HARVEY, Ill. (AP) — Much has changed since Bill Brody moved from Harvey to Michigan in 1968. But one thing has been constant.
“Bum’s Castle was always present in Harvey,” he said. “You could see it everywhere. When I moved, it was the last thing I saw, and when I came back to visit, it was the first thing I saw.”
And it’s still there, looming over the area near 155th and Halsted streets.
Harvey was a bustling city at the dawn of the 20th century, when access to railroad transportation and arterial roadways such as Halsted created an ideal situation for industry and agriculture alike.
Farmers from the surrounding areas would bring their grain and corn to a complex along Halsted where it could be processed and loaded onto cars on the Grand Trunk railroad for shipment to consumers across the country.
But there were problems. The first grain elevator on the site, made of wood, burned to the ground, so a replacement was erected, also out of wood, which also burned down.
In Three Pigs fashion, the Harvey Grain Co. erected a third elevator on the site, this time out of thick blocks of reinforced concrete. No fire would destroy this state of the art structure, according to an item in the July 10, 1971 edition of Grain Dealer’s Journal announcing its completion.
Things were looking up the following year, when a Harvey Grain Co. advertisement in the April 18, 1918 edition of The American Elevator and Grain Trade publication touting their “fast working house, ample storage and car supplies and advantageous location on Eastern Trunk Lines.”
At some point, the company’s luck turned and a third fire left the impervious structure standing but destroyed its contents. Meanwhile, agricultural activity in the suburbanizing Southland was starting to dwindle, and by 1924 the hexagonal silo near what’s now 155th Street and Halsted was used primarily as a billboard of sorts. According to a short article in the Sept. 6, 1973 South Holland Tribune shared by Carl Durnavich, a steel scaffolding and screen were mounted on the roof where advertisements were projected.
It was pretty high tech for that time, but only lasted a few years. The concrete building remains standing, however, and over the years it’s earned the moniker “Bum’s Castle,” because of the decorative battlements at its top.
While it’s been abandoned for many decades, Bum’s Castle has become a landmark structure. It’s a prominent scene for riders on Metra’s Electric District trains and can be viewed by the millions of motorists traversing I-80 every year. In recent times, it’s attracted urban explorers trying to generate clicks on internet video sites.
There was an effort in the late 1970s to tear down the structure, former Harvey Mayor Nick Graves told me when I was looking for information about it for a story 20 years ago. But it was built to withstand the blasts that occasionally happen when grain dust becomes explosive. The city had no success and abandoned its effort to wreck the abandoned building.
Brody is glad it’s still there. More than just a landmark, Bum’s Castle was the muse that revitalized his career as an artist.
Harvey native Bill Brody’s painting of Bum’s Castle won a juried art show in the Washington, D.C. area and revitalized his art career. Now his art is shown all over the world.
Harvey native Bill Brody’s painting of Bum’s Castle won a juried art show in the Washington, D.C. area and revitalized his art career. Now his art is shown all over the world. (William Brody photo)
After a promising start that saw him selling art in a gallery inside Dixie Square Mall while still a student at Thornton Township High School, get a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and study art at Northern Michigan University, Brody found himself working at a mental hospital and not selling any of his work.
“I was painting, but not producing anything or showing anywhere,” he said. “My dream of being a legitimate artist was fading, and the future didn’t look good.”
He’d moved to Michigan years before, but he had fond memories of his hometown of Harvey, and decided to go back to his roots and switch from surreal images to realistic images from happier times.
“I was upset how life gave me the big detour and so I set out to do something different with my art,” Brody said. “That’s where Bum’s Castle came in.”
He did a series of paintings showing favorite scenes from his childhood in Harvey — the Minuette Lunch diner, Scott’s 5&10, the Carnegie Library — and of course, Bum’s Castle.
People began to relate to his paintings, Brody said, and he started to exhibit and enter competitive shows once again. One of the first was in the Washington, D.C., area.
“I sent my Bum’s Castle painting, and lo and behold, it won,” he said.
He had the opportunity to place work in galleries in Alexandria, Virginia, and some of his Harvey paintings ended up being purchased for display in the Congressional Building in Washington, D.C.
He’s been making a living with his art for more than 20 years, now, and not long ago became a member of the Thornton Township High School Hall of Fame.
“I have been very fortunate with my art and have been given many great opportunities. My art has appeared in books, magazines and on video and even in the PGA’s Buick Open posters,” he said.
Brody likes to keep track of where his paintings end up, along with the stories of his buyers.
His Harvey Theater painting was bought by a New York City filmmaker who grew up next door to the theater in a Harvey hotel and used to sneak in for movies using a rooftop route.
The purchaser of his Carnegie Library painting is a linguistics professor who grew up in South Holland, where there was no library, and his mom used to take him to the Harvey facility, Brody said.
Another of his Harvey paintings placed in an international show ended up being sold to the owner of the Bangkok Airport Hotel, where it hangs, Brody said.
His brother owns the original painting of Bum’s Castle, though prints of the artwork have been sent far and wide.
No matter where they end up, his images of Harvey capture universal themes.
“People put their own take on it,” he said. “The small corner stores, or the bars and things like that, people are convinced that’s my grandfather’s bar. I don’t know. I kinda painted it.”
Unlike Bum’s Castle, many of the subjects of his paintings have long since been demolished. And it’s not just in Harvey. Brody now lives between Flint and Pontiac, Michigan, towns ravaged by the disappearance of auto manufacturing jobs.
“Things have changed so much. With the Harvey paintings, people remember their youth, and it’s in a spot that no longer exists,” Brody said. “I find that to be true especially in the Midwest where a lot of these smaller towns had manufacturing that went away.”
There aren’t people in his paintings, which he showcases at wbrody.com.
“Now I purposely leave them out so the viewer can take their time and get lost within the scene,” he said.
He focuses rather on the landmarks such as Bum’s Castle.
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“That’s what I want to paint, so people can reflect back on their earlier lives,” he said.
Hopefully the seemingly indestructible Bum’s Castle will remain part of the scenery for generations of kids growing up in Harvey, poking at the imagination and adding a touch of mystery to the Southland skyline.
Source: The Daily Southtown, https://bit.ly/2RaoU4y
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