Passersby on East Cook St. may not know that today’s Kings Court Apartments, operated by an arm of Abundant Faith Christian Center, were once part of a Blazis family-owned hospitality complex that, in the heyday of old Route 66, welcomed thousands of vacationers, salesmen and legislators to Springfield.
The complex was built from nothing by Lithuanian immigrant and Blazis family matriarch Mary (Chunis) Blazis (later Stulzinski) and her American-born general contractor son William Blazis, Jr., with the help of her other grown children: Enoch, Ann Ackerman, Helen Summers and Mary Yazell. It included the “ultra-modern,” 48 one- and two-bedroom-unit Magnolia Court motel (named for star magnolias planted on the property)–and the Muncheonette Diner. A new family home on nearby White City Boulevard was also part of the ambitious Blazis family-business complex in the 2600 block of East Cook St., the main artery connecting Route 66 to the Lincoln sites downtown.
I have a personal connection to this story. In the 1950s, my father worked part-time on the construction of another Blazis family real estate development: the Regency Court duplex apartments, also on East Cook. Even more personally, I have a childhood memory from 1963 or ’64 of playing with two little daughters of William, Jr. and Irene (Pietrzak) Blazis: Barbara and Mary Agnes (who died of the complications of cerebral palsy in 1965). Even though I only met her once and never knew her last name, I never forgot sweet, little Mary Agnes Blazis, the crippled girl lovingly taken outside by her able-bodied sister Barbara to play on a swing set with me and my sister Terry. Only this weekend did I connect the dots between my long-ago memory of Mary Agnes and the family she belonged to.
Lithuanian immigrants William, Sr. and Mary Blazis (born about 1884) moved to Springfield from the coal town of Dubois, Penn., in the early 1930s to join Mary’s brother Julius Chunis, who was already working in the mines here. They brought their five children with them to settle in a large home on the corner of 18th and Jackson Streets. Mary worked to support her family as a housekeeper at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1935, coal miner William, Sr. died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving Mary a widow. With the life insurance money, Mary resourcefully made a down payment on a large parcel of land on East Cook Street: the former White City Amusement Park owned by the Hoogland family and in foreclosure after a disastrous fire. Mary took a loan on balance and rented out the modest on-site groundskeeper home to help pay back some of the bank loan. Mary and her children then cleared away the amusement park ruins, using some of the bricks and stone to build the White City Tavern and a spectacular, new home next door.
After sons William, Jr. and Enoch returned from serving in World War II, Mary and her children saw new opportunity in booming family vacation travel on Route 66 (now Dirksen Parkway), along with the advent of the motor inn or motel. With their drive and family teamwork, the Blazis clan made their American dream a reality only one generation after arriving on U.S. shores with nothing but their ability to work hard and take risk.
On the construction project for the Magnolia and the Muncheonette, William, Jr. was his mother Mary’s right hand, taking care of all the construction hiring, ordering, supervising, and even stepping in help perform the manual labor. Matriarch Mary held the family purse strings, taking a second loan from Illinois National Bank to cover construction bills and payroll. Mary’s daughters Helen, Ann and Mary helped with all the bookkeeping and chores like keeping work crews fed. Once the Magnolia Court motel and Muncheonette diner opened, William, Jr. and his brother managed the motel (Bill personally did all the maintenance) and sisters Helen Summers and Mary (and husband) Fed Yazell managed the diner (with trained butcher Bill Blazis cutting a hindquarter of meat for the diner once a week.) Family members only took salaries while their mother kept ownership of the properties (and the bank loan).
Then disaster struck: William, Jr. died of lung cancer in 1967. Enoch continued managing the complex for awhile, but in 1972, with Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inns eating the Magnolia Court’s business, matriarch Mary sold the family’s motel, diner and home complex to the Kresse family of Riverton. After a long slide into dilapidation and crime, in 1998, the old motel was rehabbed down to the bricks into the 1 and 3-bedroom Kings Court Apartments in a $1.5 million project.
While it’s sad to think of a family’s dream fading into oblivion, the Blazis immigrant achievement lives on in memory. In addition, Mary Blazis and her son, William, Jr. sponsored two Lithuanian DP families after World War II: Dr. Joseph Petrakus with his wife and two children, and Walter and Tamara Danelevich and their daughter. Dr. Petrakus, under the supervision of Dr. Master, became the first foreign doctor to intern at Memorial Hospital, which paved the way for others, such as Dr. Chatara from Soviet Georgia.
The Blazis family also were proud members of St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church, where William, Jr. sang in the choir, where he married Polish DP Irene in 1954, and all six of Bill and Irene’s children (Mary Agnes, Barbara, twins Vincent and John, Fred and Enoch) were baptized. When Mary Agnes died of pneumonia in 1965, followed by her father in 1967, both had memorial masses at the church.
Lithuanian immigrant Mary Blazis Stulzinski passed away in June 1976 at the age of almost 92.
As a footnote, the White City Tavern and the nearby home the Blazises sold to Orlandini Distributors was used for the family’s offices. A large parcel known as the White City property was developed into single-family homes, with a portion sold to the Springfield School District for the Washington Middle School and the Springfield Park District’s Jaycees Park.