Retrospective

Monday, September 13, 2010

EMMCO Stairs, Des Plaines, IL

The Erickson boys were industrious. Each of the four young men immigrated to Chicago from Arvika, Sweden. Eventually, their two sisters, Regina and Signey, and their mother, Anna Louise, followed them to the Second City.

The oldest brother, Martin, formed (or took over) the August J. Johnson Company in partnership with Carl Olson on Eastman Street in Chicago. Employing his younger brothers, Gottfried and Herbert, Martin’s firm, at its height, employed about fifty workers. The firm manufactured wooden cabinets for pin ball machines and supplied such firms as Gottlieb, Williams and Bally companies. During World War II, the firm dedicated its business principally to making wooden coffins. At age fifteen, Richard Erickson, Don’s cousin, worked at August J. Johnson on a work permit on Saturday, making $2.00 for one-half day’s work. By age seventeen, Richard “graduated” to work on the machines. During the later years, Martin, who died at the early age of 54, had moved August J. Johnson to the Chicago suburbs; Gottfried and Herbert worked for Martin throughout their careers.

Although Gunnar probably also worked for Martin’s firm at one time, Gunnar was similarly entrepreneurial. Instead of following in the family tradition, Gunnar established his own firm in partnership with Mr. Nordholm, locating the firm on Higgins Avenue in Chicago. At first Gunnar’s firm turned out hand-built kitchen cabinets, but later Gunnar began to design and manufacture hand-built wooden stairs. Gunnar later earned a reputation for the design and manufacture of hand-crafted free-standing, spiral wooden staircases, one of which is pictured here. His work was inspiration for his son, Don, who became an architect. (Don's dream of being an architect competed with another dream, to become a concert pianist, for, you see, music was in Don's blood. Don’s mother, Ebba Larson, came from a family featuring a long line of organists who played at the local churches of Olmstad, Sweden.)

Gunnar and Don remained closely bonded throughout their lives and often worked on projects together. Gunnar manufactured the stairs for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Glore home in the Chicago area. Gunnar was probably also the inspiration for the exterior spiral stairs that grace Don’s Bird Cage apartments (see blog archives.)

Gunnar later formed a partnership with Mr. Mathison, whom, it appears, was a financial backer for a new firm, EMMCO Interior Stairs, a firm named after both Erickson and Mathison.

On or about 1957, Don, designed and managed the construction of EMMCO Stairs building in Des Plaines, Illinois. The building earned an Honorable Mention, Industrial Division, for the design which was awarded by the Des Plainer Chamber of Commerce.

The front of the building housed two offices upstairs, the first office being that of Gunnar Erickson, with the office closest to Busse Highway belonging to Don. Don’s office had a secretarial area where clients were greeted. There was a small conference room and a large workspace which housed four back-to-back drafting tables in which Don and his cousin, Richard Erickson, worked. In turn, the drafting room was surrounded by windows, affording natural light to the architects and draftspersons who worked there.

The bottom floor of the building was occupied by hand and machine tools. Large supplies of wood were housed at the back of the building, behind which the Chicago Northwestern commuter train roared by at scheduled times. I remember the smells of freshly sawn wood, sap and glue, and seeing soaked wood being cajoled into curved structures over wooden molds . . . It was in the stair factory that the model for the 1964 Singer Bowl was hand-built by Don and Shirley, painted with painstaking details and landscaped with spray-painted twigs which served as trees. (Today that model sits in storage and has been happily occupied by mice. . .)

EMMCO Stairs is featured as a significant architectural resource by the Illinois Landmark Society. (See sidebar, “About the Architect.”) EMMCO Stairs is now owned by an auto body repair shop and is located at 1873 Busse Highway, Des Plaines, Illinois.

Please contact me, or provide comments on this page, if you would like to submit information that you may have on the work and/or its history.

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