It’s never too late — or too early — for a reinvention, and two Oak Park residents found themselves with new professional focuses after their hobbies started gaining attention.
Will Quam went from a career in theater education to a new calling as a photographer, Instagram impresario and tour guide with a focus on the many forms of brick found in the historic architecture in and around Chicago. Former special education teacher Debbie Mercer found a new passion in retirement as her interest in documenting the terra cotta on historic Chicago and Illinois buildings gained followers.
Brick of Chicago
Quam moved to Oak Park in 2022 and said the architecture was key to his decision to make Oak Park home. He said, “We live in an historic district, and a big part of what drew us to Oak Park was all the emphasis on historic architecture, and there’s cool new design too.”
As a theater teacher, Quam was travelling around the city to different neighborhoods and noticed the similarities among neighborhoods from Beverly to Andersonville. The forms of the buildings, whether bungalows or courtyard apartment complexes, were similar, but each was defined by unique bricks of different colors.
He started taking photos and created an Instagram account, Brick of Chicago. People started asking him questions, and he started researching. Quam said, “I love rabbit holes. I’ve been diving down this one for seven years. I’m very much a teacher, and I love sharing what I know.”
When it came to making his side interest a career, Quam said, “I’ve kind of built the airplane as I’ve flown it.”
As his account gained followers — it’s now at 29,300 and counting — a fan suggested that he consider giving tours of different Chicago neighborhoods with a focus on brick. This year was his third year giving the tours full time in the summer, and Quam estimated that this year, more than 1,000 people have been on the tours that take place twice a week on the weekends and once during the week.
He said of the tours, “I try to pick a wide range of places to tell different stories. Brick leads to history. If I can get you interested in brick, I can get you interested in anything.”
So far, Quam has considered the bricks of at least eight Chicago neighborhoods, with more to come. He not only discusses the architecture of the buildings he features, but also includes the stories of the people who used to live in the buildings.
He said of Chicago and its surroundings, “Chicago is such a brick city, you can go out and find new things everywhere. The amazing thing is, I’ll never run out of stuff to find.”
Chicago Terra Cotta
Mercer has called Oak Park home for a long time and moved to the suburb after living in Chicago. When she retired from a career in special education in 2016, she recalled, “I started driving around different neighborhoods, taking pictures of houses and architectural details.”
“There’s something about terra cotta, and I cannot turn away from it,” she said of the decorative material that soon became her focus. She noted that she soon became obsessed with documenting the textures, colors and forms that terra cotta took throughout the city.
“I had all these pictures, and my husband kept telling me that I should make a website,” she said. She soon made her website a receptacle for all of her photos and noted that the stories behind the designs fascinate her as well.
She said some of her favorite buildings that include terra cotta are the Manhattan Building on Dearborn and the Schulze Bakery building on the South Side. She said some, such as the Laramie Bank building on the West Side are being saved, and others, like the Hotel Guyon at Washington and Pulaski, need to be saved.
Mercer said one of the great things about her new hobby is that it helps her explore the city she loves. She noted, “I get to explore a lot of neighborhoods I’d never been to before. Then, you’re seeing things that aren’t just terra cotta — like ghost signs and different kinds of buildings.
Her new hobby is also something she can share with her spouse. “I’m often driving with my husband, and I make him pull over. It’s been a fun thing for us to do together,” she said.
Mercer called her website a work in progress, and noted that she is putting in maps of the locations of the buildings along with build dates and the architect’s name when she can find it. She has plans to go back in and fill in some of the history of the buildings too.
At the end of the day, she said, “As a retirement activity, it’s turned out to be pretty interesting.”