For at least a generation of kids growing up in Kankakee, the building at 228 E. River St. was believed to be inhabited by ghosts, goblins and other apparitions. It wasn’t officially declared to be home to scary spirits, however, until the Kankakee Jaycees used it to stage their Halloween haunted house event for several years in the mid-1970s.
Commonly referred to as “the haunted house,” the ornately decorated two-story wooden building was also known as the Pratt House, named for the family that had owned it since early in the 20th century.
Edwin Pratt, a former shop and forge instructor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, came to Kankakee in 1903 to establish a company that produced ornamental and structural ironwork. His business, Edwin Pratt’s Sons Co., was located on West Avenue, just south of Court Street, for many years.
He purchased the house for $2,000 from the heirs of the original owner, Frank Girard Sr., who was believed to have been a Kankakee police officer in the 1880s. An 1887 story in the Chicago Tribune reported the mysterious death of a Kankakee police officer named Fred Girard, whose body was found in an alley with a single bullet wound in his head and his pistol lying nearby. “Suicide was suggested, and the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict to that effect, but the circumstances surrounding the tragedy lent color to the theory of murder,” reported the Tribune. The suicide verdict apparently prevailed, since the Kankakee Police Department does not list Girard among officers killed in the line of duty.
Although Edwin Pratt and his wife had four children, none of them ever lived in the River Street house; all had left home by the time the couple moved there. Edwin died in 1918 and his wife Huldah in 1920; ownership of the property passed to their oldest son, Charles.
Charles was a talented worker in ornamental iron who ran the family business. Journal reporter Mary Jean Houde, writing about the haunted house in 1968, noted that “It was Charles ... who added the embellishments to the house. These included a great deal of iron work and such flourishes as the facial features in iron which personalized the garage doors. Charles rented the house to another family for a short time, but he soon decided to preserve it for sentiment’s sake. It became a hobby with Charles; and while he did not live there, he was often seen on the terraced grounds planting flowers, adding ornamentation, and fishing from his river property.”
Located on the north bank of the Kankakee River just east of Schuyler Avenue, the Pratt homesite offered scenic views up and down the river (at least until the 1950s, when the Schuyler Avenue bridge was built). To take advantage of the view, the property’s combination garage/boathouse had a roof garden with concrete benches and decorative urns. The lowest portion of the structure, at river level, was a boathouse; the upper portion was a single-car garage. Before being defaced by vandals in the 1960s, the garage doors were decorated with a “face” composed of two oval stained-glass window eyes and a mustache and mouth represented by decorative ironwork. The doors were set in a facade of cut stone inlaid with colorful pieces of tile and terra cotta panels.
The house itself was a tall, narrow structure with two stories set atop a tall basement level; the front door was reached by climbing a steep staircase on the River Street side. Gabled roofs on the north, south, and west sides of the house had eaves outlined by intricately sawn wooden panels. The small porch roof and its supporting column also were assembled from decorative carved wood elements. The first-floor walls of the house displayed lanterns and other ironwork created by Charles Pratt.
After Charles Pratt’s death in 1960, the property was inherited by his children, Emory and Ruth. Neither chose to live in the house, and it gradually fell into disrepair, reinforcing the haunted house reputation. In her 1968 Kankakee Daily Journal article, Mary Jean Houde noted that the “architectural beauty of the house would still be preserved, if not for years of vandalism and wanton destruction. The Pratt house ... haunted only by family sentimentality, loses a little of its beauty and personality each year. It is not inhabitable at present, and probably never will be.”
The old house, declared unfit for human habitation by city building inspector Clarence “Bud” Campbell, was periodically threatened with demolition. In April 1975, a small crowd bearing “Save the Pratt House” signs gathered there in response to a plan to tear down the structure. Whether the protest or other factors caused a stay of execution, the building lived on for several more years.
In 1976 and 1977, it served as the Jaycees Halloween Haunted House; but on March 23, 1978, city officials called in the bulldozers. Two days later, the iconic building was gone, leaving behind only the boathouse/garage and a generation’s memories of the old “haunted house.”