Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Butler Street Foundry's Next Big Job
John LaMonica, proprietor of Butler Street Foundry, freely admits that business is terrible. “In our industry we say ‘You can only pretend you’re okay for so long.’ Two and a half years is too long.”
But John is also an optimist who sees connections and opportunities everywhere. “All the doors are closed,” he says, describing life in general and not just the economy as it happens to be now, “you have to have the balls to start opening them up.”
Butler Street Foundry has been doing business at 35th and Normal Avenue since 1891. Normal Avenue was called Butler Street when Arnold Hinkens first opened an iron foundry there. Hinkens was a German tradesman; a group of Nebraska farmers, in need of his services, financed his relocation to the United States. But he stopped in Chicago first, and some Chicago investors poached him -- they were in a frenzy of construction for decades after the Chicago fire, they paid off Hinkens’ Nebraska sponsors and set him up on Butler Street.
Succeeding generations of Hinkenses produced iron to build and rebuild Chicago for 114 years, until 2005, when John bought the business from his “Uncle Bud” Hinkens, the man who’d sponsored his mother’s family when they emigrated from Croatia. Butler Street Foundry was an iron fabrication shop by then, though the old foundry patterns still hang in a workshop upstairs.
Uncle Bud had let business dwindle down to what he could do with 4 guys – just the amount of work he needed to make money. When John bought Butler Street Foundry he was proud to be taking on a mantle, a 114 year heritage. He started cold calling his way through the lists of old customers that Uncle Bud had let slip away. By 2006 he had 15 guys employed in the shop, by 2007, as the development boom was beginning to falter, he employed 28.
He had made a niche fabricating parts for restoration projects. A new construction project is mathematically regular, uniform parts fit together in a uniform way. A reconstruction project is all specialty parts precisely fit for irregular spaces. If they aren’t made exactly right in the shop, they have to be made to work in the field, where it costs twice as much to do corrections.
John believes part of the reason his shop excels at work like that is because they lay everything out by hand. They don’t use a computerized table to calculate laser cuts. “In the ideal world, the computer is efficient, and every cut is perfect.
“But in the real world, there’s dirt in the shop, there’s a big crane travelling back and forth across the floor that makes everything vibrate, the machine gets bumped and goes off an eighth of an inch.
“Our stuff is all laid out and a man checks it. A proud man checks it,” he adds.
Which is a succinct description of how John believes the economy should square its shoulders going forward. “Let’s go back to our roots and create a whole society of new craftsmen” -- men whose trade is both a skill-set and a heritage, something they learn at the feet of masters. Which is how John learned his.
He describes his career through a series of mentors, starting at Emil’s Auto Body Shop on Morgan Street, back when he was a kid unsure of what he ought to do. “I can’t tell you how many guys fucked up their old man’s car, brought it to Emil’s and he saved their ass.”
Emil taught him to build wood burning stoves from barrels, which he sold, until he took an aptitude test and found himself recruited to work at the IIT Research Institute, which was humming with defense contracts during the Bush administration and the Gulf War. He learned precision welding in the machine shop, “and I got to work for 5 years with guys who’d worked with Werner Von Braun,” Hitler’s rocket scientist, who helped start NASA’s Space Flight program after the Second World War.
The Research Institute lost its contracts as defense spending wound down in the Clinton years. John took a severance and bought a welding machine with it. He set up his own business at the back of Uncle Bud’s shop. From there, he could watch the Butler Street iron shop in operation, and learn war stories from Uncle Bud.
Bud Hinkens had jumped from planes in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and rode the rails for a year when he returned. The family iron shop was struggling then – there was a post war recession, and when that lifted, environmental restrictions were clamping down on toxic emissions, like those emitted by iron foundries
So Bud “whored himself out,” as the family would say. He made his way around Lake Michigan working power plant projects. When he returned to Chicago after 25 years, Butler Street Foundry had reinvented itself as a fabrication business, building structural steel for skyscrapers and bridges.
John has gotten around himself over the years. Even working in the iron shop, he was picking up skills on the side. He learned sheet metal from Herman Zweifel who owned the hardware store on Stewart Avenue, so that after Herman died his widow gave John her husband’s antique tools.
He learned blacksmithing in Kentucky, and just before the recession hit, he studied sculpture at the School of the Art Institute. He wanted a new perspective on the old techniques. “The piece is one thing, but I care about the process – I learned to think about why I was doing this stuff.”
By the time he finished art school, he brought his art school mentors to Bridgeport –Dan Matheson and Gabriel Akagawa set up the Happy Accident Sculpture Studio in a workshop adjoining Butler Street Foundry.
In 2009, John became a formal mentor himself, hosting an internship for 2 students from Big Picture high school in Back of the Yards. Remembering how Crowley taught him to build boat cradles at his south branch boat yard when he was starting out, he says “You need someone to show confidence in you, to teach you to say ‘I don’t know how to do it, but I want to learn.’”
Julio Arteaga and Juan Serrano, his Big Picture charges, would stay an extra semester and have a hand in the steel steer-heads that now ornament 9 gates of the Union Stockyards. It was a project that John got himself into when he said he’d like to fix the “salty old iron” in the Stockyard gates for free.
He has a weakness for heritage projects, they ring with connections. He restored the old church bell for Second Presbyterian and discovered it had been originally donated by Louis Armour, who had financed the Armour Institute, the technical school that gave rise to the IIT Research Institute, where John first learned his trade.
A prayer he made to Saint Anthony led him to agree to a request that came through the son of a friend of a friend. The request was to build a fixture for a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. John was impressed by the story of the Virgin, who worked a miracle of roses to secure herself a church, and also by the story of her travels in Bridgeport, where the local Guadalupanas carried her picture from one church to the next, as each got torn down, or as she was made otherwise unwelcome, until they arrived at Saint Anthony’s, which is John’s own parish.
In 3 days of inspired labor, John built her an elaborate threshold, surrounded by dozens of individual steel roses. And when the Guadalupanas pulled him from the pew to help carry her through the church, his future mother in law was finally convinced he was a good man for her daughter.
Now that a long recession has driven Butler Street Foundry down from 28 employees to just 2, he has hung a photo of his own young family among the photos of the Hinkenses, and says he is proud to call Butler a mom and pop shop. He recalls that the Hinkenses themselves once retreated to the Kankakee River to retrench during the Depression. Now John is working up the shop’s next reinvention.
“I want to turn Butler into a school,” he says, a place to learn the iron trade the way a trade ought to be learned. He’s floated the idea with the Big Picture Charter Schools, and with the Iron League of Chicago, of which he is a member. “They’re the good old boys of iron – they think it’s a good idea too.” Most recently, the City Colleges of Chicago came by the shop to discuss possibilities. They’re looking for space for a program to train skilled workers as well.
John says Butler Street Foundry would be ideal, partly because the shop there isn’t state of the art or school room pristine. “It’s a salty old place, conditions aren’t perfect,” he says. “We could give students a real life experience.”