Sign of trouble
July 5, 2007
Tin isn’t usually considered a precious metal, but try telling that to Tim Willson and the customers of King Heating and Air Conditioning.
Dozens of them came out May 10 for a farewell ceremony for the tin man that has stood atop Willson’s HVAC store at the corner of 159th Street and Cicero Avenue in Oak Forest, Ill., for 35 years.
Chicago-area residents, and reporters from newspapers, TV and radio stations were joined by “Dorothy,” “Lion” and “Scarecrow” from The Wizard of Oz to mark the removal of the city landmark.
Cars drove by, horns honking in support of Willson and his yearlong fight with city officials to keep the 6-foot-6-inch structure on the building’s roof.
“I thought with all the public support, they’d give in a little bit,” Willson said. “If the village only had a heart.”
RulesA sign ordinance and 2006 renovations to the building are blamed for the icon’s demise. Last year, Willson spent more than $100,000, adding a showroom featuring residential Carrier equipment and sprucing up the exterior of the business he bought in 2005.
As part of the project, he temporarily removed the tin man, which has a big black “K” on its sheet metal chest and a gold crown on its head, repainted it and put new light bulbs in its eyes. Company officials said it was only the third time the tin man had been removed since it was erected in 1972.
But that was enough to catch the attention of Oak Forest officials, who said the maintenance work meant King Heating would have to comply with new regulations, including an ordinance adopted in 2004 that required signs to be at least 5 feet off the roof.
Willson, who claimed he was unaware of the ordinance, refused, and the city sued to enforce the building code. He said it started fining him, eventually demanding $200,000.
That was too much for the 47-year-old Willson, who also owns two HVAC businesses in nearby Homewood and Frankfort, Ill. The tin man was coming down.
“It (wasn’t) doing any good,” he said. “They weren’t caving in.”
Willson said he’s convinced the lawsuit was part of an effort by city officials to force his business to relocate.
“They just don’t want the tin man up there, and I don’t think they want King Heating in Oak Forest,” he said.
Changing neighborhoodThe business sits in the middle of a district currently being redeveloped with shops, restaurants and condominiums. King Heating doesn’t fit those plans, Willson said.
Steve Jones, Oak Forest’s city administrator, said the area’s new construction had nothing to do with the lawsuit and denied any plans to condemn the property.
“We are not in the land-acquisition business when it comes to King Heating,” Jones said. “This isn’t about King Heating; it’s about a code of the city.”
He added that the city has never fined the business over the sign.
Articles on Willson’s plight appeared in the Daily Southtown newspaper and on at least one Chicago TV station, leading some elementary school pupils to write letters to the mayor defending the tin man. The Daily Southtown penned an editorial supporting King Heating, suggesting the issue should be taken up “with the mayor of Munchkin City” and hoping a prominent spot could be found for “the city’s galvanized friend.”
Longtime King Heating office manager Cathie Africano remembers when the company mascot, which is reproduced on everything from business cards to office stationary, was new. She said it originally had a funnel hat instead of a crown. Over the years, they’ve dressed it in Christmas attire and shorts, depending on the season.
“We’ve really had fun with him,” she said, and added she wears a tin man necklace.
Last respectsAnd Willson was determined the tin man would not disappear quietly. He put a black wreath over its chest and slowly lowered it from the roof with a hand-cranked lift. A white-gloved bugler played taps while a hearse waited nearby. A procession of service trucks drove slowly past the shop. One spectator held up a sign that read “Save the King.”
While the ceremony may have had the markings of a funeral, company officials are quick to say the tin man is far from dead.
“He’s going to be in the window, looking over the munchkins of Oak Forest,” Willson said.
That is, when he isn’t making appearances at area schools and car dealerships.
“The tin man is going to be on the road,” he said. “The tin man already has his first date booked.”
“He’s going to become our man-about-town,” Africano added. “He’s still going to be a very useful part of our company.”
For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail email@example.com.