Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

“Hidden Chicago Landmarks”

This is not a quiz, so there’s no need to send in any answers.  Rather, this is a selection of photos from my new book Hidden Chicago Landmarks.

These are the places that aren’t on the usual tour.  You might recognize some of them.  Now you can learn the fascinating history behind them.

The book has 60 stories.  Besides 42 current landmarks, there are 10 lost landmarks that are now gone.  The final section visits 8 interesting neighborhoods that most people simply drive by.

Hidden Chicago Landmarks is now available on Amazon.  Buy several and stock up!  Or wait until it comes to your library.  But whatever you do, I hope you have as much fun reading the book as I did writing it.

Here is the Amazon link—



Midwest Athletic Club

The West Garfield Park neighborhood was enjoying boom times in the 1920s.  A group of local businessmen organized the Midwest Athletic Club, and in 1926 commissioned a new headquarters building.  The site chosen was the northwest corner of Madison Street and Hamlin Boulevard, facing the park itself.

The firm of Michaelsen & Rognstad constructed a fourteen-story building in the ornate Spanish Baroque Revival style.  The completed facility featured two ballrooms, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gym with a running track, and overnight guest rooms.  Club members proudly boasted of having the tallest building between the Loop and Des Moines, Iowa.

Then the stock market crashed.  By 1930 the club was bankrupt, and the building was converted into a hotel.  Then it was an apartment house.  By the time I took the photo in 1976, the onetime Midwest Athletic Club building seemed ripe for demolition.

If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you might remember my stories and pictures on the Graemere and Southmoor.  Those fine old residential hotels are gone.  Happily, Michaelsen & Rognstad’s most noted building is still there on the corner of Madison and Hamlin, now called the Midwest Apartments.


Lost Landmark: Evergreen Country Club

April is here. The golf clubs come out of the basement and into my car’s trunk. And yet the time is bittersweet. I’m starting another season without my favorite course—Evergreen Country Club.

Evergreen was located at Western Avenue and 91st Street in Evergreen Park. It wasn’t fancy and it wasn’t a great course. But in its own funky way, it was historic.

The site had originally been part of the Ahern farm. In 1924 the family opened an 18-hole daily fee course. Also on the property was a road house called the Beverly Gardens. At a time when most golf was played at private clubs, there weren’t many courses open to the public.

All sorts of people played Evergreen in those days. The most famous regular was Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Al Capone’s chief trigger-man. McGurn was a scratch player who once competed in the Western Open. Big Al came out to the course a few times, too.

John Dillinger also visited Evergreen, but not to play golf. On New Year’s Eve 1933, Dillinger and six pals stuck up the road house, shot it out with the local cops, and got away with $500.

I grew up on the Northwest Side, and never got around to playing Evergreen until the 1990s. Then I fell in love with the place. The Beverly Gardens had long since burned down, and the clubhouse was a little frame building with asbestos siding that looked like a renovated tool shed. But the green fees were cheap and it was seldom crowded.

The course was split in half by a live freight track, which you crossed four times during your 18 holes. Many of the holes were wide open and easy. A few were tricky, with narrow, tree-lined fairways and blind shots to elevated greens. Some were just weird—on the thirteenth, you teed off at roof-level of the houses behind you on 93rd Place.

One thing I appreciated was that the course was never littered with goose droppings. The greens crew simply let their dogs run free, and that kept the geese away.

By now the course was owned by Anna May “Babe” Ahern. She’d been born on the property in 1907 and was listed as the club pro. All the years I played at Evergreen, there’s was talk that the course was going to be sold to a developer, or Wal-Mart, or the Village of Evergreen Park. But like Babe Ahern, Evergreen went on.

On October 14, 2010, I holed-out a full 5-iron shot on Evergreen’s seventeenth. In nearly fifty years of golf, it was only my second eagle. Not wanting to spoil my mood, I skipped the last hole and walked off the course.

That was the last shot I ever hit at Evergreen Country Club. The next month Babe Ahern finally found a buyer who would pay her price, and the month after that she herself died, at 103.

I’ve driven past Evergreen’s site a few times in recent years.  I’ve seen the development that has taken place.  I realize that change is inevitable.

But sometimes it comes too damn quickly.


Death in the Evening

The intersection of State and 63rd  Streets looks pretty much the same today as it did on May 25, 1950.  This view is probably the last thing that Paul Manning saw.

Manning was a 42-year-old CTA streetcar motorman.  At 6:30 on this spring evening he was piloting his southbound car down the tracks in the center of State Street.  There were no expressways yet and the ‘L’ didn’t go past 69th Street, so Manning’s car was crowded with rush hour commuters.

A heavy shower had passed through the area.  Just ahead, the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct was flooded.  Since electric streetcars could not operate through standing water, a CTA supervisor was on duty.  He was diverting southbound cars into an emergency terminal on the east side of State.

Manning approached the intersection at full speed.  He must not have known that the viaduct was impassible.  Nor did he see the supervisor running toward him, frantically waving his arms.  The car hit the open switch.  Instead of continuing south on State, it lurched violently to the left, across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

5-29--generic streetcar.jpg

Mel Wilson was driving a tanker truck northbound on State.  The truck was loaded with 7,000 gallons of gasoline from a refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  Wilson had just cleared 63rd Street when the turning streetcar slammed into him.

There was a moment of awful silence, then the truck exploded.  Flames shot through the streetcar and rolled down State Street, igniting everything in their path.  Trees, cars, buildings—in thirty seconds the block had become a vision of hell.

At the rear of the burning streetcar, the conductor forced open the back window and about a dozen people escaped, many of them on fire.  They were the lucky ones.  The exit doors had jammed.  The rest of the passengers were roasted to death.

Fire alarms jangled in all the South Side stations.  The department rushed thirty-three pieces of equipment to the scene.  The sound of the explosion and the black smoke rising through the air attracted hundreds of spectators.  Squads of police were called out to hold back the crowds.

5-29--wrecked streetcar.jpg

Firemen worked through the night, extinguishing the stray flames and searching for survivors.  The next morning, with the odor of burning flesh still in the air, city crews went to work dynamiting the shells of seven buildings.  Over 150 residents had lost their homes.  Thirty-three people were dead, among them motorman Paul Manning and truck driver Mel Wilson.

As a result of the accident, the CTA refitted the rear exit doors on its vehicles, so they could be manually pushed open.  The policy of replacing streetcars with buses was accelerated.  By 1958 the last trolley was gone from Chicago’s streets.

The definitive account of the incident is The Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster, by Craig Allen Cleve.


Tastee Freez/Cal’s Creemy Whip/Toot’s Drive-In

The Drive-In Formerly Known As Cal's (1975)

The Drive-In Formerly Known as Cal’s Creemy Whip (1975)

During the 1950s Chicago had a bunch of ice cream drive-ins called Tastee Freez.  Our local branch was located on the southwest corner of Montrose and Central.

Everyone had a personal Tastee Freez treat.  Mine was the dip-top, vanilla ice cream covered with frozen chocolate syrup, served in a square cone.  However, I usually bought a sundae because of the premium attached to the dish—little plastic statues of presidents or baseball players or Jesus and his twelve apostles.

Around 1965 the shop became known as Cal’s Creemy Whip.  Cal’s last name was Hilton, and he claimed to be related to James Hilton, the famous author of Lost Horizon and other novels.  I don’t know whether Cal was telling the truth.  I also don’t know whether he misspelled “creamy” on purpose.

Cal eventually sold out.  The place was spiffed up and became Toot’s Drive-in.  By that time I’d moved out of Portage Park, so I stopped by only occasionally.  Toot’s closed a few years ago, and the old building was finally leveled.  There’s a more “modern” restaurant on the site now.


Original Carl’s Red Hots

Carl's Red Hots (1975)

Original Carl’s Red Hots (1975)

Carl’s Red Hots opened on the northeast corner of 83rd Street and Jeffery Boulevard in 1954.  I’m from the Northwest Side, so I didn’t stumble upon it until twenty years later.  I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I’d often drive down to Carl’s when I had a few hours between classes.  The little shack reminded me of the original Tast-e Hast-e in my old neighborhood.  And in 1974, 45 cents was a cheap price for a Vienna dog with fries.

In 1981 the church next door bought the property for an expansion project.  Carl’s moved across the intersection to a new building, and it’s still in business there.  But I miss that old shack.


Mahalia Jackson’s Home

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was one of the thousands of black Southerners moving north to Chicago during the 1920s. She opened both a beauty salon and a flower shop, but her real talent was in singing. Over the course of forty years she became the most celebrated Gospel singer in the world.

The Chicago Tribute marker in front of her home at 8358 South Indiana Avenue tells us as much. What it doesn’t tell us about is the struggles Jackson had merely to live there.

8358 S. Indiana Ave.

8358 S. Indiana Ave.

Jackson liked to practice her singing at night while she cooked and cleaned her flat. The landlord complained about the noise, so Jackson saved her money and bought her own apartment building. That didn’t work, either—now her tenants were saying she was too loud.

In 1956 Jackson decided the only solution was to buy a house for herself. Driving around the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, she stopped at a number of homes with “For Sale” signs out front. At each one, she was told that the property had just been sold.

Chatham was an all-white area. Though restrictive covenants had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that didn’t seem to matter. “The attention I had been getting from white people for my singing had sort of confused me,” Jackson wrote later. “They still didn’t want me as their neighbor.”

Jackson then went to a real estate agent. A white surgeon had a house on the market at 84th and Indiana. When told the identity of the prospective buyer, the surgeon said he was “proud to sell my house to [Mahalia Jackson].”

The news of Jackson’s purchase sent the neighborhood into a frenzy. A local Catholic priest who tried to calm things was ignored. Protest meetings were held. Jackson received hostile phone calls at all hours of the night, threatening to dynamite the house.

The situation didn’t improve when she moved in. Rifle bullets were fired through her window. A police guard was posted, and remained in front of the house for nearly a year. “I hadn’t intended to start a crusade,” Jackson recalled. “All I wanted was a quiet, pretty home to live in.”

Early in 1958 Edward R. Murrow brought his Person-to-Person interview program to Jackson’s home. Jackson used the occasion to invite the local kids over for ice cream and cake, and a chance to appear on TV. When many of the children did show up, Jackson thought she was finally being accepted.

A cynic once described integration as “the time between the first black family moving in, and the last white family moving out.” Jackson’s neighborhood followed that course. Scared by panic-peddling realtors and afflicted by their own prejudice, all the whites eventually cleared out.

“The white people swore we would ruin it,” Jackson wrote about the neighborhood in her 1966 autobiography. “They said it would be a slum overnight. But it hasn’t changed. The grass is still green. The lawns are as neat as ever. Children still whiz up and down on their bikes.”

So it was in 1966. And so it still is today.