot 7 inch doorway leading into a small anteroom on the front, east side. From the anteroom egress was by a 3 foot doorway. This door, contrary to every known fire regulation, opened inward.

The only other means of exit from the bungalow was through the kitchen.

That was reached by a narrow corridor and through a doorway only 1 foot 10 inches in width.

Large Midnight Crowd.

Shortly after midnight the main crowds began to stream into the place. Two parties were of Northwestern university students who had come from the annual WAA-MU musical comedy given at the school. One of these young men, receiving congratulations for his part in the performance, was shortly to die in the raging inferno.

A three piece band was blaring popular tunes. The dance floor was packed, scarcely giving room for couples to move about in time with the music. Every table in the dining room was filled and there was no room in front of the bar.

Elmer Cowdrey, owner of the roadhouse, said that he had been compelled to turn down many reservations. Merrymaking was at its height in the gayly festooned roadhouse.

“Fire!” Brings Frantic Rush.

Suddenly, from one corner of the dance floor came a puff of flame and a billow of smoke. It came from near a gas heater, suspended from the ceiling.

“Fire!” The scream that has startled countless panics, burst out.

Mrs. Rose Cowdrey, wife of the owner, was seated at a table in the dining room.

She leaped to her feet, seized a seltzer bottle and started toward the first burst of fire.

Again sounded the cry, “Fire! Fire!”

There was a frenzy of fear among the merrymakers and they dashed toward the one exit, screaming, trampling, pushing, hitting out in terror. They smashed against the door and drilled about frantically until a space could be forced to allow it to swing inward.

Behind the bar in the dining room, Cowdrey shouted to James Bradford, the chef, to call the fire department. He then sprang on a chair and vainly shouted for the crowds to make their way toward the rear of the bungalow.

His cries went unheeded.

In the dancing room the flames already had engulfed the entire space, spreading through the highly inflammable drapes and streamers which festooned the walls and ceilings.

This blazing cloth began to shower its fragments on the frenzied, fighting throng below, bathing them in a fiery rain. The electric lights went out, and the scene was made more terrible in the ghastly glow of flames.

Many who could not fight their way to the door leaped through windows, heedless of the gashes torn in their bodies and faces.

What a horrific story. I don’t know what happened to Elmer and Rose Cowdrey, but it probably marked the demise of roadhouses in Morton Grove. I was also struck by the storytelling in journalism at that time. I can’t imagine reading a newspaper article today containing such emotion and descriptive terms, but I guess we have TV for that nowadays (especially 24-hour cable news), for better or worse.

Planning the First Outdoor Projects

We received the April issue of This Old House recently. It was a little depressing to read about all the outdoor projects and ideas when we still had a foot of snow on the ground, even with a couple of warmish days of snow melt (which was promptly followed by a snowstorm that dropped another 4 or so inches).

During the past week the temperature has occasionally risen to the 50s (followed by a drop below freezing) and we can finally see large parts of yard! Unfortunately parts of it are NOT pretty, especially the front yard. After working on restoring it late last fall, I can see we still have a lot of work to do there. That’s not going to happen until the ground dries out a bit.

But I was excited to see their “How-To” on building an enclosure for a rain barrel. Along with repairing the gutters and adding bigger/additional downspouts this year, I wanted to place at least one of our rain barrels on the side of the house to make it easy to water the plants. The problem there is that they’re the generic black rain barrels that we purchased at a discount through the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, so they’re pretty ugly (note: our neighbor purchased the terra cotta color, and it’s not any prettier!).

I thought about painting them (sky/clouds? bricks to blend with the side of the house?) but I wasn’t really keen on it—seems like too much work. Their enclosure looks like the perfect solution that will complement the wood of our pergola. Although they make their own rain barrel for the enclosure too, we can easily adapt that to our existing one.

Sigh, two years ago it was in the 80s for what seemed like weeks in March! It was a big factor in getting most of our hardscaping done that year. But considering we did a lot of outdoor projects last year as well, I’m okay with doing small outdoor projects here and there and doing other things around the house. This little rain barrel enclosure looks like the perfect small project!

Shoe Moulding

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We’ve done it! We completed one of our 2014 goals (leftover from 2013): Finish installing the replacement shoe moulding on the first floor.

We also installed missing baseboard in the closets of our master bedroom. No more gaps between the hardwood floor and the wall, and no more exposed, unpainted drywall near the floor of our closets!

Overall, the stain matched pretty well with the baseboard on the first floor, but there are some areas where the shoe moulding is noticeably lighter, so to darken it I plan to tint the lacquer slightly when I apply the final finish coat. I also need to stain some exposed cut ends of the moulding and other touch-ups using a Q-tip. This will be the easy part and both tasks should only take a half-day or so. I’m going to have to wait until the windows can be open when applying the lacquer though (so hopefully by August?!).

My Track Record…

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…for being pet-less seems to be about 10 months, max.

Say “hello” to Lena (pronounced “lay-nah”) and Romy (pronounced “roam-ee”)

I was still quite sad over the loss of Henry and Ella last year and finally decided the house was just too empty without a couple of cats.

One afternoon I decided to visit a few shelters to meet some cats. There were so many great candidates and I felt bad about turning any away. I didn’t know how I was going to decide.

I saw a pair of females that I really liked at one cat shelter in Chicago. They were about a year old and considered a bonded pair (but not litter mates) and were only adopting them together. One was a polydactyl, or Hemingway cat, with extra toes. She had beautiful markings as well. The other was a thinly-striped tabby and also very pretty (I’m very partial to tabbies since my first cat was a tabby.)

My last stop was at the Evanston Animal Shelter which was where we got Axel and Günter as kittens. My mom came with and Pete eventually met us there after work. We saw a number of great options. The last pair they brought in was Lena and Romy (named Athena and Shadow at the shelter). They arrived at the shelter around the same time last July/August at about 4-6 weeks old. Romy was left by someone at the shelter’s back door (to avoid having to pay an “intake” fee) and Lena was a feral stray who was captured and brought in. They were put together from Day One and became bonded.

Romy is extremely outgoing and will approach anyone and sit on their lap while Lena is much more timid. I’m certain that she prevented Romy from being adopted sooner because she was so skittish and afraid (they were only adopting them together). Even so, she watched our every move from the cat tree with those huge eyes as we visited with them. As soon as Romy jumped on my mom’s lap, my mom was convinced. I still wasn’t so sure though and wanted to revisit the two I saw at the other shelter before I made a final decision.

I went back to the Chicago shelter a couple days later. I still really liked the pair, but when I asked if they had a room to visit with the cats one-on-one (they were in a huge room with about 20 other cats), they said that they found it stressed the cats out too much and didn’t allow that. I don’t see how you can see if you connect with an animal if there are a million other distractions in a room with so much going on! That pretty much sealed the deal for me and I headed back to Evanston. It was all for the best, because something about Lena tugged at my heart after I first saw her and I felt like she needed someone who understood her and would be patient as she settled in.

Lena has really come out of her shell in the past six weeks. For someone who refused to come out of the cat carrier the first couple of days and who didn’t say a peep the first couple of weeks, she now won’t shut up when it’s mealtime, gives me a little tap on the leg when I walk past her or ignore her, and fights with Romy over my lap (which usually ends up being covered with both of them). Romy is the type of cat that anyone can pick up, flip her on her back and rub her belly and she’ll be perfectly happy. She also loves to suckle on ear lobes if you’ll let her.

All-in-all I’d say they like it here, and the feeling is mutual!

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Ready to Grow!

I was excited to receive these in the mail the other day, in the midst of one of our coldest, snowiest winters ever. This winter has reminded me of the winters we used to have here when I was a kid. Back then it was fun; now not so much!

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Until it warms up enough to start sowing seeds, I’m going to work on a plan and calendar to ensure we have a steady supply of fresh produce this year. I was never really interested in growing anything beyond tomatoes, but last year’s foray into vegetable growing has changed that.

There are plenty of good resources for seed, but I decided on Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, “a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds”.

2014 Goals and Wish List

I hope everyone had a safe and happy New Year! Ours was quiet and quite snowy: we’re up to at least 10″ or more which started on New Year’s Eve, with another 3-8″ on the way today.

We started off the year yesterday by installing a TV mount for our flat screen. I want to build a small shelving/drawer unit to hang on the wall below it to house our remaining few electronics, like the DVD player (which we rarely use these days), wireless router, and Apple TV. We recently bought a sound bar since our surround sound was analog and old and got rid of cable several months ago. There are a couple things I miss from cable TV but I don’t miss them enough to justify that exorbitant monthly bill!

Now that an electronics shelf unit is our first project of the year, here we go with the remaining Great Bungalow Project Goals of 2014, starting with the leftover projects from 2013:

  • Install glass in laundry room door panels and paint door
  • Wash windows (they need it!)
  • Re-install shoe moulding throughout main floor
  • Apply second coat of varnish to kitchen baseboard trim

I’ll add a few other minor projects:

  • Repaint master bath (I wanted gray but the “gray” I originally chose has too much blue in it)
  • Refinish woodwork in two remaining first-floor closets
  • Repair plaster walls and paint above closets, plus repair/paint central hallway

This year I’m going to put the first-floor bathroom remodel high on my goal list. It was one of the first projects I really wanted to do in the house, and now we’re going on 7 years and it’s still not done! I crunched the numbers last year and since we won’t be replacing the sink, toilet or tub I think it’s totally doable.

I’m also going to put the fireplace demo/remodel high on the list as long as we’d need a dumpster for the bathroom demo. I’ve agonized over what to do with that monster, but my latest thought is to: a) get rid of the stone veneer (that has ALWAYS been #1 on the list); b) remove the hearth; c) lower the firebox and move it to the left, closer to the dining room entryway (making it more visible to the dining room as well as creating more usable space in the living room); d) add a tile surround, a simple mantel, drywall/paint the rest, and; e) add built-in bookshelves in the remaining shallow recessed area to the right of the fireplace.

I don’t really care if all of that gets done this year. I’d be happy with just the stone gone, and I would be happy simply hanging a tarp in front of it until we do the rest.

One thing we really must do this year is repair or replace the gutters and add more/bigger downspouts. The existing gutters leak at the seams pretty badly, especially over the dining room windows, and there are only two downspouts at the back of the house. Both are the smaller square-shaped ones instead of the bigger rectangular ones, and they can’t handle the rainfall. Pete also wants to add some kind of gutter guard because the damn maple tree clogs the gutters, especially with those whirlybird seeds (frankly, I’m not convinced that any gutter guard will prevent clogs from those maple seeds).

If we’re going to replace the gutters, I’d want to change the color of the aluminum from white to probably taupe to match the upstairs windows (specifically Cashmere according to Marvin Windows). I was researching DIY gutter installation and it doesn’t seem too difficult. There are also local companies who can provide seamless gutters on-site with a range of colors (unlike the big-box stores who have only brown or white and aren’t seamless), so I guess we’ll have to get some pricing and see if it’s doable to replace.

Of course if we replace them I’d love to remove the white aluminum soffit and see how the original bead board looks underneath. According to the PO there was nothing wrong with it…but who really knows until we tear it out. Of course Pete’s pretty much against doing that, so no use arguing until we figure out what we’re going to do about the gutters.

Some other things on the wish list (that are likely not going to get accomplished or are low priority):

  • Expansion of the porch into a small deck which leads to the garage and gravel patio (and eventually enclosing the existing porch up to the house eaves into a mudroom)
  • Reshingle the garage roof to match the house
  • Wood storm door for front door
  • Strip and repaint back door

I’m sure there’s more I can add, but I’ll try to restrain myself. Here’s to a productive 2014!

End-of-Year Recap

It’s that time of year again — where I get to celebrate our accomplishments and “wash over” our shortcomings. Yes, despite the best of intentions and some motivation, LIFE still gets in the way and there are always plenty of projects on my list that won’t be finished when I want or expect them to. Nevertheless, making and reviewing goals each year helps give me incentive for the coming year.

Our main goal for the interior was to finish staining and varnishing the woodwork that was installed last year for our attic remodel. It was one of those thankless jobs that needed to be done but was a little daunting — on the surface it seemed like a big job, but as I suspected it was one that in reality took up most of just one weekend. The hardest part was getting started, especially since I really dreaded having to stain and varnish the louvered bi-fold doors. But it got done and it feels so good to cross it off the list!

We spent the majority of our 2013 project time outside. One of my dreams came true and we finally installed a pergola over the flagstone patio (it’s almost finished in the photo below).

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If we had only done that ONE thing this year, I would have been happy, but we also extended the paths/sidewalks to the garage and alley using leftover brick and bluestone pavers, and finally started to tackle our sorry lawn in the front and back. I moved some plants around, added a few more (not as many as I’d like, but all in good time), and we added a couple more raised vegetable beds. We grew some delicious tomatoes, kohlrabi, radishes, lettuce and chard. I want to plan ahead for an even bigger variety this year.

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A couple things we accomplished that weren’t on the list: creating a “cloffice” out of our TV room closet. I haven’t used it much as an office, but the additional storage is great.

In addition to the shelving, I stripped and varnished the woodwork in there, Pete patched the walls and it got a fresh coat of paint. I have two more closets to strip, varnish and paint, which I plan to do soon.

Apartment Therapy’s January Cure is what spurred me into action on that project. They’re doing it again this year, but I’m going to sit this one out.

As part of the Cure, I also created a “landing strip” by the back door which has turned out great. I still occasionally toss my crap on the kitchen counter instead of the landing strip, but it is definitely an improvement there.

All-in-all I guess it was a decent year for projects, but we fell short in a few spots.

What Wasn’t Accomplished on the 2013 List

  • Install textured glass in laundry room door panels and paint door
  • Wash windows
  • Apply second coat of varnish to kitchen baseboard trim
  • Re-install shoe moulding throughout main floor
  • Use leftover door trim to restore first-floor bathroom trim to original style and paint it and inner part of door white (currently blue)
  • Expansion of the porch into a small deck which leads to the garage and gravel patio

As for the first task, it’s currently in progress. We bought the glass and I’ve been thinking about paint colors for the door. Last I heard Pete had a little more sanding to do, but he may have finished that by now. It hasn’t really crossed my mind to ask. I’m guessing that will probably be the first project of the new year.

Re-installing the shoe moulding on the main floor would be a good winter project. We removed the cheap pine quarter-round (which is shorter than true shoe moulding) before we moved into the house over 6 years ago to prepare for floor refinishing. We knew we were going to refinish the woodwork throughout, so the pine needed to go anyway. I’m not sure why the original shoe moulding was removed, but there were a couple spots in the house that still had it so we knew it had been replaced.

We ordered extra poplar shoe moulding with the attic remodel woodwork, so it’s already stained and ready to go. We wanted to save money by doing it ourselves but the miter saw was held hostage by the cottage remodel (updates on that at some point…). It’s home now so maybe we can start on that in the next few weeks as well. I can apply the second coat of varnish on the kitchen baseboard once the moulding everywhere else is installed.

I’m going to ignore the bathroom trim project at this point, because there’s no use in changing the door trim or painting the door until we can tear out the blue-and-yellow tile. Sigh.

The porch expansion is the priciest project on this list, so that will depend on finances. It’d sure be nice but I won’t hold my breath.

Merry Christmas

Just a quick post to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

We didn’t do much decorating this year, so I’ll leave you with some photos of a friends’ vintage aluminum Christmas trees which were exhibited at a local history museum (these are just a fraction of what he has collected!).

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I’ll attempt to catch up on house happenings over the next week or so.

Be safe out there!

Bi-Fold Doors, Stained, Varnished, Finished!

Now that we’re finally back to working on indoor projects, my highest priority was to finally finish the second floor trim, which required a second coat of varnish, and to finish staining and varnishing the utility closet bi-fold doors at the top of the stairs.

Every time I walked upstairs it was right in my face, taunting me. As long as those doors sat unfinished our entire attic renovation was going to appear to be unfinished, at least in my mind.

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I was dreading having to stain all those louvers, but I finally set my mind to it. It was kind of a pain but all-in-all it really didn’t take that long to do. Next came the sanding sealer followed by a light sanding and then the final coat of varnish.

Voila, the finished product:

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2013110904Adding the second coat to the rest of the woodwork took the better part of a day, so just as I expected it was about a weekend’s worth of work. The problem was just finding the right weekend to do it, and with the cold weather settling in my window of opportunity was dwindling.

It was almost exactly a year ago when our woodwork was installed, and I’m relieved that this project is finally complete!

Since we had to move all the furniture out of the way to do it, it also allowed me to do a thorough cleaning and find a place for all the crap that has been lying around. It feels great to walk into a neat, organized space.

So, now that that’s done we’ve been working on other smaller projects.

laundry room doorPete cleaned up his workspace in the basement and took down this laundry room door to finish working on it.

This 5-panel wood door used to be our old back basement door which we replaced with a more secure metal door that our contractor was getting rid of (and no, the panels weren’t missing when it was still our basement door!). Pete cut out the panels a while back when we stripped off the paint and he’s finishing up routing out one side of the panel trim.

Earlier this week we picked up some glass bead moulding, which is the wood trim that holds the glass in the panel, and we also stopped at Evanston Glass and Mirror to choose a glass pattern that will become the new panels for the door. Once installed I’ll be painting this door, but I’m not sure what color yet — I’m thinking something a little different but not too crazy, like a nice slate blue?

Hopefully that will be ready to paint soon, but for now we’re back to working on the cottage remodel (which I haven’t talked about much lately, I know). It’s been slow-going, and I really don’t want to get into the particulars because I find it too exhausting, but suffice to say we’ve got a bunch of things to do over the next few weeks (insulation and other little things) and then we’re FINALLY ready for the drywallers! If that gets done over the holidays it will be the best Christmas present EVER (well, maybe the best one in recent years…).

Final Outdoor Project

After realizing that it wasn’t going to be easy to redo our front lawn because of invading, shallow roots from our Norway Maple we went to Home Depot just to see what our rental options were, if any, to try to improve the lawn. A sod cutter was out because the roots are so shallow, and a tiller was out for the same reason. What they did have was a dethatcher which was height-adjustable. A dethatcher, aka power rake, slices through the turf and moves dead roots, clippings, etc. to the surface and will help allow water and nutrients penetrate the soil.

Pete went over the front lawn with the dethatcher several times using various depths and it seemed to do the trick. Once finished, we moved more topsoil and compost from the backyard and filled in low spots. We used a Sun/Shade mix of various fescues which we bought from Lurveys.

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We decided to use a straw mat to help protect the seeds and keep moisture in. It seems to be growing pretty well, but we won’t know for sure until we rake the leaves and remove the mat (I just learned that the fine mesh the straw is attached to doesn’t decompose and will interfere with blades if we ever need to dethatch or use other power equipment on it). Guess that’ll be next weekend’s chore.

In the backyard we were working with a clean slate. We smothered most of the lawn earlier in the year and kept on top of weeds. In other areas we had black-eyed Susans growing and pulled them up at the end of the growing season. We added more topsoil and compost and leveled or sloped it toward the sidewalk (the backyard is slightly higher than the side yard). We seeded with the same Sun/Shade fescue mix with a fertilizer/growing medium.

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There are a few bare spots that are hard to see in photos, but overall I think it looks pretty good!

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This past weekend we worked on interior projects and have finally finished a big, lingering chore: varnishing woodwork and staining closet doors! We haven’t put everything back in place yet, so photos to come. But what a relief to be able to cross it off the list.