Many of our readers sent us photographs of the “ghost sign” that was exposed on the 1000 block of Church Street during the demolition to make way for the new Northlight Theater, wondering about its origins.

The “ghost sign” that was exposed during demolition to make way for the new Northlight Theater. Credit: Paul Zalmacek

Thank you for sending us your photos and inquires. Our interest was piqued, too, about the World War II era sign that has since been lost to the rubble. We took a look at our files to uncover the story. The 1945 Sanborn maps indicate the building was owned by the Victor Gaskets Company. Its founder, John H. Victor, once lived in Evanston.

Victor Gaskets was founded in 1909 by two brothers, John Henry (1882-1957) and Joseph B.  Victor (1887-1962). They were joined by their brothers Paul (1885-1954) and Benjamin J. (1895-1962). Their parents, Frank “Victor” Wiktorowicz (1856-1923) and Katarzyna Wiktorowicz (1859-1902), had immigrated from Eastern Europe. Census records variously record their native country as Poland, Germany or Russia. The family changed their name to Victor around 1900.

John and Joseph were both employed in the tool and die industry in the early 1900s. They saw a need for better gaskets, used to seal junctions in machinery and engines. A later retrospective noted that the company was born in a shop in the basement of an apartment building on Chicago’s South Side in 1909. Within a year they had five employees and had been incorporated. As the automobile industry grew exponentially, Victor Manufacturing Company became one of the major suppliers of gaskets used in engines.

Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, August 27, 1922
Chicago Tribune, Jan. 27, 1929

In 1919, 10 years after starting the business, the company built a large manufacturing plant at 5750 Roosevelt Road, becoming one of the first industries in the Cicero manufacturing district. The company continued to grow, announcing a seven-story addition to the plant in January 1929. The Chicago Tribune ran an article about the company and a sketch of the new plant, calling Victor the “World’s Largest Gasket Manufacturer.” It estimated the company produced nearly 200 million gaskets per year.

Gaskets came in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and materials: from one inch to four feet, made primarily of copper and asbestos, but also felt, cork, and paper. In 1929, 10 million pounds of copper were used in production, and the brothers held many patents for gaskets and related items. Victor gaskets were used in aviation and were in the engine of Charles Linbergh’s Spirit of  St. Louis airplane on its famous transatlantic journey in 1927.

Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1927

Victor Gaskets was extremely busy during World War II, supplying gaskets for many applications, including anti-aircraft apparatus. The factory was on round-the-clock shifts in December 1944 when an explosion in the gas-heated ovens killed one employee and injured many others, including Benjamin Victor, who was the night shift supervisor.

Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1929

John Henry Victor married Josephine Jezerney (1889-1977) in 1908 and they had five children. In May 1929 they purchased 1201 Sheridan Road for $350,000. The landmark home, designed in 1901 by the noted Prairie School partnership of Robert C. Spencer and Horace S. Powers, sat on a large property that stretched all the way to Lake Shore Boulevard. Sadly, the Victors’ oldest son, John Henry Jr., died there in 1933 of heart disease at the age of 21. In 1934, with the Great Depression in full swing, the Victors put the house on the market for $175,000. The real estate brochure in the Evanston History Center files reads, “The price at which the owner is offering the property is exactly one-half of his investment. An exchange for income property in Chicago or vicinity will be considered, and there is also a possibility of Florida or California property being considered.” In 1957, John Victor passed away at his residence in Wilmette, and the services were held at First Presbyterian Church in Evanston.

Real Estate Sales Brochure, 1934

The Church Street Building

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1945

The property known variously as 1006-1020 Church St. held two houses in the 1800s, with Leonhard’s Wood and Coal Yards situated at the east end along Maple Street. W. C. Hawthorne operated a milk depot at the rear of the house at what was then 1016 Church, the east lot. In 1901, William Schildgen, who operated the Evanston and North Shore Express Company, built a two-story brick building at the rear of the house. The permit stated that he agreed not to operate a livery stable from this location. Since horses were used for express company deliveries, perhaps it was used for package storage or wagon repairs.

The Borden Condensed Milk Co. bought the property about 1910, demolished the house and built a two-story brick building in front of Shildegen’s brick barn. Borden operated their milk delivery business from the two buildings at the front and rear of the lot for the next three decades. In 1936, Borden demolished the remaining house on the lot to the west and built a second long brick building, just one story, alongside the first two, which connected to a small brick building at the rear. This rear building is currently The Barn restaurant.

In early 1943, the Victor Gaskets Company bought all four buildings, filling in the passageway between the north and south buildings on the east lot. These were the company’s busy war years; the sign on the second story of the east building was a testimonial to their contribution to the war effort. After the war, the company occupied only this eastern building, using it for storage of finished products. In 1951, the building was bought by the Air Vision company who sold large household appliances.

The Victor Gaskets Company was purchased by Dana Corporation in the 1960s and continues to operate today under the name Victor Reinz.

4 replies on “Evanston Dimension | Ask the historians: Victor Gaskets ‘ghost sign’”

  1. My Dad was one of the early employees for the Co. when they operated from a location on Whipple St. in Chicago. I believe there were about 14 employees at that time. When I was about 20 I became an employee there as well, and also two or three of my sisters. After service in WWII, I returned to Victor until they sold to Dana. I decided not to join Dana and instead went to work for Federal Mogul. Stayed there and after my wife passed away, joined FelPro another great Gasket Manufacturer. Great memories.

  2. Many thanks to the Roundtable and to Kris Hartzell for the in-depth article on the ghost sign at the demolition site off Church Street….so many questions answered…great job of research, history of the Barn even included. Wouldn’t miss a day without checking into the RT, no matter where I am!

  3. Thanks for all the work that went into this article. It is a tale, like many others in Evanston, that depicts how it grew back a century ago.

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