By Bob Uphues
It might be easy to forget that not too long ago the Arcade Building, the Victorian gothic landmark at 1 Riverside Road in downtown Riverside, was once deemed one of the state's most endangered historic buildings.
Vacant and boarded up after being ensnared in an international Ponzi scheme that resulted in the building's former owner being sentenced to 13 years in federal prison, the fate of Riverside first commercial building, built in 1871, was far from secure in 2008.
But, eight years later the Arcade Building would be the third Riverside structure named to the National Register of Historic Places and it continues to shine like a jewel in downtown Riverside, its exterior restored to its 19th-century glory – complete with a central tower that had been missing for 90 years.
The person responsible for the reclamation of one of Riverside's most historic structures was not a resident of the village, but an Italian immigrant and self-made roofing contractor who recognized an opportunity to save a beloved landmark.
Giuseppe "Joe" Zappani bought the Arcade Building, which had reverted to bank ownership, in 2010 and quickly set about stripping the first floor of stucco that had hidden the original Milwaukee cream brick walls and red brick accents for almost a century.
In 2014, Landmarks Illinois, which had declared the Arcade Building "endangered" just five years earlier, recognized Mr. Zappani's restoration efforts with its highest honor, a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award.
"I like those historic buildings. That's why I did all the work," said Zappani, who preferred staying out of the spotlight, at the time.
Mr. Zappani died Oct. 10, 2020 at the age of 65. He was buried last week in his hometown of Coccorino, Italy.
"He loved Riverside," said Mr. Zappani's son-in-law Matt Thomsen. "Everyone in the town treated him well and he loved the people of Riverside."
Thomsen and his wife, Carmela, Mr. Zappani's daughter, said what drew him to the Arcade Building was that it was about the closest thing in suburban Chicago to the ancient ruins so common in his native Calabria.
"He always loved old things," said Carmela Thomsen. "That this was something pretty old drew him even more to it. He saw lots of opportunity and potential in it."
Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, whose efforts to draw attention to the building in 2008-09 largely resulted in its being named endangered by Landmark Illinois, said the Arcade Building will remain Mr. Zappani's legacy in Riverside.
"His thoughtful restoration enhanced not just the building, but our whole sense of place in the heart of Riverside," Marsh-Ozga said. "It is a tremendous gift to our community."
Mr. Zappani grew up in Coccorino, a farming village near the Calabrian coast ("On a clear day you can see Sicily," said his daughter Carmela) but left Italy at the age of 18 in search opportunities unavailable at home.
"Most people from the town went north or to America or Argentina," said Carmela Thomsen.
He father settled on Chicago's northwest side near Harlem Avenue and worked in factories and restaurants before opening up a pizzeria. Eventually, he and a business partner would start a roofing company, A&Z Roofing and Construction.
Mr. Zappani met his future wife, Agata Wegrzynowicz, just a couple of days after she arrived in the U.S. from her native Poland. He met her through Carmela's cousin, with whom she was staying at the time.
They would later build a home in west suburban Bloomingdale, where Mr. Zappani lived for near three decades until his death last month.
"He truly loved to work, but family meant everything to him," said Matt Thomsen. "If he was able to help anybody in some way, he did."
Thomsen said the family intended to maintain ownership of the Arcade Building and find tenants for the storefronts along Riverside Road, which have proven tougher to lease than those on East Quincy Street and the offices on the two top floors.
They also would like to achieve Mr. Zappani's dream of rehabilitating the 1920s-era mixed-use building he bought in 2015 at 363-69 E. Burlington St. At one time, Thomsen had pitched and won approval from the village to operate a microbrewery at the site, but it never got off the ground and the building remains vacant.
"The kids would like to try to do something with that building," Thomsen said. "It was a project Joe always wanted to do. It would be our way of finishing what he started and honoring him."
Mr. Zappani is survived by his wife, Agata (nee Wegrzynowicz); his daughters Carmela (Matt) Thomson, Angela Zappani, Sara (Michael) Castaldo and Gioia Zappani; his brother, Antonio (Maria Cocciolo) Zappani; his grandchildren, Ariana and Siena; and his nephews Dario and Giuseppe.