There have been castles standing at 1001 Dunlop since 1927. They were built by a remarkable woman named Frances Kitcheos.
“Chips of stone were turned into fairy castles,” wrote Kitcheos’s daughter Angela in a tribute to her mother. “The soul of an artist made these things.”
The question is: how long will Frances’ creations remain standing? The house was sold in August to a company that buys houses for resale. The former owner fears the company will tear down the castles to make the property more sellable.
“I can’t even drive past the house anymore,” said Deborah Ballauer, who now lives in Plainfield. “It was so magical.”
Apart from the castles, the property at the corner of Harvard and Dunlop has an enchanted history going back to the invention of the “magic lantern.” The house was built by Eros Kitcheos, a pioneer in the motion picture industry. He came from his native Greece and learned to operate motion picture projectors at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Eros used his newfound skill to start a string of Nickelodeons in Chicago, which was then the center of the film industry. He ended up owning twenty movie houses. During one of his trips to pick up film, Eros met a young English acrobat, who offered to perform between features. His name was Charlie Chaplin.
Silent films made Eros a wealthy man and he took lavish trips to Europe. In 1911, he was sailing to Hamburg, when he met a pretty young blonde from Poland. Frances Wegrzyn, though, resisted the advances of this “old man.” Years later, Frances found herself destitute in Chicago. She went to one of Eros’ theaters seeking his help. They were married in 1924.
Eros built a house for his bride in Forest Park. He wanted it to have the most modern comforts, like a garage attached to the rear. Frances, however, insisted the garage be built at the back of the lot, so she could have a rock garden. She constructed an elaborate one, which included a goldfish pond and fountain.
Eros was a father of four, when he suddenly succumbed to “walking pneumonia” in 1927. He was only 44. Shattered emotionally and financially, Frances moved her family to the basement and rented the first floor. She also took a job as a waitress at a Forest Park restaurant.
And she began to build castles. Frances used two-by-fours to make the frames and nailed wire mesh to it. She poured cement over the mesh. While the cement was still wet, she chipped soft cinder rocks and studded the walls with them. She shaped the cement into turrets and towers. Her piece de resistance was the castle on the front lawn. She later built three more in the back yard.
Angela asked her mother why she was building castles. She said they reminded her of castles she had seen in Europe and that she was building them simply because they were beautiful. During the holidays, Frances put lights in each window and decorated the castles with miniature Christmas trees.
Castle-building wasn’t Frances only unconventional activity. Angela would be mortified to find her mother dressed like a construction worker, up on the roof, hammering shingles. Frances was just getting started. When her son, Julian, was playing football for Proviso East, he sustained an injury that left him paralyzed. Frances built a small house in the back yard, so that Julian could enjoy the fresh air. He died two years later.
The Kitcheos family had already scraped through the Depression, by dividing the upstairs into two apartments, doubling the number of tenants. At one point, they were so poor, Frances temporarily lost custody of her children. Angela recalled how heartbreaking it was to see her mother peering at her kids through an orphanage fence.
There was more tragedy when Angela’s brother, Alexander, a paratrooper was killed on D-Day plus one by a direct hit to his foxhole. Frances became hysterical when she got the news and had to be restrained. She later spelled out Alexander’s name in wrought iron above the back yard gate.
Frances remained a modern woman to her dying day. She operated a newsstand at Harlem and Roosevelt, ran a restaurant at Diversey and Central and built a three-story apartment building at 931 Dunlop. She installed her trademark wrought iron fence across the front of this property.
Frances was wheelchair-bound when she sold the house at 1001 Dunlop to the Patera family in 1963. She died on July 17, 1971, at the age of 82. Angela believed that castle-building was her mother’s method of coping with her husband’s death. “This was her way of telling us who she was and how she viewed life.” The new owner, Salvatore Patera also felt strongly about the castles. He said they were unique and he would never tear them down.
It was the back yard, his wife Gloria recalled, that persuaded Salvatore to purchase the property. “He said he would never have to go on vacation.” A tile-setter by trade, Salvatore knew all about working with marble and doing fine stonework. In his spare time, he repaired the castles but couldn’t prevent the one atop the rock garden from collapsing.
Salavatore’s daughter, Deborah, recalled that he brought home leftover materials from his jobs, covering the basement floor with priceless hand-painted Mexican tile. He also added a screened house to the back yard and decorated it with Mexican tile. His biggest project, though, was expanding and improving the small house Frances had built.
He installed a kitchenette, air conditioning, TV and stereo. Deborah recalled the family lived in the yard during the summer. Salvatore loved landscaping it. He and his son built a flagstone fence and he reconstructed the pond, filling it with goldfish. To the delight of his three kids, he set up Lionel trains that ran around the castles and pond.
Meanwhile, Gloria helped finance her husband’s improvements by working four years at Central Envelope, located inside the Roos Building. The yard became the focal point of the family. It was a sanctuary where they could enjoy coffee in the morning and blowout parties at night. Deborah, who raised four kids in the house, said wistfully, “I can’t even explain how we felt about that yard.”
As for the castles, they were solidly built. Deborah and her brother and sister would climb on them to the consternation of their father. They decorated them for the holidays. Halloween was a high point, with the Patera’s getting newspaper coverage for their spooky displays. Deborah would notice cars circling the block to get another glimpse.
Gloria planted flower beds and placed potted flowers around the castles. To accommodate elderly shoppers coming from the local grocery, the Patera’s placed a bench on Harvard, where they could rest and gaze at the garden. Sometimes, they would see kids sailing boats on the pond, or listen to the Italian music that was playing.
The music struck a bitter note the day Salvatore passed away from mesothelioma. He was only 66. Deborah and her sister Kelly remained in the house to help their mother. When Gloria died in 2005, they thought it was time to sell. They had one last bash to celebrate their memories of the yard. Partygoers enjoyed a dunk tank and mechanical bull, while movies of past parties played on a screen.
The family spent six years trying to sell the house, without success. Finally, on August 20, 2013, they sold it to a company that invests in residential property. Deborah fears the new owners will tear down the castles. However, nothing can destroy her memories of growing up in Forest Park. Thanks to dreamers like Eros and Frances, Salvatore and Gloria, it was a magical place.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.