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The House of Crosses

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Keira Kensington
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« on: October 12, 2008, 10:45:22 pm »

The House of Crosses

Until the early days of 2007, there was no way that a traveler with a penchant for the weird could miss this house as he turned onto West Chestnut Street, a narrow thoroughfare in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago. It’s been called many things ---- the “House of Crosses”, the “Cross House”, the “It’s What I Do House” by the American Institute of Architects and by others, well, it’s been called downright weird. Whatever you want to call it though, you have to see it to believe it. Because for almost 25 years, the owner of the house covered it with hundreds of wooden crosses, plaques and shields that were emblazoned red, black and silver. Dozens and dozens of the crosses that were marked with famous names. But why did he do it? What drove a man named Mitch Szewczyk to create what has been called "one of the weirdest houses in Illinois?"

What came to be called the House of Crosses started out as a modest west side home when it was built in 1879. It was constructed by a Polish immigrant who used it to woo his prospective bride to Chicago from Poland with the promise that she would have a home to live in when she came to America. The family was happy here for decades. Children were born and one of them, Mitchell, took up residence in the coach house located behind the house. He later moved into the upstairs apartment in the back so that he could take care of his elderly mother in her later years.

After Mitch moved into the apartment, he began decorating it with crosses. In addition to being a devout Catholic, he was also fascinated with the Crusades and by medieval history. Many of the wooden crosses and shields that he made, mostly using material that he found in the streets, were of a Templar and medieval design. He never intended to do anything with them (his mother forbade him to decorate the outside of the house with them) but he kept busy making them in his spare time.

In 1977, Mitch's mother passed away and by this time, the West Town neighborhood had taken a turn for the worse. Mitch started having problems with gang members and crime in the area and for some reason, decided to hang a single red cross on the outside of the house. He did it in hopes that it might deter troublemakers from causing problems on this property. Strangely enough, it worked. Mitch never had problems with neighborhood crime again but just to make sure of this, he decided to hang a couple of other crosses on the house and around the yard. And, so it began....

Starting in 1979 and continuing for almost 25 years, Mitch made more and more of the wooden crosses and nailed them all over the house. The pattern changed from being merely protection from crime to an artistic tribute to saints, the Pope, local politicians and even to the movie stars of his youth. It was not an attempt to be morbid  because many of the names of the people that appeared on the crosses had not died and many of them, like Tarzan and Zorro, had never really lived at all.

As time passed, Mitch added more movie stars, movie characters and even movie titles to what was rapidly becoming a strange and colorful place. Just some of the dozens of names included Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Lancelot, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Buckwheat, the Cisco Kid, and even former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne, who had a prominent spot. Mitch also planted crosses all over the yard and constructed a shrine to Pope John Paul II. In fact, when the Pope visited Chicago, he came to this largely Polish area and his caravan even made a stop at the Houses of Crosses to view the shrine that had been created in his honor.

Mitch never stopped adding to the house, right up until the time that he became bedridden in the early 1990s. His biggest regret was that he was not able to complete his King Kong cross. He claimed that it would be the biggest and best that he had ever made. Mitch passed away a few years later and the fate of the House of Crosses went into limbo.

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