The Last Days of a Weird Chicago Landmark

January 2007
The old and rotting staircase is gone now and the tree that once stood proudly in front of this unusual house has been removed. Many of the brightly colored crosses that were once scattered over the face of the house have vanished too, erased by time and the elements. The neighborhood too, which was once predominantly Polish, then Hispanic, has changed too. It's become another victim of Chicago "gentrification", as old houses and forgotten businesses are destroyed to make way for yet another condominium complex. Such seems to be the fate of what may have called "the weirdest house in Illinois".

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.

The Last Days
Family members remained at the House of Crosses for a number of years after Mitch died, but the deteriorating condition of the house made it more and more treacherous for Mitch's elderly sister. As the neighborhood began to turn into condos, there seemed to be little else to do but sell the place --- bringing an era of Weird Chicago history to an end.

In early January, Adam Selzer of the Weird Chicago Tours came to the House of Crosses to shoot some scenes for a music video that he was working on with his band. The house had been a regular stop on the Weird Chicago Tour since the beginning and had appeared in Troy Taylor's book, Weird Illinois. In homage to this landmark, Adam planned to feature it in the video. He had noticed "for sale" signs on the property for the past couple of weeks but on the day of the video shoot, he discovered the house had been sold. By chance, he ran into the owner, Mitch's nephew, and learned that the days of the House of Crosses were numbered.

So, if you get a chance to drive over the Chicago's west side, and take a trip down Chestnut Street, don't miss this weird landmark. Take plenty of photos, while you still can, and remember with fondness this unusual house and, most importantly, the unusual and beloved man who created it.

© Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

Click on the itunes button to hear a Weird Chicago podcast and exclusive interview with Mitch's nephew and owner of the House of Crosses

A view of the House of Crosses from across Chestnut Street (Adam Selzer)

A close-up view of some of the many crosses that decorated the house (Adam Selzer)

Some of the rarely seen (and never photographed) crosses that were attached to the coach house at the back of the property. Mitch's nephew was kind enough to give us unprecedented access to the property. (Adam Selzer)

Some of the demolition work on the house begins with the removal of the original staircase. (Adam Selzer)

Workmen tear out the remains of the tree that was located in front of the house (Adam Selzer)

House of Crosses -- the Final Days (Adam Selzer)