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Why One Brokerage Hired an Archivist
A Chicago real estate company dating back to 1855 brought on an archivist and historian to put the company history on display and connect with clients today.
September 4, 2019
When Lucy Baird was a little girl growing up in Chicago, she would spend time with her grandfather, exploring the treasures and antiques in his home.
“He had all these pictures of the family and lots of items around. He would point to things and tell the stories of our relatives and the real estate business,” says Baird, who is a sixth-generation successor of Baird & Warner, Chicago’s oldest independent real estate brokerage. “I loved that experience.”
Baird & Warner’s roots date back to 1855, well before the Chicago World’s Exposition and even before the Great Chicago Fire. Needless to say, the family-owned company, over its 164-year history, has collected many items. Their documents and historical artifacts recount the city’s rich history, including a wood desk that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
For decades, Lucy’s father, Steve Baird, CEO and president, envisioned hiring someone to sort through the company’s collection and display the items through many of the Chicago and suburban offices to help tell the story of the company and the city itself. Lucy, who was hired as a project manager in 2016, was a logical fit as she holds both a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Harvard University and a master’s degree in fine arts in photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She has worked in museums as a researcher and assistant curator.
When she took the position, Lucy says, she drew inspiration from those memories of her grandfather, John Baird, and the ambience of his family room, which she mixed with a museum touch.
Now, after more than a year of sorting, research, and restoration, Lucy has created the Family Room at the Baird & Warner headquarters on LaSalle Street as well as mini real estate museums at 10 of the 30 Baird & Warner real estate offices around Chicago. As the other offices are remodeled, she will add items to those, too.
“The Baird & Warner name has been synonymous with Chicago for so long, this seemed like a natural extension of our services and something only we as a brokerage were able to offer given our history with the city,” Lucy says.
Getting to Work
Before she began, Lucy looked into how other companies that have engaged in their history, such as Radio Flyer in Chicago, where they’ve embraced the classic red wagon and have all the models they’ve created over the years on display at their headquarters.
She then spent the better part of last year sifting through thousands of documents and archiving them, framing certain papers and artifacts that pertain to a specific neighborhood or areas of the city. Some of the earliest subdivision maps and photos of home listings she found date back to 1906.
The Baird & Warner office vault was one of the only vaults that survived the Chicago fire. Inside were documents predating the fire and the company’s first ledger of real estate transactions. The signature of William B. Ogden, the first Chicago mayor, was found inside, along with many other Chicago family names. Lucy also found a couple bricks from a Frank Lloyd Wright project.
The most significant document happens to be the oldest, she says. It was a land grant from the U.S. government dated 1810 for a piece of land in Ohio sold to Joseph Baird, signed by two United States presidents, James Madison and James Monroe. The document is a great educational piece for agents to see how land was originally sold, Lucy says.
Historical Displays Help Connect With Clients
The modern installations of wall hangings, desks, and tables serve a conversation starter between many agents and clients. It aided as a segue for one agent to talk with clients about Baird & Warner’s fair housing advocacy efforts because of articles hanging on the wall, Lucy says.
John Baird, Lucy’s grandfather, served as president of the company in the 1960s while civil rights and fair housing debates were occurring at state and national levels. John took a stand to ensure all people had equal rights to access to the home of their choice. He testified before the Chicago City Council and the Illinois General Assembly, and he even resigned his position on the Chicago Real Estate Board in protest when it decided to not support fair housing rights.
“The archival art reminds us of the trajectory of those laws and our attachment to them,” says Catherine Leonard, manager of the Evanston office.
How to Celebrate Your Firm’s History
Chronicling your company’s history on the walls of offices and conference rooms adds an ambiance that most brokerages are not known for, Lucy says. The displays can reflect the story of each community, helping agents feel a connection to the market and inspiring pride among those at the firm.
Steve recommends sharing any unique or interesting stories or facts that explain who you are and how your company has shaped the community over time. It adds a human touch and shows a commitment to the areas you serve, he says. “It also communicates the values of the company and family and how those values have endured over time,” Steve adds.
Leonard says that people love looking at the old listings displayed at her office and marveling at the prices of the past. “They also like to see the maps and realize what has changed in the city and suburbs,” she says.
It’s also a recruiting tool. When new agents walk into the office, they’re able to see the longevity, stability, and culture that has been built through the years, Lucy explains. “They really respond to that. They see the survival of the company,” she says. “No matter what comes—fire, depression, recession—we’re still here.”