Maxwell Street Station Farewell

Maxwell & Morgan Streets

Maxwell & Morgan Streets

Can a building have a soul? The Maxwell Street Station at 943 West Maxwell in Chicago was a building where people shared history—lived history, actually—a building where people’s lives were forever changed, a building some will never forget, a building where people died. I can see my religious friends raise their eyebrows askance. Perhaps “soul” is not the best choice of words. Character. That’s the word, a building can have character and no building had more character for me than Maxwell Street, home for a time to my Area Four Homicide Unit and a plethora of other units over nearly 100 years of operation.

This came to mind as I read of other Chicago Police buildings closing recently in the wake of one of the most major reorganizations of the Chicago Police Department since the days of Orlando Wilson in the 1960′s. The decommissioning of the Maxwell Street Station was marked with great fanfare nearly 15 years ago. I wrote about it that night:

•  •  •

October 10, 1997. Tonight we celebrated the closing of the “Hills Street Blues” station.  Known here in Chicago as the “Maxwell Street” station, it was forever immortalized in the opening scenes every week on that most popular police show.

To those of us who worked at Maxwell Street, it was a unique and special place long before the TV show.  That was evidenced by the several hundred officers and their families who showed up tonight to share a hot dog and a beer or pop, take a picture and exchange war stories.  There was a live band, police parachutists dropped in, and a great deal of positive media.  Built in 1899 and in reality due to actually close early next year, I knew that tonight would probably be my last visit.

I was fortunate to have worked Maxwell Street Homicide for almost six years before our unit was moved to a new station several miles west.  I have always said that of my 29 year police career, as patrol officer, detective, sergeant and lieutenant, if I could relive any of it, it would be my years as a Maxwell Street homicide detective.  Tonight just reaffirms that in my mind.  For a few minutes I manage to tear myself away from my old homicide buddies.

I walk the single long flight of marble stairs, inch and a half deep paths worn into each side. On the stairs, it suddenly occurs to me that my father was born in 1901 and raised just blocks from this station.  Did he ever walk these stairs?  If he did, why?  What were the circumstances? I’ll never know. There was no path worn into the stairs then.

I stand in what once was our squad room on the second floor and I look around. A murder happened right here. A husband and wife had been brought into the station for an interview about a domestic disturbance. The husband dropped a derringer out of his sleeve and shot his wife to death right across the table and then set the gun down to await his arrest. We were always known as “the murder factory,” having the most homicides of any area in the city.  But our commander couldn’t believe it. “My God!” he said, “Now they’re killin’ each other right in the squad room!”

As I leave the building, I smile to myself as I think of the dungeon just below, sealed and off limits for the past many years. The basement housed the station lockup in some previous era of this grand old building. “The dungeon” was our terminology, in reality it was nothing more than abandoned cells, and it really wasn’t too well sealed if you knew where to look. Of course “sealed and off limits” to some cops is an overt challenge so my partner Mike and I surreptitiously gained access in the wee hours of a midnight tour of duty.

If the building itself had character, the basement cells, long ago abandoned, were steeped in “character.” The “dungeon” was dimly lit with low wattage incandescent bulbs controlled by old style rotary wall switches rather than the square toggle switches that are more familiar today. The lights cast a dusty orange pall over the entire area, the smell was that of a hundred year old basement. Cell doors had been removed long ago but some bars remained. In the center of each cell floor were holes that appeared to serve as lavatories. But most interesting was the graffiti on the concrete walls of the cells.

Cell Wall

Cell Wall

Pictured above, “Pretty Boy Forey” and compatriot “Red” gun down a cop. Another body lies below the trio. Note the zoot suit (circa 1940) and wide brimmed fedora worn by Forey and the pork-pie cap worn by Red. (I took  literary license with the inscription after noting that Red’s gun was going, “Bong, bong.”)

I leave the building and walk across the street and just stare from the outside. Good heavens, two of my four sons were born while I was assigned to this building! One of them reports to the police academy tomorrow morning for the first stages of recruit processing. Is it any measure of a man if his children choose to follow in his footsteps? Will he make it? Dear Lord, keep him safe. What will his memories be thirty years from now?

I rejoin my old homicide friends. Goodbye Maxwell Street. I raise my beer silently; this one’s for you and all the men and women that ever worked here. Thanks for the chance to remember the past…  and wonder about the future.

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31 Comments on “Maxwell Street Station Farewell”

  1. Mary Rita Shull says:

    Jim, thank you once again for sharing this story. I believe that those days working at Area 4 Homicide at Maxwell Street were Mike’s happiest days.

  2. Mean Gene the Marine says:

    History yes!

    If those walls could talk!

    Lt. G.S.
    RPS 72/95

  3. Kathleen Nolan OMalley says:

    Jim, I worked in Intelligence as a civilian from 1974 – 1980 on the 2nd floor. I again worked there from 1983 – 1986 in the Gambling Unit of Vice Control as a new officer. That didn’t last long! Lol interesting building. As a civilian we played popular card games such as UNO and listened to the Soaps on our radio in one of the cells behind the stairs on our lunch hour. Well, that is if prostitution hadn’t picked up any girls! What a flash from the past!

    • jimpadar says:

      Kathleen, thanks for your comment. Over the nearly 100 years the building operated as a Chicago Police Facility there were an eclectic group of units that worked from that location. That list of units alone would fill a book.

  4. Sad that another Chicago icon disappears. What happened to all of the people who care about history?

  5. John Northen says:

    Ah, nostalgia with fond memories and lots of laughs.

    Great piece, Jim.

  6. jim brown says:

    In 1961 coming out of police school on O Brien street i did not want to be assigned to 25th district(Fillmore) and was delighted to be assigned to the 22nd district(Maxwell Street). It was like old home week with a bunch of police from the old neighborhood. It was a good time but short lived.. 22 closed and became 12 and then i was transferred to Fillmore when Warren Ave closed.. In 1965 back to Maxwell(area 4) in homicide… I think the building and the people of 943 W Maxwell hold a lot of stories that I remember. Your article, Jim, brought home a lot of memories. Thank you.

    • jimpadar says:

      Hey Jim… sounds like you’ve been around almost as long as the building itself! :)

      Thanks for the comments, our days, at least during the Area 4 Homicide times were special indeed.

  7. Rich says:

    Worked for a short time under the supervision of the psychotic Captain Ronnie Nash– A/4 Traffic. May he not rest in peace.

  8. Tony Giralamo Jr. says:

    I had the opportunity to have been connected to that building in several ways. My father was assigned there for many years working G/A from the 60′s all the way until Area 4 moved over to Harrison St. He used to take me to work on occasion on his day off to pick up files, paycheck, talk to a witness, whatever. I saw all the activity going on the second floor with bad guys handcuffed to the radiators, typewriters tapping away, the worn out stairs heading up to the second floor, and people on the front stairs bleeding. It was a lot to take in as a kid, but I liked it and it made for good stories at school on Monday. My father would walk me down the street to see the vendors on Maxwell. They all knew him and handed me treats for free. One of the advantages of a coppers kid.

    Time passed and I too got on the job. 10 years into my career, I was detailed to Gang Investigations for 6 months and had the opportunity to work at Maxwell St. It was only for a short time but I felt proud to have walked in the path of my dad 30 years later. Nothing stays the same, especially on this job but Maxwell St certainly held it’s own for generations…..

    • jimpadar says:

      Tony, thanks for your comments and warm memories… that’s the kind of stuff that makes this blog rewarding. I appreciate your sharing. My son was going for his power test the day after this was written. He was hired the following year, but by that time the Chicago PD had vacated the building. He’s building his own memory bank now and having fun doing it.

  9. Silvia says:

    I joined the force after watching many episodes of Hill Street Blues, I always wanted to go inside. Now I have. Thank you.

    • jimpadar says:

      The UIC Police still operate out of that ol” station. I have no doubt they’d give you a tour, but I hear they completely refurbished the interior… probably stripped out all the “character.”

  10. John says:

    When I was in narcotics, we would use Maxwell St. to process offenders. We would set up doing it in old lock up. One thing I remember from that old lock up was “troughs” in the floor. The other thing I remember from that station was the long ass stairway going to the 2nd floor had that depression in the middle from who knows how many victims, witnesses, coppers and dics thousands of trips up an down them. I also wondered how man “express rides” came down them .

  11. Karen Martin says:

    Love listening to old “war stories” and being able to relive those times through someone else’s memories. Thanks boss for the glimpse of what used to be! I had been in and out of 943 many times over the years, when I worked in the old telephone unit…every time a unit moved in or out. Every trip there I wondered who in history had been walking in the same places I was walking.

    • jimpadar says:

      Hi Karen… thanks for your comment and I am glad you enjoy the blog.

      If the walls of that ol’ building could talk, it could be a TV series that would run forever.

  12. John G. says:

    I was assigned to Area 4 Task Force during 1965 & 66. We were on the second floor across for the “D” Area. I remember during Sundays when the Maxwell street market was in full swing, we would shoot bottle rockets from the second floor window over the crowed market.
    Yes the stairs were many,but we were young at that time. Years later Maxwell was the home of the Intelligent Division who had moved from Navy Pier. Jack

  13. PAT DARCY says:

    Maxwell Street Lounge the Best

  14. Phil says:

    Hey Jim, tell Pat I think it was called Junior’s Sports Bar 724 W. Maxwell St. (?)

  15. Tommy Gierut says:

    Hill Street Blues could’nt hold a candle to the Old Fillmore Dist. and the
    Maxwell station.In my 29 yrs in Fillmore / Area 4, I had made many trips to that old station…lotsa stories… lotsa laughs… lotsa secrets… lotsa memories! Thank’s for the memories Jim!

    Tommy Gierut [CPD retired ]
    Elmwood Park, IL

  16. Don Herion says:

    The first day they filmed Hill Street Blues with Dan Travanti who was the boss of Hill Street in the series they were starting, They set up the garage door and the squad cars came roaring out. I was working on the 1st floor in the middle of the building which didn’t have any windows or A/C the Lt. had an office with a window A/C and kept his door shut. Very large bugs were crawling all over the office which was the gambling unit. When Hill St. began they showed a scene with about 50 people hanging around the front desk, yelling & acting goofy,
    I never thought that the series would last long but it did, even with the cop who would bite prisoners ears. I retired out of Maxwell St. in 1992 after 38 years of vaudeville. We had the honor of busting Harry Aleman, Butch Petrocelli, Jimmy Inendino, Jimmy “the bomber Catuara”
    Lenny Patrick all mob guys & Hit Men through the years and threw them all in our lockup in Maxwell St.. Some we showed our old detention cells in the basement where the bars had been removed & explained how lucky they were being in the cell upstairs that had a toilet.

  17. Ray How says:

    Was assigned to Area Four Task Force 1966 thru 1969.. It was one of the best units I was ever assigned. I have many memories of the Maxwell St station . Thank you Jim for bringing these memories back.
    Ray H


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