When a dilapidated town house on an otherwise vacant lot in a decrepit West Side neighborhood collapsed here last month, a man about 40 was caught inside.
The abandoned building had no interior walls, and badly damaged exterior walls had held up the swaying rafters and the handsome, cut-stone front that had faced the street for much of this century.
The dwelling tumbled down with barely an instant's warning. The man inside never had a chance. Police came, but it didn't matter. A huge chunk of stone and concrete had killed a person they identified as Johnny Robbinson.
"Accidental death," wrote the cops on their preliminary report.
"Crushed to death," said the medical examiner's autopsy report. "Died of multiple injuries due to collapse of building."
"Brick thief," said John Hight with a chomp on his unlit cigar. "First one killed this year."
Hight should know. He and his boss, John Dean, are experts on Chicago's brick thieves, a shadowy army of ad hoc demolitionists who illegally wreck abandoned buildings to salvage increasingly valuable old bricks. Dean and Hight occupy a unique vantage point: they run the city's Demolition Office, which handles the growing problem of derelict buildings in this city of 3.2 million people.
Currently, the office lists 3,000 buildings of every kind as abandoned and dangerously vandalized. Each month brings 300 new complaints or reports from Chicagoans of derelict buildings that may soon fall prey to brick robbers.
The thieves are an expensive scourge for the financially strapped city. They usually leave a dangerously gutted hulk after removing most of the interior and bearing walls. City Hall's bill for pulling down the shells totals several hundred thousand dollars annually. And the thieves rarely are caught.
"The life expectancy of a vacant building on a vacant lot now is one to two weeks," said Dean, director of demolition for four years. Last year, 150 buildings were heavily damaged by brick thieves, a sevenfold increase from 1982. The pace has continued this year.
The booty is the bricks, known as "Chicago common," which fetch up to $120 per thousand from middlemen. Dealers resell the bricks to architects, builders and homeowners eager to use attractive pieces of the past to help break the monotony of today's cookie-cutter housing developments.
One Chicago brick dealer quoted a price of $220 per thousand for used bricks, while new bricks cost $200 per thousand.
Photographs in Dean's office on the ninth floor of City Hall tell a vivid tale of latter-day plundering. A typical 10-day sequence of pictures of one building shows a town house virtually disappearing before your eyes, as though it were a gingerbread house attacked by a hungry child.
The first four days show no apparent depredations. But on the fifth day, the wooden porches and stairways at the back of the building are suddenly missing. On the sixth day, the rear wall has disappeared. The seventh day takes most of the side wall. Now you can see through the building, because its interior walls also have been demolished.
By the 10th day, only the stone front and roof, a mass of buckling junk, hang over the street, ready to collapse without warning.
Dean said thieves need little more than a pickup truck, a long wire cable and a sledgehammer to take a building down. Under cover of darkness, they drive to a vacant house, clamber in through a broken window, haul in the cable and pass it around an interior wall. They make it fast to the truck bumper, then yank hard with the pickup.
"The mortar in those old houses is lime-based and it doesn't stick to the bricks after all these years," Dean said. "A whole wall can come down just like that. The bricks are almost completely clean."
Most interior walls in old houses are composed of two thicknesses of bricks -- 14 bricks per square foot. Enough bricks can be obtained from two interior walls in a typical triplex, called a "three-flat" here, to bring $3,000 for a night's work.
"That's pretty good wages," Dean said. "You can make more money than in private industry and they treat you better, too, because you've got something people want."
The city is left to clean up the mess. Frequently, protracted legal tussles ensue as city officials try to identify and bill owners for the final demolition.
In recent years, Dean and Hight say, at least three men have died when dangerously weakened buildings came crashing down on scavengers. They assume that this was the fate of the man police identified as Johnny Robbinson, who was killed Jan. 9 when the building at 1428 W. Monroe St. collapsed.
Meanwhile, the market for the handsome "Chicago common" bricks is expanding in the Sun Belt, whose building boom seems unstoppable. "Southerners like this brick in their rumpus rooms," Dean said with a shrug. "It's a big item for architects there. It has a weathered, soft-orange look, and they've never seen it before in the Sun Belt states."
Chicago's plight is shared by other older cities in the North and East. In New York City, thieves have removed bricks from old streets. Similar attacks have occurred in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston, where red bricks have been part of the urban scene for three centuries.
The problem is not going away. The contrary seems more likely, as economic decline and stringent pollution controls have shut down brickyards. That occurred here years ago. The only source of "Chicago common" now is Chicago's houses.
"It's a real shame," Dean said. "We lose the housing and we're struggling to get people decent dwellings. And whatever is built today can't match the way they built things back then. Some of those buildings, why, you could have put a Mack truck on the roof and it would stand up. But no more."