Old Man Trouble

May Company and the city wish Jack Randall would just go away -- he won't

Jack Randall finds himself on the wrong side of a city government that caters to baseball barons, real estate insiders and powerful corporate players but doesn't show a lot of love to an old lawyer and one of his aged downtown buildings.

A highly successful workers' compensation attorney who is now at a white-capped 75 years, Randall is a mule-stubborn smart-ass who collects and rehabilitates century-old relics of architectural elegance -- including the Randall Gallery on 13th Street and the Gill Building on the corner of 7th and Olive streets -- much like other men of a certain age and station collect sports cars and younger women who are not their wives.

"My wife always says, 'I wish you'd get a mistress -- it'd be cheaper,'" he quips.

Lately, the city has graphically illustrated just how costly his particular brand of pleasure chasing can be.

Slapped with an emergency condemnation order from Building Commissioner Ron Smith two months ago, Randall and his wife, Pearl, were forced to leave their three-story apartment in the building for their country place in Litchfield, Ill.

The order also shut down the Thai restaurant in the basement of the building -- Sen, a budding favorite with both the daytime lunch crowd, such as it is, and the hip loftinistas who haunt the deserted canyons of downtown. Sen's owner, Suthiporn "Art" Chandawanich has watched his American dream -- and his American greenbacks -- disappear and is thinking about going back to Thailand to do anything but start another restaurant.

Now, condemnations are the blunt-force trauma of any city's building code. They invoke all manner of dilapidated and abandoned imagery -- rats as big as elephants, crumbling walls, rotten timbers, broken and boarded-up windows, empty rooms, crack pipes.

Must be a bad building Jack Randall owns.

Even worse -- the emergency condemnation designation. That's usually reserved for the most dire circumstances: a building in imminent danger of catastrophic collapse because it's too tired and rotted to stand anymore, has racked up so many unresolved code violations it's easier to tear down rather than fix, or has only a wall or two standing after a fire or tornado or earthquake.

Must be a very bad, bad building Jack Randall owns. Hell, it must be a fairly dangerous eyesore that demands immediate demolition -- before one woman, child, city paper shuffler or pinheaded corporate executive gets crushed.

Not hardly.

Turns out, the city's rush to save us all from this shambling menace named Jack Randall and his plague-like building is the end result of a three-year pissing match between Randall and the May Department Stores Company, which owns the Famous-Barr chain, its downtown store and the parking garage that right-angles around two sides of Randall's building.

Way back in January 2000, Randall found a letter from Vince Corno, a suit in May's real-estate division. It brusquely alerted Randall that the company had no intention of renewing a 38-year licensing agreement that allowed for two emergency exits from Randall's building to the stairwell of the parking garage.

Back in the early '60s, before Randall owned the building, a sprinkler system was installed in the garage basement -- its pipes were extended into the basement of Randall's building, which has always housed a bar or restaurant, including a famous watering hole called The Pit of the Seventh Olive and, most recently, Sen.

Both the fire exits and the sprinkler system were vital to Randall's living arrangements and his basement tenant. Can't use a building or basement without them. Condemn it, though?

You bet.

A day or so after getting Corno's letter, Randall trotted over to visit the man. He says he was escorted to Corno's office by security guards. Ever the needler, he showily opened his coat and invited the guards to frisk him for weapons. They didn't smile, he says.

Corno and his underlings tried to go Vito Corleone on Randall, he says, making him an offer for his building that would be economically deadly to refuse.

"'You got one choice,'" Randall says Corno told him. "'You either accept this offer or we'll close down the fire escape and shut you down.' It was really a bald-faced, strong-arm deal that I didn't cotton to too much."

Randall expected an offer of about $400,000 to $450,000 -- similar to an earlier one he says May made to Charlie Gitto for his downtown restaurant on the same block. Gitto told Speedloader he rejected this offer because it was only a fraction of the bucks his business brings in, but declined further comment.

Randall's offer was a mere $350,000. Like Gitto, he rejected it.

In a faxed statement from May spokeswoman Sharon Bateman, the company says, "All legal agreements that Mr. Randall had with May with respect to his building at 7th and Olive Street expired on March 31, 2000. In the spring of 2002, after approximately two years of inaction by Mr. Randall, May took the necessary steps to permanently separate its property from Mr. Randall's building."

What Randall also expected was a protracted legal battle with May, some further use of hardball tactics and an eventual resolution. What he got was the gentle ministrations of newly elected Mayor Francis Slay's incoming administration -- a kowtow act of a willing newbie who wanted to please a major downtown player and was eager to do its bidding.

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