Above / The building built in the 1850s where Russell’s Dry Cleaners served the community for five decades is being demolished to make way for a 3-story building. Note Russell’s marketing of the 59-minute service! (PN File Photo)
The historic Russell’s Dry Cleaners’ building on the northeast corner of Jefferson Avenue and Main Street in downtown Naperville is the first structure to be demolished since the equally historic 2017 landmark designation of the 1897 Nichols Library.
Plans to preserve the built environment, charm and desirability of downtown Naperville have been worked and re-worked since the 1970s. Why did preservationists, historians and city-planners like Jane Sindt, Walter Newman, Marjorie Osborn and Thomas Brown work with business owners, city staff and citizen committees to improve the streetscapes, river front and building codes in downtown Naperville? Because the preservation of a building or structure is more than just four walls and a roof to conduct business. The structure tells a story, significant or otherwise, about the people and community of a place.
Articles have already been written about the businesses located at 41 W. Jefferson, once Russell’s Dry Cleaners, the Rubin Store, Slick & Kochly and Martin Brown’s dry goods. Deed and tax records illustrate the progress of building improvements over the years and who occupied the building. But the building itself has its own stories to tell. Russell Breitwieser was very kind to let me into the basement a few months back. He showed me where the floor was lowered for the convenience of customers walking off the street (see Positively Naperville March 2017). I was given another opportunity to review the building before demolition. The building had a few more stories to tell.
Some of the tin ceiling was being salvaged during one of my visits, exposing the original plaster ceiling above. It became clear that the not only was the floor lowered, but the ceiling as well! Perhaps the ceiling was lowered to accommodate the wiring and plumbing for the offices and apartments that occupied the newly (1890s) renovation of the 1850s building. The removed tin also revealed the underside of stair treads leading to the second floor. With flashlight in hand I was able to show Russ an inscription which read, “[TH]E MOORE LBR SUP CO NAPERVILLE ILL” stamped on the bottom of a solid oak stair tread. The Moore Lumber company was located on north side of Water Street between Main and Washington Streets from 1913-1971.
Schafer or was it Shaffer?
On the second floor in a room overlooking Jefferson Avenue, another name was found on the back of a piece of baseboard trim. The name was Schafer. According to the Holland’s Business Directory of 1886 there were two carpenter/contractors in Naperville with a similar name. Alfred Shaffer and Levi Schafer. Although Alfred Shaffer was a “practical, reliable and largest contracting builders of the vicinity [who built] many of the finest stores, residences and churches [in Naperville]” he was not the contractor who remodeled Martin Brown’s 1850 dry goods store.
The pencil marking is fading and over-written with “#1” but one can still make out the Schafer name. Holland’s Business Directory listed a few of the downtown Naperville businesses built or remodeled by Levi Schafer including George Reuss, merchant tailor (now Zazu Spa), V. A. Dieter, grocer (now A-1 Antiques), Collins & Durran, jewelers, boots & shoes and gents furnishings (now Le Chocolat du Bouchard), W. W. Wickel, drug store (Oswald’s now Ted’s Montana Grill), and Scott’s Block (location of US Bank).
The Directory also listed a few of the homes Schafer built including, Dr. David Hess, William King, George Martin, and Ernst VonOven. Two of the surviving brass door hinges from the office of Dr. Slick were covered in layers of paint. The hinges were made by Branford Lock Works in Connecticut and are the same pattern or style, called “Oriental” used in the home of George Martin. The elaborate oak trim now heavily coated in paint was most likely made by Schafer or his employees at his planning mill in Naperville.
Pulling back the carpet in the room I discovered an old checkered linoleum floor. There was a rusty red ring about two feet in diameter centered in front of the large double windows facing south over Jefferson Avenue. This was the mark on the floor where Dr. Slick’s dentist chair must have been located. In an era before high speed drills and novocaine, that chair must have seemed daunting to the patients with a toothache.
The ceilings in the second floor apartments were removed to offer inspectors a glimpse of the roof structure. Charred and blackened timbers revealed the evidence of a fire. Russ recalled a fire during the time when Sam Rubin owned the building. The quick thinking and action of the Naperville Fire Department must have saved the building. The fire department was, after all, located just a half block west on Jefferson.
So many stories wrapped up in a building. One more. Besides the 1890s remodel of the building at 41 W. Jefferson, Levi Schafer is also noted for lending his rifle to Wheatonite Marcellus Jones. Jones is credited with firing the first shot at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Photos courtesy Bryan Ogg.