House of Crosses / Mitch's HouseMitchell Szewczyk
1544 W. Chestnut St. , Chicago, Illinois, 60642, United States
1979 to late 1990s
About the Artist/Site
Film enthusiast, history buff, and son of Polish immigrants Mitchell Szewczyk worked for approximately twenty years to envelop the exterior of his Chicago home in painted wooden shields and plaques commemorating movie stars, local politicians, and historical figures. He lived and worked in the top apartment of a two-flat in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood until his death in the late 1990s. The home had been purchased by his father many years before in order to convince his bride-to-be to leave Poland for the United States. According to his nephew Donald Zaraza, Szewczyk began by decorating the inside of his apartment; however, his mother who lived downstairs strictly forbade any artwork moving to the outside of the home they shared. When she passed away in 1977, Szewczyk was free to begin embellishing the outside of the house.
According to Szewczyk’s sister Virginia, his first outdoor installation was a freestanding shrine to Pope John Paul II created in honor of his 1979 visit to Chicago. At that time, Chicago was home to the largest Polish population outside of Poland. Zaraza said in a 2007 interview with Weird Chicago that the Pope stopped by the home to view the shrine created in his honor. Another origin story regarding Szewczyk’s outdoor artwork claims the work was installed to ward off unsavory activity perpetrated by local gangs. The story goes that after gangs began moving into the West Town neighborhood, Szewczyk installed a large red cross on the front of the house to deter criminal attention. When the gang presence on the street dwindled, Szewczyk was inspired to continue adding wooden crosses and shields to the front of the home – eventually extending out into the yard and onto a tree.
Virginia also claimed Szewczyk wasn’t a particularly religious person but rather his “eccentric art” was born from his “love of old movie stars.” She reminisced about attending films at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago’s Polish Triangle, sometimes paying a nickel for two admissions. The curated collection of plaques featured the names of religious leaders, politicians, and movie stars, including Zorro, Saint George, and “Chicago Queen” Jane M. Byrne, the first female mayor of Chicago. The cross and shield imagery also continued onto the carriage house in the rear of the home. It is unclear if the shields created by Szewczyk are historically accurate or rather his creative response to research on the topic. The red shields with white crosses might refer to the House of Savoy; however, the prominent blue shields with red crosses do not appear to have a clear historical reference.
The home was popular with tour groups who would frequently stop to view and photograph the heavily decorated property, and Szewczyk was reported to enjoy the attention. He passed away in the late 1990s, and his sister Virginia continued to live in the home until 2006. The home had fallen into disrepair, and in 2007, the property was sold and the remaining artwork was removed from the house.
Narrative: Annalise Flynn, 2020
Map & Site Information
1544 W. Chestnut St.
Chicago, Illinois, 60642 us
Latitude/Longitude: 41.8981073 / -87.6666542
East Saint Louis, Illinois