Leave the Seat Empty: 5545 South Woodlawn Avenue

Leave the Seat Empty consists of photos taken of buildings in Chicago in between the time a demolition permit is issued and the time the wrecking crews come.

The vast majority of the city's demolitions are vernacular residential buildings in areas that are either seeing immense new investment or immense ongoing disinvestment. In most cases, the doomed buildings are not deemed architecturally or culturally notable enough for proactive preservation efforts to succeed, where such efforts exist. They are most frequently replaced by new single family homes, or by empty land. These patterns aren't universal among demolitions, but are common outcomes of Chicago's current legal and market environment around land use, building vacancy, and new construction.

Despite its international reputation as a destination for architecture tourism, Chicago's policies around building demolitions often fail to protect historic structures. There are no easy answers to the question of which buildings should remain standing under which circumstances, but residents lack easy access to information about upcoming demolitions, leaving them unable to campaign effectively against demolitions they might oppose. I seek to document many of Chicago's doomed buildings in their final days, often with green demo fencing already up, and be present to acknowledge their disappearance.

5545 South Woodlawn Avenue

Permit issued 05/17/2023


This home, located in one of the wealthiest sections of Hyde Park, was originally constructed in the 1890s for Swedish-American illustrator Hugo Olof von Hofsten. Proximal to the University of Chicago, the building was home to and host to many university affiliates and notable guests over the years.

In the early 1930s, prolific co-op developers Johnston Brothers Builders briefly purchased the home and proposed a 16-story, 43-unit Gothic Revival tower on the site, later expanding the proposal to 20 stories and dozens more units after acquiring the home next door as well. During that period the home was used as a sales office for the tower, but the proposal fizzled in the Depression-era economy.


The house is perhaps most notable for the tenure of the final family to own it before demolition, the Cate family. They were in possession of the property for more than half the extant history of this home, purchasing it in the 1940s and inhabiting it continuously until the death of Allison Cate Hartman in 2019. Hartman, a self-described "faculty brat", inherited the home from her parents after her father (a professor of medieval history whose career at UChicago began in 1930) passed away in 1981. She and other members of the Cate family were highly active in Hyde Park civic and social circles, and Hartman raised eyebrows and even made headlines once or twice as one of Chicago's only woman auto mechanics beginning in the 1960s. Though she herself didn't drive, Hartman was involved in auto and motorcycle racing as a team owner and mechanic, and operated a repair shop near 77th & Stony Island between 1964 and 1996. After closing the shop she went back to school to become a lawyer, becoming barred in Illinois in 2006 at the age of 75 and actively practicing until she died. Her local notability lead to an Illinois General Assembly resolution honoring her passing.


After a period of vacancy, Hartman's family sold the home (which had significant deferred maintenance) for $1.4 million in 2023. It was demolished shortly after the sale. The buyers, though ensconced in an LLC, appear to be future owner-occupants of the new 5,500 square foot home currently being built on the site. Currently living in Old Town, they are business executives with a UChicago connection and no prior history of speculative real estate development - the fact that their permits list luxury homebuilders Savane Properties as a general contractor also indicates the house is likely a personal commission, rather than a project meant to resell upon completion.