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Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Curious Curator – Underground Naperville


UPDATE Nov. 1, 2017 / The longstanding building on the northeast corner of Jefferson at Main soon will change forever. Demolition of the historic structure is now in progress.

Above / Russell’s Dry Cleaners was a trusted mainstay for dry cleaning for the last five decades. The classic sign that marked the independently-owned business of Russell Breitwieser is forever emblazoned in the minds of longtime residents. Thanks to all who supported this local independent business that provided quality service—and thanks for the memories, Mr. Breitweiser and staff!

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Above / On November 1, 2017, Break Thru was showing its break through at rear of the old Russell’s Cleaners where you’ll note it shares a common wall with the building that now houses Ted’s Montana Grill, formerly Oswald’s Pharmacy.

UPDATE April 19, 2017 / The buzz around town is that Russell’s Cleaners at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Main Street has announced that the iconic cleaners with its memorable sign will be closing its doors after over 50 years. In time, the building is expected to be replaced. Oh! The memories that come with progress. We appreciate that columnist Bryan Ogg was on top of this news in an underground sort of way.

Original Post, March 2017 / Before I take my readers on a journey below Naperville, I want to mention that after my story about Rollerville (PN Jan 2017) I was able to speak with Don Stump, Jr., the son of Don and Mabel Stump the proprietors of Rollervillle. Don corrected me by saying that his father loved roller skating! Don, Sr. was introduced to roller skating when he was 46 years old at a rink in Michigan. Don owned a trucking company, but would take off every Wednesday to roller skate. He taught classes and even helped train 1977 Olympic ice skater, Colleen O’Conner. Thank you, Don, Jr. for helping preserve our Naperville stories.

Our journey underground Naperville begins with a telephone call about a donation. Russ Breitweiser wanted to know if Naper Settlement would like two sewing machines that his great uncle Joe Mazza used at his tailor shop and dry cleaning businesses. The machines are nearly 100 years old and up until recently were used to hem, cuff and repair customers clothing. Mazza was born in Sicily in 1891. He came to America in 1914 and worked as a tailor in Downers Grove. Two years later he married Ethel May Breitweiser and moved to Naperville. They opened up a tailor shop on Washington which would eventually be known as Haidu Dry Cleaners.

The sewing machines moved with the Mazza’s shops located on Washington Street, Main Street and Jefferson Avenue. Russ also showed me the huge dry cleaning machine, steam presses and the pillow sanitizer. But what I really wanted to see was the basement. Buildings are large-scale artifacts with stories to tell. Architectural and structural elements help identify, date, and explain how buildings function. Russ gave me a quizzed look, but handed me his hat, grabbed a flashlight and told me to watch out for spider webs.

Opening a trap door at the back of the store, we descended a steep ladder-like staircase. The floor was dirt and we had to stoop. As we walked to the front of the building (toward Jefferson Avenue) the floor gradually grew deeper and we could just barely stand erect. The floor was littered with remnants of prior business ventures; crockery, pipes, wood trim and wire. A large coal-fired boiler sat on a nest of bricks near the chimney on the west side of the building. There were a number of brick pillars supporting the floor joists in the middle of the open space. Russ said, “They lowered the floor.”

If you look, there are two or three steps to enter Ted’s, Costello’s or Adagio Teas, a remnant of the old boardwalk, raised sidewalks that allowed patrons to step from wagon or carriage at level with the store. When the boardwalk was replaced with street-level sidewalks, Slick & Kochly lowered their sales floor. Probably the most unusual thing I observed in the basement was a large patch of weeds that appear to be growing in complete darkness!

I wonder where my next underground adventure will take me?

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Bryan Ogg
Bryan Ogg
Bryan Ogg is a local historian and curator of local legend, stories and lore.


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