How one man races to keep the past of Chicago present

CHICAGO -- Eric Nordstrom didn’t plan to spend his life poking around crumbling churches, homes and hospitals on a quest to document history. He studied molecular genetics at the University of Minnesota and was a staff scientist at the University of Chicago. But he would spend weekends wandering through abandoned buildings just to see what he could find.

“I call it portals to the past,” Nordstrom said. “These are the stories that make Chicago such an interesting place to live.”

As demolition teams tear down old structures to make way for new construction, Nordstrom is in a race against time to save what he can. He and his team collect artifacts, most of them predating the 1940's, and deliver them to his West Town warehouse. The unassuming building that’s overflowing with bits and pieces of Chicago history. Then, he traces the roots of his findings. If he discovers a name, he searches for descendants.

Inside some trunks found near the Formusa factory at 710 Grand Ave., Nordstrom said, he found an array of personal letters, photographs and clothes, all from 1935 and earlier. So he tracked down the relatives of Vincent Formusa, which runs the Marconi label today. Nordstrom was eager to present his findings to them.

"I was more excited to find the family and then give some of the stuff back,” he said. "They went through all the trunks. They pulled out things that meant something to them, and I said just take it. I still have the trunks.”

The discoveries can be of a different nature. Lincoln Park Hospital closed in 2008, but it had a long history. The building was once the site of Grant Hospital. When the building was torn down, Nordstrom found a surprising message in a time capsule reflecting the fears of the cold war era in 1962: “if you’ve discovered this or are reading this, you’ve clearly survived, or there wasn’t a World War III.”

In a time when new homes or new construction are hot commodities, many old cottages, built right after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, are disappearing. Families who owned these pieces of Chicago history die, and descendants often don’t have the finances or interest in saving them. But they sit on valuable real estate.

For instance, the days appear to be numbered for a cottage dating to the 1870's in River North on Superior and Wells. So Nordstrom went inside, and photographed it for posterity. He will save what he can to document Chicago’s past. He says he can’t imagine himself doing anything else.

"These are stories that need to be told 'cause otherwise, they’ll just be forgotten, and so much has already been forgotten,” Nordstrom said.