The steel-toed boots of progress are busy marching all over the building at the northwest corner of Wells Street and Chicago Avenue today. The beautiful, but enigmatic, commercial building at 800 North Wells Street is being turned into a pile of rubble to make way for a 24-story condominium tower.
It was River North Spy Max who brought the destruction to our attention. Friday he sent in a photograph of machinery poised to begin the building’s demolition. Saturday he sent in the photograph below showing the carnage already well underway.
If 800 North Wells looks like the sort of building a prideful German immigrant might erect shortly after the Great Chicago Fire, it should. Because it was. William Voltz was the man responsible for its erection. Aside from that, there’s not too much we could dig up about the building.
It seems to have gone up shortly after the Great Fire of 1871, which wiped out a private school for German children at this location. Cook County records put the construction timeline closer to 1900, but Cook County’s records from that era are notoriously fuzzy on dates.
Before the 1909 city renumbering its address was 189 Chicago Avenue, and was known as “Voltz Hall” or “Voltz’s Hall.” That hall appears to have played a minor role in Chicago’s major role in America’s early labor union movement, hosting a number of early meetings and rallies.
A Designslinger article from a year ago states that the ground floor was a saloon, Mr. Voltz lived on the second floor, and the third floor was the actual assembly hall. However, the 2004 book “United Apart: Gender and the Rise of Craft Unionism” by Ileen A. DeVault, it indicates that the reason the women from the River North shoe factories liked to hold their rallies at Voltz Hall was because it did not have a bar, and thus was considered suitable for womenfolk.
Newspaper articles from the early part of the 20th century describe the ground floor business as a grocery store. Not a good one, though. One that apparently was part of a ring of stores owned by members of the same family that re-sold merchandise stolen from other stores’ delivery wagons.
All of that appears to have happened long after Mr. Voltz passed away. And while his building is almost gone, he did leave the world one legacy: The Voltz Hoe. It’s a device he patented in 1889 that’s essentially a long handle that you can bolt different sets of tines to in order to rake or hoe different kinds of crops. Got a row of potatoes to hoe? Bolt on the potato fork. Need to dig a furrow? Slap on the spade accessory. Wife on your back about the leaves in the yard? Here comes the grass rake attachment! And it’s as clever as it is nifty — the bolts are recessed so that weeds don’t get twisted around them making it hard to change blades. Ron Popeil would have been impressed.