Hall closes, DiMaggio statue removal creates a stir
March 1, 2019

Photo by Christopher Valentino
Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? After the statue of the Hall of Famer was removed from the DiMaggio Piazza, members of LICNA and the community raised their ire against George Randazzo and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

By Dan Kolen and Susan S. Stevens

The Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame has closed its museum at 1431 W. Taylor St., with George Randazzo, Hall of Fame founder and president, promising a “premier” new location that will include the Joe DiMaggio statue that has stood across the street since 1999.

The Hall of Fame organization took the $150,000 Joe DiMaggio statue with it when it moved. The statue sat in the center of DiMaggio Piazza, at Taylor and Bishop Streets. Only a plaque and pedestal for the statue remain.

Some neighbors have expressed anger and confusion over the statue’s removal, while the Hall of Fame administration claims the hall owned the statue and could remove it at its own discretion.

The Hall of Fame offered a view of the lives of Italian-American athletes in all sports, with photographs, jerseys, and other memorabilia from star performers. Mario Andretti’s Indianapolis 500 racecar from 1967, parked inside the entrance, was a top attraction, as was Rocky Marciano’s first heavyweight championship belt.

One of the first of 250 inductees enshrined in the Italian-American Hall of Fame was baseball great DiMaggio.

“We are going to have a premier location, but we are not ready to announce it,” Randazzo said.

A few days later, the Hall of Fame website, www.niashf.org, announced the hall would relocate to northwest suburban Rosemont; however, the organization quickly removed the announcement. Afterward, Randazzo said, “We have two locations, we have three different towns interested now. Rosemont is one,” but he declined to disclose the others.

“The decision will be made by the Hall of Fame board,” he said. The board also will select the opening date.

“We did everything possible to stay in the neighborhood,” Randazzo said. “We wish the neighborhood well.” Eventually, he plans to open “a couple of satellite museums in New York and California.”

Prospective buyer?

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said the building has a prospective buyer, but no one has told him what the buyer plans to do with it.

The Marcus and Millichap commercial real estate company is marketing the building, with no price listed. Its agents would not respond to questions. According to the company website, the structure is 32,524 square feet, with a 15,681 square foot parking lot behind it that is included in the sale.

Built for more than $12 million, the building failed to meet to financial expectations and sold in 2013 for $2.5 million. “We do not own the building,” Randazzo said. He described the current owner as a “Minnesota gentleman, very philanthropic,” who “gave us space for six, seven years.” Now, however, “he decided to sell,” Randazzo said.

The top floor of the four-story gray granite building was an open area used for events ranging from banquets to boxing contests.

Ervin is concerned about another empty building on Taylor and said he will work on ethnic neighborhood branding. “I want to see that strip revitalized,” he said.

Statue’s move a surprise

Many in the community did not know the Hall of Fame planned to remove the statue from DiMaggio Piazza, including Ervin. According to Ervin, the City usually receives notice of changes made in the public way.

“I didn’t have any advance notice the Hall of Fame was going to remove the statue; they just made the decision to do it,” Ervin said. “I think the process could’ve been handled better, other than just waking up one morning with it being removed. People viewed it as a community asset, even if it were owned by an organization.”

The City of Chicago does not have any internal records of who owns the statue, nor does it have evidence of the statue’s donation to the City, although City officials are researching documents in an attempt to determine ownership, according to Ervin.

The Hall of Fame has documentation from Rebechini Studios, an Elk Grove Village firm, stating the studio originally built the statue for the Hall of Fame in 1991 for its Arlington Heights location. That year commemorated the 50-year anniversary of DiMaggio’s record-setting 56-game hitting streak.

“On or about 1999, we facilitated the move and reinstallation of the sculpture to the facility at 1431 West Taylor St. in Chicago,” said Glenn Rebechini, president of Rebechini Studios, in a letter dated Jan. 29, 2019. “To date we have been paid in full for all products and services rendered above.”

A plaque related to the statue says only that it was a gift in 1991 from Anheuser-Busch Corp. and Edward J. Bartolo Corp.

The statue’s removal “is a confiscation of the Italian American heritage,” said Brian Bernardoni, former executive director of the University Village Association and current senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors. “We made it [the DiMaggio piazza] a public place. The City had the statue listed as a public sculpture. We used it as a center-point for my tenure and my successors.”

“Nobody wants to see the statue go,” said Joseph Esposito, president of the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA).

“Isn’t it somehow grandfathered in? It was donated to the people,” said Mary Beth Howard, LICNA secretary.

Echoes from the past

The City faced concerns from residents when it built the piazza in the late 1990s and installed the statue. Many neighbors at the time criticized the lack of communication before the project began and objected to how the piazza would transform the neighborhood, impact traffic, and create a new tourist attraction. Many at the time felt concern over closing Bishop Street for the piazza and the effect on Bishop residents.

Many also supported the piazza. A petition in support of the piazza signed by local business owners and residents referenced the statue as a community selling point.

For the statue’s removal, local residents noted officials held no community forums, issued no press releases, and gave the community no prior knowledge that the Hall of Fame had made its decision to remove the statue.

“We were not respected enough and allowed to be heard about a statue that was placed there for the last 20 years,” said Esposito. “A street that was closed off and a piazza that was built specifically for that statue.”

“If I could do it all over again, I’d have a meeting and say we have to move and we have to take the statue,” said Enrico Mirabelli, attorney for the Hall of Fame. “Let people know. We didn’t expect this uproar, we didn’t expect everyone to be upset.”

The Hall of Fame has received threatening correspondence including death threats, according to Mirabelli.

“I don’t know why they’re doing it,” Mirabelli said. “We’re not causing the demise of Little Italy. Taking the statue doesn’t mean Little Italy is going anywhere.”

The future for DiMaggio Piazza

Ervin plans to work with community members to draw up a new strategy for the piazza’s future.

“At the end of the day, I’m sure that we’ll make the space a community space, but I’m also not sure right now what will go there,” Ervin said.

LICNA is looking into chain of ownership and whether the Hall of Fame still owns the statue or if at some point the City obtained it. If the hall owns the statue, LICNA will move forward with a replacement.

“This is a generations-old community with so much to be proud of,” Esposito said. “It was the center of the wave of immigration from Italy, and so many families have begun their American roots here, and has endured decades of development. This is an exciting time for us.  Should Joe DiMaggio not return, our biggest problem will be to select just one of the many wonderful elements in Little Italy’s colorful history to be showcased at the piazza.”

Bernardoni said, “A statue shouldn’t be why people live there. It’s a hole we can fix. But we need to come together.”

To contact Ervin, call (773) 533-0900. For more about LICNA, log on to www.licna.org. For more about the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, log on to http://www.niashf.org/.