In February, my girlfriend and I moved into Colonnade Court, a South Evanston building located near the Clairvoyant Center of Chicago and the Toby Jug Museum—Illinois’s version of the Terracotta Army. As soon as we arrived, Emma and I were told the building was haunted, full of secrets. We asked why ghosts were drawn to the Colonnade. “The Piron chocolates downstairs,” was the curt, but understandable, reply.
The year Colonnade Court was completed—at a cost of $200,000—it received the architectural excellence award from Evanston’s Art Commission. Fifty-five years later, in 1984, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Curious to learn more about my building, I emailed the National Park Service. Less than a day later, an astonishing speed for the government, I received a comprehensive PDF: crisp, unpublished black-and-white photographs, nomination forms, evaluation sheets, architectural descriptions, dates—up to 1979—of alterations. The local architect, John Fugard, dreamed up Colonnade Court. “Here,” the statement of significance notes, “he created a design unique in Evanston, an Italian Renaissance building whose apartment courtyard opens out to a busy street but retains its privacy, shielded by a tile-roofed loggia.”
The courtyard may get all the attention, but the haunting bits are inside: a sprawling basement catacomb which, allegedly, tunnels right into Main Street’s storefront businesses; formidably ornamental speakeasy grilles covering the peepholes; “Receivador” parcel cabinets attached to the back doors. Our first night, I wondered aloud if a ghostly deliveryman might walk up the service stairs and unlock them.
The NPS documents were informative, but lacked intrigue. And I promised Evanston Magazine this piece would focus on gossip and ghost stories. So, I turned to the Evanston Public Library. Little information could be unearthed, but I was encouraged to try the Haines or Polk Directories. An address search might provide names of former residents. “Maybe this would lead to something fruitful,” a sympathetic librarian said.
I spent hours in the library’s Evanstoniana room. My great discovery? In the 1930s, there was a local salesman called “Saffrehn.” Now, my own surname has been mangled into typical misspellings: Safren, Saffron, Safrin, Sanford. But “Saffrehn” was new. Good to know someone on the North Shore was, most likely, always getting it wrong.
After the library, Emma and I set off for a research trip to the Evanston History Center (EHC). First-timers to the Charles Gates Dawes House, we were guided through the Great Hall—rather resembling something out of The Legend of Hell House—to a research room below. The EHC staff was wonderful and, thankfully, the basement had more building records than taxidermy.
While we found copies of the Colonnade’s yearly expenses for 1957 and 1959, the cost of ash removal just isn’t all that supernatural. However, I did leave with one small fact: except for the horses, the Davis Train Station in 1909 looks pretty much the same in 2016.
Still feeling like investigative historians, we returned to our apartment and taped signs all over the building. Perhaps other Colonnade Courters would email us with gossip. “A glorious mystery lives in the minds of young tenants,” Emma’s great aunt wrote us.
No one responded.
I remember, years ago, my family used to get haircuts in a tiny salon across from the Colonnade. I would stare at the building’s exterior, “reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance palazzo,” and pretend I wasn’t on the prairie. Now, confined in that palazzo, I stare at a vast rectangular box of wires along the basement wall, pretending it’s a giant house centipede. The paranormal would need to dominate my head, if not my building.
In my last, desperate effort, I contacted the Clairvoyant Center of Chicago. A response arrived hours later. Over the next few days, I corresponded with healers and teachers associated with the Center. We arranged two separate readings of the building.
Colonnade Court, they reported back, “has a stuck energy.” Its atmosphere is contemplative and “appealing” on one side of the building. But the other side has a “tense, heavy, low vibration and it seems to have been there for decades.” The readers went on to note a “vibration of hiding.”
They had more spiritual information: someone in the past, the readers sensed, had an “exceptionally hard inner conflict.” They asked if I had discovered anything about illness, or a business being threatened. I hadn’t, but their questions made me shiver. I’m a struggling freelancer—often sick, often stuck. And the very definition of “freelance” is to have one’s business threatened.
Though it’s difficult to think my home is a half-appealing hiding place, I was grateful for the Center’s help. If anything, it reminded me that, one block away, there is another blazing universe. A universe, it seems, just as enthusiastic for sweets. The Clairvoyant Center asked to be paid in “nice quality chocolate.”
When asked why I live in Evanston, I usually say it’s because Chicago is a great city to walk out of. The other reason is this: I’m very fond of Evanstonians.
In a silly attempt to find ghosts in my apartment, I was aided by local librarians, archivists, and spiritual healers. I didn’t spot a single Colonnade ghost. I did, however, notice impressive qualities shared among people in the neighborhood: adventurousness and acuity; sweetness and generosity. You might be off your head, but you also might be clairvoyant.
I can only hope to get that spirit, too.