Chicago man envisions South Side winery

April 21, 2011 4:22:16 PM PDT
A Chicago man has some unusual plans for an old, boarded-up building near Washington Park.

Bill Lavicka wants to turn the building in the 5700-block of S. Lafayette into a winery and he wants to grow grapes on land just east of the Dan Ryan expressway.

The 140-year-old John Raber House has sat empty for a quarter-century. Named after the Chicago businessman and politician who first lived there, the house is one of the few surviving homes that was built before the Great Chicago Fire.

"It's seen some rough days, but it's structurally sound," said Lavicka. "It needs to be put back together... it needs to be brought back to its heyday."

Lavicka says that he is the man to do it. The city-owned landmark, he says, would be a perfect place to make wine.

"Bring it back on the tax rolls, put it to use, get something off it besides the weeds," said Lavicka.

Lavicka wants to do more than just bottle and sell wine here.

He is convinced that he can grow grapes on the two-acre site, and his supporters include his alderman, who has been working to transform the area into a center for parks, youth sports, and urban agriculture.

"It is just one piece of the puzzle to return this area back to the glamour that it was many years ago," said 20th Ward Alderman Willie B. Cochran.

The matter is not without its complications.

Lavicka wants the city to sell him the land for mere dollars and is asking taxpayers to foot the bill for sidewalk and street improvements.

With shuttered stores and fast food restaurants a block away, some residents see a mismatch.

"Well, I think it's an insult," said Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council. "Something as major as a winery in the inner city, in fact a community that's been identified as a food desert, who needs to eat grapes?"

"We once had 50,000 people living here. We're down to about 15,000 now," said Cochran. "What that means is it has given us an opportunity to look at the future and design the future to what we want it to be."

The incoming Emanuel administration may ultimately decide the matter. For now, Lavicka must wait to uncork his dream.

"No sense in it staying fallow for another fifty years," said Lavicka. "Let's grow some grapes. Make some wine."