Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Peter Hoffman's Log Cabin, 796 Center Street

During the Fourth of July Parade, there's usually one house that always makes you stop and go "hmm." Standing between a drive-thru bank and a parking lot is one of the odder sights in town - the Log Cabin at 796 Center Street.

So what IS it? A leftover from Pioneer days? No, that can't be... it's right on a side street. An old restaurant? No... not enough doors. The real answer is just as strange - a hunting lodge and home for one of Des Plaines' most prominent citizens 100 years ago.

Peter Michael Hoffman lived from 1863-1948, and was the sort of political animal you see in movies. He was the sort of rugged, brusque, driven, larger-than-life character that you generally only witness in court - and, indeed, that's how his political career ended.

Along the way, he cultivated an interest in hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. He once said, "I was born in a log cabin and I'm going to die in a log cabin." He did indeed, passing in his sleep in 1948, in his den-like bedroom, decorated with antlers and pelts. On one of his expeditions to the north woods of Wisconsin, he met an expert in log construction, and in 1921 Hoffman hired a crew of loggers, including a Native American, to build him a hunting lodge behind his house on Lee Street (Incidentally the next-door neighbor was the Kinder House, in its original location.) I like to imagine Hoffman's wife insisting he get his taxidermy, hunting gear, and poker games out of the house and meeting this dramatic response; his trophies could be displayed in a more appropriately natural setting. Ultimately Hoffman retired to the cabin, leaving the house behind vacant.
Talk about anachronism. Peter Hoffman's family settled in Des Plaines as pioneers, in 1842; there really WERE log cabins on farmsteads at that time. But the neighborhood he built it in was an early subdivision, Parson's & Lee's, also known as "Silk Stockings" because it had the city's most elaborate homes where the local elite lived. Today the Hoffman Log Cabin is one of only a few survivors on Graceland, Lee, and Center; most of the rest have been long since replaced by condos, offices, and retail buildings. The Hoffman Cabin was out of place from the get-go, but it is all the more now that it has a parking lot to one side and a bank drive-through to the other.

If you've been in many log cabins, you might expect to see a sparse, cramped, simple interior. Such was not the case for Hoffman - this would perhaps more appropriately be called a Log Mansion. This house was an absolute luxury. The house was originally adorned with every hind of hunting trophy, taxidermy, and nature scenes, and even the furniture reflected these interests. This explains the elk horns at the peak of the roof. Throughout the home, there was always a pair of glass eyes fixed on you, in a dead pose. Hiding behind branches and logs, all brought home by Hoffman, were wildcats, mountain lions, opossum, bison, elk, moose, deer, eagles, herons, pheasants, ducks, and so forth. Starting with the front door - a huge slab of solid wood with hand-forged hinges and hardware. The house also contained many portraits of Hoffman with other officials, and furniture like a teak wood chair, bear trap, and a wardrobe painted with a mountain scene. The entire house is built of true logs - no visual tricks here. Through the front doors, you come upon a dramatic, 5-foot-wide central staircase, originally carpeted in an Oriental Rug. Hanging above it was a huge wrought lantern on an 8-foot chain.

On one side of the stair is the impressive formal dining room, with huge solid-wood furniture. This room was decorated with a portrait of Lincoln and a huge wrought-iron lantern.

To the rear is the reception hall, which had the most elaborate furniture: needle-pointed chairs with hand-carved walnut frames brought from France by Hoffman's mother; tables of teak inlaid with mother-of-pearl (gifts from Chinatown's 'mayor'); a tall grandfather clock; an American flag on a 12-foot pole given to Hoffman by the "40 and 8" for his charity to World War I veterans.

An archway framed in philodendron leaves leads to the 35-foot living room with a 12-foot natural river stone fireplace. The room had a warm glow emanating from candlelight bulbs, antique furniture, and oriental rugs. The hand-wrought drapery rods bore an "H" monogram. The first floor also contains an ample kitchen, a guest room, and a den complete with a 1930s jukebox. Upstairs, a balcony opened onto three bedrooms and a bath; several of the walls are composed entirely of flattened bark.

So who was Peter M. Hoffman? After graduating from Des Plaines' schools, he went to a 2 year business college, worked as a grocery clerk and as Money Order Clerk at the Chicago Post Office. He then went to work for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, where he worked for 17 years, becoming chief clerk for the Freight Department. During this time, he began his climb up the political ladder.

He was described as coarse, rough around the edges, sometimes oafish. He cut an imposing figure, with a walrus mustache, curly hair, and steely eyes.

In his time, Hoffman was clearly the biggest political name in Des Plaines. He served as Des Plaines Village Board President in 1893-1894, where he worked hard trying to get cement sidewalks in town. He was Board of Education president from 1898-1917. In 1916 he was also president of Des Plaines State Bank, a director of the Des Plaines Commercial Association. He was also a member of the Chicago Association of Commerce, the Hamilton Club, the Illinois Athletic Club, the Chicago Real Estate Board, the Masonic Fraternity, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Royal League, the Royal Arcanum, the Modern Woodmen, the Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose, the Maccabees, the German Benevolent Society, the Plattdeutsche Gilde and other fraternal organizations., Meanwhile, he was a Cook County Commissioner from 1898-1904 and then County Coroner from 1904-1923, where he went through a series of typical Cook County scandals - patronage, etc.

In those days, a coroner served an administrative function - not directly examining bodies. As coroner, he claimed to have "posted over 100,000 bodies." In 1912, he brought in modernization to the coroner's office; he brought in a laboratory, began keeping detailed records, and formed a committee to select physicians to hire. In 1913 he kicked off the Safety First campaign with the Public Safety Commission of Chicago, an early effort aimed at cutting automobile and industrial accidents, including educational programs in schools. He pushed for paved railroad crossings and marked crosswalks. In 1915 he played an important and often-overlooked role in the Eastland disaster.

With a rapidly rising body count, Hoffman realized that a large, central location was needed to store the dead, so that identification could take place in an orderly manner. Observing rescue efforts, he immediately launched a special jury to find the blame for the disaster. Later, he would be tasked with keeping order in the inevitably heated and chaotic scene at the warehousing site.

In 1922 Hoffman was elected Sheriff. Remember this was the roaring 20s, Prohibition. Hoffman saw Leopold & Loeb; saw Capone's rise to power, and so forth. An ingrained politician, Hoffman would be involved in one of the more embarrassing Cook County scandals ever. In 1926, Republican bosses had slated Hoffman to move up to County Treasurer as a reward for his work with a political alliance in the "country towns" - Cook County at that time had separate boards for the City and still-rural suburbs.

Hoffman had run for Sheriff as a reformer - odd given his track record as Coroner - and vowed to clean up the corrupt and seriously overcrowded (built for 500, housing 1500) Cook County Jail. He hired Warden Wesley Westbrook from the Chicago Police Department, who was hailed by reform groups as squeaky clean.

Two of the inmates were bootleggers Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan of the Valley Gang, bigger than Capone in their time. They had been sentenced to a year in prison by Federal Judge James Wilkerson for contempt of court. They arranged to pay the squeaky clean Westbrook $2,000 a month for special privileges, discovered when a newspaper reporter came to interview Druggan.

He was told by the jailer, "Mr. Druggan isn't in today." The reporter then tried to interview lake. "Mr. Lake also had an appointment downtown. They'll be back after dinner." Naturally this raised the newspaperman's eyebrow.

The reporter learned from other jail personnel not receiving pay that, after morning roll call, Druggan and Lake were able to do whatever they wanted. In trial, the District Attorney found that Druggan had visited the dentist approximately 100 times in the year, where he met friends, did business, and stopped at banks, friends, and associates on the way to and from the office. Druggan was chauffered from jail in his own limousine to his 15-room Lake Shore Drive apartment with a silver plated toilet seat to spend evenings with his wife. Lake visited his mistress. Other times they went to their doctors and dentists (a dozen visits...), shopped, dined, golfed, went to the nightclubs. They also recieved private rooms with baths, and pampering by the jail staff. That's one way to address overcrowding.

Hoffman was shocked, shocked! that something like this could happen under his watch, and immediately fired Warden Westbrook. In court, before the same Judge Wilkerson, Westbrook then turned the blame on Hoffman. He explained that, following a visit from 20th Ward Boss Morris Eller, Hoffman came to acommodate the boys for their clearly unfair sentence. Although nobody could prove Hoffman recieved any part of the bribes, which totalled $20,000, Hoffman was found in contempt of court, and entered the history books by becoming the only Cook County Sheriff to serve prison time while still in office - 30 days, plus a $2,500 fine. Later that year, he resigned, claiming he would work as a private citizen to amend the Volstead act, which he said was unenforceable and overtaxed the Sheriff's resources.

Two weeks later, he was appointed assistant forester in charge of the county forest preserves, where he served until 1932.

In 1990, the Sun-Times described him so: "Perhaps the most buffoonish of all Cook County sheriffs was Peter M. Hoffman , who wore a diamond-studded gold star in the Prohibition era. Hoffman was the prototype for dim-witted sheriff Peter B. Hartman in the rollicking newspaper play "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was Hoffman who merrily opened up the western suburbs to Capone's mob. The sheriff also was reputed to be on gangster Johnny Torrio's payroll."

In 1970, Hoffman's daughter, Evelyn Johnson, who lived in the house from 1948 until her own death in 1995, said in a newspaper piece on the house, "I love this place, and I love old things. There is so much around that should be preserved. I have tried to keep everything in its original state - the lanterns, the collection of old guns, the oxen yoke and bear trap, as well as all the animals, fish, and birds."

Unfortunately, the house today is starting to show its age; sags are visible in the roof and bark and logs seem to be rotting. The house has been listed for sale several times in the past several years, and, judging from this video, is now unoccupied with many of its furnishings missing. This house is clearly one of the most interesting in Des Plaines and is more than deserving of landmark protection; why isn't it?

UPDATE 09/10: The house was rehabilitated over the summer to address the previous issues. Many of the logs were stripped of bark, stained, and sealed to prevent rot; many boards and logs were replaced; and the trim was painted green. The Hoffman cabin has a refreshed look and a new lease on life.