Monday, November 8, 2010

The Des Plaines Theatre's First Rebirth

This piece was originally published at Des Plaines Patch. This version features exclusive images.

I think Des Plaines has a lot of interesting architecture. The Des Plaines Theatre is at the top of that list for me, and I don't think I'm alone. It's a very unique theatre, a direct expression of the "Roaring Twenties," probably our most identifiable landmark, and quite possibly our most interesting public interior space, which is just now being revealed again.

In August, Revitalize Des Plaines! marked the 85th anniversary of the theatre's opening day with a look back at how excited the community was at the theatre's opening. August 9, 1925 was a pivotal day in Des Plaines' transition from a small village to a modern city.
Today, our community is once again buzzing about the Des Plaines Theatre, as its long-awaited renovation kicked off on Saturday, October 23rd. In that light, let's look back at the theatre's first major renovation.
The Des Plaines Theatre thrived after its opening in 1925, even though its 3 Manual Geneva Organ wasn't completed until December. It showed movies and short features continuously Monday-Friday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m; on Saturdays and Sundays it opened at 2 p.m. for a matinee, and Sundays added five acts of Vaudeville with a six-piece orchestra. The Polka Brothers even had an annual indoor circus, featuring all the big acts - including elephants. 
In addition to the population of downtown Des Plaines, the elaborate new theatre was the showplace of the Northwest suburbs and attracted visitors from miles around. It inspired the owners of the older Echo theatre on Lee Street - now the downtown post office branch - to rebuild much of their theatre - although it ultimately proved no competition. Its success inspired the Polka Brothers to build a new, even bigger and more elaborate theatre in 1927 - Park Ridge's Pickwick. After that, the Des Plaines would play second fiddle.
"Talking pictures" hit Des Plaines for the first time on April 24, 1929, with George M. Cohan in The Hometowners. But the stage shows and organ playing went on for a few more years.
The Great Depression hit hard, though. In 1931 the Polka Brothers closed the theatre for the summer, encouraging patrons to go to the Pickwick. Later that year, after it reopened, the notorious projectionists' union headed by racketeer Tommy Maloy tried to force all theatres to employ two projectionists; 104 theatres locked their doors in protest. The Polka Brothers defied Maloy by personally operating the projection in their theatres. Labor troubles continued.
On July 23, 1932, bombs went off behind the Pickwick and Des Plaines. The theatres suffered minimal damage, but the adjacent houses found themselves missing a few windows. The Polka Brothers soon threw in the towel and several headed back to their resort in Germany. In August 1934 the organ and sound equipment were sold off to help pay off the Polka's defaulted mortgage. In February, 1935 one of the biggest stars to grace the Des Plaines' stage would appear - Gene Autry.
It was time to make a big splash - something that would make the whole city "sit up and take notice". In July, the big announcement came - the Theatre was to be taken over by Chicago's H&E Balaban chain, an offshoot of the biggest theatre operator in Chicagoland, Balaban & Katz. They announced a total overhaul  - new seats, new screen, projection and sound equipment, redecorating inside and an all new entrance. It would all be planned by art deco architects Pereira & Pereira, who would go on to create Chicago's Esquire Theatre and San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid.
The entryway was covered in ultra-modern black Vitrolite glass with stainless steel trim and a new sidewalk box office. The lobby was transformed into a "garden" lounge, with its box office removed, walls plastered over and redecorated in soft blending colors, tile floors covered in carpet, and comfortable seating added. The new "strato" foyer recieved new bathrooms and more lounge pieces. Inside the auditorium, the walls were repainted in muted blue and gray, and some "old-fashioned" ornament was removed. And to the relief of patrons, an air conditioning system was added the following spring. Ads proclaimed "A NEW MODE IN THEATER BEAUTY... PERFECTION IN LIGHTING, DECORATION, AND COMFORT".

But the biggest change was the signature marquee: a massive art deco sculpture covered in dazzling neon and flashing lights, with the newest technology - backlit Adler silhouette letters to spell out the movie titles. The White Way marquee would light up downtown at night, more than the streetlights ever did, and become the most instantly identifiable element of downtown Des Plaines.
The art deco lobby as it appeared in Box Office Magazine in 1947. Courtesy Theatre Historical Society of America
The reborn theatre held its grand reopening on November 29, 1935 with the stars of WLS' Barn Dance on stage and the film Annapolis Farewell.
Seventy-five years later - almost to the day - the theatre stands poised for its next rebirth. The transformation is taking place at the same dizzying pace. It won't be as polished as it was then, but I think seeing the auditorium in one piece again for the first time in 23 years will be just as dazzling.
EXCLUSIVE: Reopening Program

(Courtesy Des Plaines Historical Society; Theatre Historical Society)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wright in Maine: Maine Township Town Hall/Good Shepherd Community Church

The Front - now the back - of Good Shepherd
Interior of Church
A Chicago Sojourn features this distinctive building just outside of Des Plaines. Maine Township Town Hall was designed by Lloyd Wright and Eric Lloyd Wright, the son and grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built between December, 1958 and May, 1961.
Lloyd Wright at the church
The church was sited on two acres set aside from the Ballard Gardens subdivision by builder Godfrey Lindstrom. The design was evidently inspired by Lloyd Wright's famed Wayfarer's Chapel. The church displays an interesting break with the signature Wright connection to nature. While the Prairie style normally plays off its natural surroundings, here the natural connection was with a berm created on the site. The church featured a "living wall" that was actually set into the berm, such that the building appeared to be bursting forth from the ground, reaching toward the heavens; the extensive skylights highlighted this axis mundi between heaven and earth. Wright stated his aim here was to "lift on high, literally as well as figuratively, the site from the existing flat terrain; typifying the sense of elevation inherent in the religious purpose of the site and structures". Unfortunately, this being the mid-60s, others associated "set into a hill" with "bomb shelter".

Artist concept of completed church, none of which was built.

Three phases were planned for future growth, but the small Lutheran congregation never grew enough for the rest to be built. The first phase was the 200-seat church. It had room for a choir of 40, and an educational wing. The lower level featured a fellowship hall with kitchen, stage, and a teen lounge with pine paneling and a stone corner fireplace. The second phase would have doubled the church's size to 450 seats; and the third would be a wedding chapel atop a 30 foot ivy-covered mound, topped with a copper and stainless steel spire and cross.

Maine Township purchased the building in 1983 and continues to occupy it. In 1995, needing additional space, they enlisted Wright-trained architect Arthur Dennis Stevens (former partner of Don Erickson) to build an addition in keeping with the style. The berm was moved back away from the wall, to improve access.

Today the building continues to serve its community beautifully, and Maine Township has recognized it as a gem and works to preserve its unique home.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Des Plaines Villas

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 Ward R3PORT at

The first thing that a first-time visitor to the Des Plaines Villas is probably the layout of its streets. As most 3rd ward residents can attest, the layout can be confusing and disorienting to the uninitiated. You have to know where you’re going. You enter at the corners and make a turn onto a curving street. It is a sharp break from the familiar grid.
Aerial Photo of the Villas, 1938

The Villas are a fluke of history. At first glance, most people would assume they were in a quintessential post-World War II subdivision. Large-scale subdivisions with non-grid layouts, limited access, and scores of ranch houses proliferated in this era. But appearances can deceive. Look closer, and you’ll notice Tudors, Bungalows, and Colonials. They reveal the true origin of the Villas in the late 1920s. The Villas was an early, large-scale speculative subdivision, and one of the prototypes for postwar subdivisions.

Some of the confusion in navigating the Villas might be that there is no geographical reason for the curves. They are unusually, rigidly geometric and not “winding.” While this may have made platting and sales easier for the developer, it has also made it difficult to keep track of where you are within the Villas. However, it also reduces four-way intersections, calms traffic, and makes the neighborhood more private. Villas residents don’t see cut-through traffic and speeding the way residents of Des Plaines Gardens (Jeanette, Margret, and 2nd) do.

The winding subdivision is often traced back to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1869 designs for Riverside, IL. Like an English village, its streets followed the contours of the land and the Des Plaines River. Des Plaines’ existing street plans were essentially two grids on flat land. The downtown grid followed the diagonal of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, and the rest of the city was on a north-south grid. The first subdivision to break the grid with curving streets was Des Plaines Manor I in 1911 (Laurel, Arlington, Webford, Parsons, and Prairie) which was created in a triangular tract where the two grids intersect.  Cumberland, with its tuning-fork shaped entry and traffic circle was begun just after the Villas. The layout of the Villas may have been influenced by prominent planner John Nolen. The Villas were arguably the first auto-oriented development in Des Plaines. It was distant from the downtown and train depot. Its curving streets responded to speeding autos, and the limited access points and curves made walking distances longer.

Plat of the Villas

Des Plaines was growing in 1927 as the regional highways were built, Maine High School was being planned, and industry was blooming. The Villas were an ambitious project including water, sewer, concrete paved streets, cement sidewalks, ornamental street lamps, Norway elms, a 25-foot minimum setback and eight small parks (at the entry corners; these have been developed as home sites). Originally called Homerican Villas, the subdivision was created by a syndicate headed by Merrill L. Hawkins of Park Ridge who purchased 195 acres in the summer of 1927 for $265,000. As builders were planning Wolf Road, the Villas plan was to build the first 50 of 500 planned homes evenly spaced throughout the subdivision. Designed for beauty, all new houses would be subject to review by the Homerican Villas’ architect. The sales office was the Tudor-style building at 925 E. Thacker. 

The most elaborate homes would have been in the inner circle, with smaller houses on the edges. Had it been completed as envisioned, it would have housed a large proportion of the city, as it was the largest subdivision in the city at the time. While it has long been suggested that the Great Depression derailed the plans, it is important to note that the 20 homes completed (not 50) were built in 1927. Cumberland faced similar trouble. The developers may have been ahead of their time—and market demand—even before the Depression began.   Or it could have been the developer; Hawkins was found to control 14 companies which were quickly bankrupted in the Depression.
Diagram of the first fifty lots to be developed. In reality, only 20 were built, and not necessarily on these lots. Note the original landscaping plans and traffic-calming circles at intersections, as well as the wedge-shaped parks at corners.

The infrastructure of unused streets, sewers, and water would sit mostly unused for the next 20 years. The Villas became a burden on the city with few residents surrounded by wide-open blocks. The streets gained a reputation as a lovers lane, and children would play in the five incomplete homes. However, when suburbia bloomed after World War II, the Villas with its mature trees were ripe for the picking.

Manilow Construction, fresh from developing Park Forest - Chicagoland's prototype postwar planned community - purchased the 750 lots in 1952, re-platted them to 525 lots, and kicked off their $9.5 million project. Architect A.J. Del Bianco designed six different two and three-bedroom models with names like Briarcrest, Chesterton, Barclay, and Beaumont. They had all the state-of-the-art conveniences: white steel Youngstown Kitchens cabinets, waste disposals, high windows for privacy, colored tile, Kohler plumbing fixtures, and a flexible “all purpose room.” Almost immediately after the Manilow project began, the school board acquired the property for Algonquin and later Forest Schools, anticipating the families that would soon move in. 

The development was largely complete by 1953, and as Des Plaines rapidly grew in the next 15 years, much of it radiated from the nucleus of the Villas.

The Villas are unique in the region, and it is fitting that this summer we were able to celebrate its unique qualities with the first-ever bicycle race “Tour de Villas.” While it may never host a parade, few neighborhoods could accommodate competitive cycling like the Villas did.

Deval Interlocking Plant

This article appears in this month's Ward R3PORT at
Click to enlarge!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Unbuilt Des Plaines: Plew's Triangle

Here's an interesting proposal for a shops, apartments, and gas station building from 1926, which would have been built where Giuseppe's La Cantina Restaurant now stands.

The building was proposed by the W.L. Plew & Co., which developed the adjacent Des Plaines Gardens subdivision, bounded by Algonquin, Lee, the Wisconsin Central, Thacker, and Second. Des Plaines Gardens was started in 1916 by E.B. Kendall, but didn't really take off until Plew took over in 1924. Much of the subdivision was built at that time, although it would not be completed until later. By the late 1930s the subdivision was renamed Westfield as more homes were built.

In the 1920s, new subdivisions often included a collection of neighborhood stores, for the convenience of 1- or 0- car households, as well as apartments. If you see an older store building in Des Plaines outside of downtown, such as the stores that used to be at Prairie & First, chances are it was part of a subdivision.

Unfortunately this triangle building was never built; instead, a few years later a single-story building containing six shops was built, which did have some Tudor style accents like a slate roof. In 1934 First Federal Savings & Loan, run by Mr. Plew, opened its doors here for the first time. First Federal is now part of First Midwest Bank. In 1963 Nick's La Cantina opened, which grew to take over the whole building, and now operates as Giuseppe's; it was fully remodeled in the 1990s, obscuring any trace of the original building.
Typify Good Old Days in New Building
Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1926
Back in the time of good Queen Elizabeth they built their homes and public buildings with high peaked roof, with timbered and beamed facings, and with other picturesque features that have made many romantic souls sigh for the "good old days" - at least architecturally. And then followed all manner of designs - many of which are to the eye as a bit of dust blown by the wind.
But now more and more we find our twentieth century real estate men passing up the current designs in building to go back to the days of long ago in planning new structures.
The latest instance of this is found in Des Plaines, where W. L. Plew & Co. have announced an extensive building program for this summer. Perhaps the most important unit of the program is a large apartment and store building which will be in the Tudor style of architecture.
Frazier, Blouke & Hubbard designed the structure, which will stand on a triangular plot at the intersection of Lee and Walnut streets. It is to have all the beams, high roofs, and plaster finish of the Elizabethhan days, but the owners are twiddling their fingers on their noses at the old timers to the extent of incorporating in it a gasoline filling station. But it must be confessed that the gasoline station, modern as it is, will be in harmony with the rest of the building.
The first floor will contain a number of stores for the use of the community and the upper two will contain kitchenette apartments, adding still another odd mixture of the ancient and the modern.
Previously: Unbuilt Des Plaines: The Arcade - Our first Superblock?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Demolition: Des Plaines Motor Sales (Chevrolet), 1723 Busse

Now being demolished is the old Chevrolet dealer on Busse. It's no great loss; not a significant, attractive, or really even reusable building, but this blog is about history so here it is.

The dealership was built in 1950 for Des Plaines Motor Sales, the local Chevrolet dealer. W.A. Townsend started the business on Prairie Avenue in 1926, then moved to 1500 Miner, the Manuel Building. After World War II, Des Plaines as a whole was booming, and so were car sales. In 1950 Des Plaines Motor Sales erected their new building on the edge of downtown, where Busse, Campground Road, and Northwest Highway meet. The building would also house Maine Leasing Corp., Townsend Building Corp., and W.A. Townsend Agency.

Through its life, it would house a series of Chevrolet dealers:
1950-1970 Des Plaines Motor Sales (W.A. Townsend)
1970-1978 Sondag Chevrolet (In 1979 Sondag built a new dealership at Golf & Mount Prospect, which closed in 1982; the franchise moved back to the old building)
1983-1991 River Chevrolet
1991-2002 Park Plaines Chevrolet (After closing, the Chevrolet franchise moved to Bredemann's in Park Ridge)

In 1986, River Chevrolet was proved to be aptly named by that year's devastating flood.

The recently built Rand Park Flood Control and Multi-Use Trail Project, better known as Levee 50, was designed in part to protect these properties from flooding again.

Demolition is underway this week, but in this case perhaps a vacant lot will look better than this 8-years-vacant dealership.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

EMMCO Stairs/Denny G's Auto, 1873 Busse

The Don Erickson, Architect blog shares the story of this building on Busse Highway. Don Erickson and his business partner Arthur Stevens were both apprentices to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin; the Wright influence should be very clear from this picture. Erickson & Stevens' offices were in this building and elsewhere in Des Plaines for some time, and they contributed a number of distinctive buildings in Des Plaines - 69-77 Broadway (Meyer Dental, near Cumberland Circle), this building, the Chicago Quadrill building across the street, the Des Plaines Mall and 701 Lee Superblock, the 640 Pearson office building, the Le Ronde atrium office building at 950 Lee, the Hawthorne Rand Park apartments, and the Des Plaines Travel Agency building at Ellinwood & Graceland (Starvin' Artist). They also completed ambitious earlier plans for Superblock and the Lee Office Plaza "Golden Pyramid" buildings, which were never built.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Des Plaines Theatre is 85

Des Plaines Theater, 1925

Forget the Des Plaines Theatre you've been to. Forget the black-walled, drop-ceiling, dim-lit twin it's been since 1987 - the only Des Plaines Theatre I've ever known. Forget the fondly-remembered movie house with green walls and a blue ceiling. The Des Plaines Theatre of 1925 outclasses all the modernizations that have occurred since then and points to what an asset the theatre could once again be to our city.

So to help you step back into the theatre as it was and should be again, here are several articles from the Des Plaines Suburban Times leading up to that opening day 85 years ago - August 9, 1925 at 2pm. They helped me gain an appreciation of just how unique its architecture is - I have studied historic theatres and have never come across anything like it. The proscenium arch is absolutely original in design, anticipating art deco. Every other theatre by architects Betts & Holcomb was designed in the Tudor Style. The rousing success of the Des Plaines led directly to the building of the Pickwick - an even more unusual theatre.

While the sketches and drawings these articles mention are evidently lost to time, blueprints and other investigative work have allowed us to create images of what the theatre would have looked like in 1925 - and what it could look like again. Far from the seafoam green walls and cobalt ceiling seen when it was a single screen, at opening the theatre was richly colorful and sumptuously decorated in stencils and wrought iron lanterns.

Imagine what an impression such a unique and inventive interior would leave on a visitor to Des Plaines today. This is not a forgettable theatre; it could once again define Des Plaines just as the Pickwick defines Park Ridge.
A wireframe of the original lobby design
Artist's rendering of a restored auditorium, by Conrad Schmitt Studios

July 18, 1924

B. H. Winkelman Lets Contract for $125,000 Structure
Big News of Interest to All Des Plaines; Fine Improvement for Business Section
   The contract for a new $125,000 building for Miner street has been let by B. H. Winkelman. The structure will be located on the lot at the corner of Miner (Northwest highway) and Lee street on the opposite corner to the Masonic temple building.
   This big improvement is another indication that Des Plaines is showing a remarkable growth and is one that will meet the unbounded approbation of every citizen in the village.
   The contract for the erection of this beautiful building has been let to Ed Nissen, local contractor, and work will be started immediately in the desire to get the structure completed in as short a space of time as possible.
   Besides a theater auditorium that will have a capacity of one thousand seats (sic) the building will contain three rooms for store purposes and two flats in the second story. It will be a two-story edifice.
   The building has already been leased for a period of ten years to the Parker Brothers (sic) of Chicago (sic). The rental price was not made public by Mr. Winkelman, but we understand it will run into six figures, and will furnish a handsome income for the owner.
   The size of the structure will be 100x140, covering the entire lot belonging to Mr. Winkelman on the above mentioned corner. The material used will be pressed brick and terra cotta and of as near fireproof construction as possible.
   To facilitate building activities Mr. Winkelman offers his residence and barn for sale cheap to clear the lot in a very short space of time. If his offer is not accepted this week the buildings will be wrecked.
   Last summer Mr. Winkelman built the handsome structure at the corner of Center and Ellinwood streets which is a valuable addition to the business section, and now he is to be commended for his decision to improve the lot where he has made his home for many years. This action on his part will necessitate the moving of his family to new quarters.

January 9, 1925

So Says Versatile Writer of Park Ridge
General Scheme of Interior to be Late Spanish, of Moorish Flavor; Concealed Lighting
   Have you seen the drawings for the interior of the new Des Plaines theater? Considerable mystery seems to be attached to the contemplated design. Barney Winkelman just says, "Shush," when asked about it. Ed Nissen assumes an air of injured innocence, and all Betts & Holcomb, the architects, will say is, "'Twill be somewhat different."
   Well, we want to tell you, we are on the inside now, have seen the drawings, photographs of the terra cotta models, and sketches of the color schemes.
   Subject to correction on our description of the architectural style, we would say that the lobby is a glorified edition of a Moorish harem in the Spanish Moresque, with polychrome terra cotta wainscot, wrought iron lams and ticket booth, and an interesting design of tile floor.
   The general scheme for the auditorium is a later Spanish, with rough plastered walls, broken up by symmetrically placed architectural motifs, which frame the exit doors and which have a decorative niche above them. These niches will be flooded with color lighting and the general effect will be in polychrome with gold the predominating color.
   All lighting will be concealed, except the low lighting for the house, which will be furnished by unique wrought iron lanterns suspended from the ceiling.
   The whole effect is a rich display of decorative plaster in color, with enough plain wall surface, to act as a proper foil, for you know, girls, as Epictetus once said to Julius Caesar (as they were both aligting from the 5:15), "You know, old top, after all, good design is in the discriminate
juxtaposition of plain and ornamental surfaces." I thank you.

March 20, 1925
Work Being Pushed to Get Structure Finished
Large Stage for Legitimate Plays, and Fine Facilities for Popular Screen Productions
   Des Plaines will soon have the pleasure of helping to dedicate the beautiful new theater building now approaching the completion stage at the corner of Miner and Lee streets.
   Work on the big structure has been going on prcatically all through the windter months, and now that the roof has been added workmen are constantly busy on the interior rushing the work as much as possible in order to get the work completed at the earliest possible moment
   A very large stage at the north end of the building will furnish ample facilities to show all the best of screen plats in the finest possible manner.
   The interior when completed will be most beautiful and no expense is being spared on either the decorations or lighting effects to make it the most beautiful playhouse outside the city of Chicago.
   Des Plaines ought to be, and is, wonderfully proud of this addition to her amusement facilities and there is not a doubt but when the latest screen shows are presented the theatrer will have a pulling power that will bring people to our city from a radius of many miles.
   The contractor, Ed Nissen, and his corps of workmen are doing their utmost not only to speed the work but to make this structure a monument to their ability as workmen and artisans.

May 29, 1925

Building Activities Reliable Indicator of Conditions
Business Blocks and Dwellings Arise on Every Hand; Des Plaines in Very Rapid Growth
   Building operations in Des Plaines are assuming large proportions and every artisan and laborer is employed and being constantly pushed in the effort to rush construction work to the utmost.
   The new Des Plaines theater building is rapidly approaching the completion stage. One store room on Miner street is now being prepared for occupancy, and the other rooms are near the finishing point.
   The large interior has so far been completed that an onlooker can easily visualize the appearance of the theater when entirely completed and in use.
   The walls and ceiling are plastered and decorated and the staging removed, and one is struck with the extra large seating capacity the room will have. A thoroughly modern projection room has been added to the rear upper part and an unusually large stage will have ample space for vaudeville or stage productions.

June 5, 1925
Opening of Johnson Electric Store

July 17, 1925
New Movie House Recieving Finishing Touches
   The new movie house at the corner of Miner and Lee streets, after many months consumed in erection work, is now reaching the final stages of completion and within a very short time its doors will be thrown open to the public. It is thought the grand opening will be held about the first of August.
   The big sign of Polka Brothers, who are lessees of the theater, was placed in position yesterday, likewise the seats are being assembled and fastened to the floor and only a few lessor matters are to be taken care of to mark the finish of the big auditorium.
   This palatial house is a marked improvement for Des Plaines and Mr. Winkelman, who is the builder, should recieve the plaudits of all our citizens for the erection of such an imposing structure. Polka Brothers, who will operate the playhouse, are interested in a large string of theaters throughout the outlying districts of Chicago, and their buying power is so great that it will assure Des Plaines seeing the very latest and best releases from the producing companies.

August 7, 1925
Polka Bros. Have Arranged Fine Program for Day
   At last the long awaited event is to happen, for the Des Plaines theater, under construction since last fall, will be opened within the next few days, with a complete program of feature photoplays, as well as a six piece orchestra and five big acts of loop vaudeville.
   In addition to the other attractions, Mr. Brown, connected with the Geneva Organ company, installers of the three-manual organ here, will render a number of selections. Mr. Brown has been heard over the radio from station WJJD, Mooseheart, on a number of occassions, playing from Geneva, and he is an artist of great ability.
   The show house is one of the most beautiful in any district outside of Chicago and has been the cynosure of many during the final stages of completion. Polka Bros., who are lessees of the house, are interested in a string of theaters and in that way will be able to bring the best of photoplays as well as vaudeville and other entertainment to our city.
   On page two of this issue you will find the ad of the new theater, telling of the good things in store for all who patronize the opening event.
   The management has submitted a statement and invitation as follows:
   The Des Plaines Theater Welcomes You
   The conception and building of the Des Plaines Theater are the results of a desire on the part of the residents of Des Plaines and surrounding territory for a larger and more commodious place of entertainment, to meet the requirements of a rapidly growing population and to keep pace with the many other local improvements, all of which are essential to community up-building, advancement, and prosperity.
   No pains or expense have been spared to make the Des Plaines Theater complete with all the modern improvements in construction, lighting, pictures, and stage equipment.
   It will be conducted as a place of entertainment, where every man, woman and child for miles around will want to come; where they will feel at home amid surroundings designed for their comfort and convenience.
   We shall strive to maintain the highest standard of excellence both in our vaudeville and photoplays, and to merit your good will and patronage.
   It is our intention to make the Des Plaines theater a place where you, your family, and friends can always be sure of seeing a good show, and to know that right here at home you, your family and friends can always be sure of seeing a good show, and to know that right here at home you have the best in refined entertainment to be found anywhere.
   This is your theater, and will be maintained and operated for your recreation and enjoyment.
   We realize fully that you will demand the latest and best in pictures, refined vaudeville, high class entertainers and an appropriate and excellent musical program.
   All of these we shall endeavour to present. We thank you.

August 14, 1925
Enormous Crowds Witness Initial Performances
   Some thirty-six hundred paid admission was the result of the opening performances of the Des Plaines theater Sunday afternoon and evening.
   Although the theater was not entirely completed the enormous crowd was treated to a fine program which embraced the picture, "Are Parents People?", a six-piece orchestra and five acts of excellent vaudeville.
   The organ installation had not been completed, consequently the patrons were disappointed in not hearing the selections of Mr. Brown, but all seemed well satisfied with the caliber of the performance as it was.
   Workmen have been busy all week on the organ and now have it about ready for use, so that all theater patrons can have the enjoyment of excellent and fitting music as a complement to the feature programs that will be a rule at this show house.
   Uniformed ushers are used and every appointment is patterned after the best theaters of Chicago, so we can feel proud that we have a veritable metropolitan playhouse in our midst.
   Only the best has been good enough to have a place in the building. The stage appointments are right up-to-the-minute and the auditorium is likewise ideally equipped. The lighting, the decorations are all that can be desired, while the upholstered seats are comfortable and restful.
   The theater is under the management of Mr. Cadwallader, who is desirous of bringing to Des Plaines the very best amusement the community will support. The theater is not for use of Des Plaines alone, but is to be an attraction that will draw patrons from miles around.

Des Plaines Theatre

Historical Summary
The Des Plaines Theatre was built in 1925 as the northwest suburban flagship for the Polka Brothers chain of suburban theatres, based in Maywood. It was constructed by businessman and saloon owner Barney Winkelmann on the site of his home, built as the retirement residence of the widow of Socrates Rand, a founding father of Des Plaines. The Spanish Baroque Revival building with ebullient polychrome Terra Cotta is the only known theatre designed by Betts & Holcomb departing from the Tudor style. The theater's success prompted the Polkas to build the more elaborate Pickwick Theatre in neighboring Park Ridge in 1927. After hosting the likes of Gene Autry in vaudeville and film, the theater was purchased by H&E Balaban, a spinoff of Balaban & Katz, in 1935, and received a streamline redecoration, including the distinctive marquee, by famed architects Pereira & Pereira. The theater remained a popular first-run and discount cinema until a 1982 fire damaged the building's storefronts. Although the theater itself suffered little damage, it remained closed for a year, and business never fully recovered. The theater was then sold twice, and was twinned in 1987 by Kohlberg Theaters, with much of the d├ęcor obscured by walls, a dropped ceiling, and flat black paint, and became newly popular for bargain-basement late runs. The theatre briefly closed in 1997. The next year, Jim and June Burrows of Chicago refurbished the theater for first-runs, but were unable to shake the theater's reputation. It was sold several times in the next few years, settling on Bollywood, closing for a period when a bank purchased it, planning to demolish it for a new drive-through. The Des Plaines Theater Preservation Society was formed to oppose this effort and support restoration as a performing arts center, and the bank's plans were dropped. The theater was sold to the Bollywood operator, receiving some refurbishments through the efforts of the DPTPS. After several years of special programming, DPTPS was unable to reach a long-term agreement with the owner and went on hiatus. More recently the theatre has operated on a rental basis, including a stint of vaudeville revival.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Peter Hoffman's Log Cabin, 796 Center Street

During the Fourth of July Parade, there's usually one house that always makes you stop and go "hmm." Standing between a drive-thru bank and a parking lot is one of the odder sights in town - the Log Cabin at 796 Center Street.

So what IS it? A leftover from Pioneer days? No, that can't be... it's right on a side street. An old restaurant? No... not enough doors. The real answer is just as strange - a hunting lodge and home for one of Des Plaines' most prominent citizens 100 years ago.

Peter Michael Hoffman lived from 1863-1948, and was the sort of political animal you see in movies. He was the sort of rugged, brusque, driven, larger-than-life character that you generally only witness in court - and, indeed, that's how his political career ended.

Along the way, he cultivated an interest in hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. He once said, "I was born in a log cabin and I'm going to die in a log cabin." He did indeed, passing in his sleep in 1948, in his den-like bedroom, decorated with antlers and pelts. On one of his expeditions to the north woods of Wisconsin, he met an expert in log construction, and in 1921 Hoffman hired a crew of loggers, including a Native American, to build him a hunting lodge behind his house on Lee Street (Incidentally the next-door neighbor was the Kinder House, in its original location.) I like to imagine Hoffman's wife insisting he get his taxidermy, hunting gear, and poker games out of the house and meeting this dramatic response; his trophies could be displayed in a more appropriately natural setting. Ultimately Hoffman retired to the cabin, leaving the house behind vacant.
Talk about anachronism. Peter Hoffman's family settled in Des Plaines as pioneers, in 1842; there really WERE log cabins on farmsteads at that time. But the neighborhood he built it in was an early subdivision, Parson's & Lee's, also known as "Silk Stockings" because it had the city's most elaborate homes where the local elite lived. Today the Hoffman Log Cabin is one of only a few survivors on Graceland, Lee, and Center; most of the rest have been long since replaced by condos, offices, and retail buildings. The Hoffman Cabin was out of place from the get-go, but it is all the more now that it has a parking lot to one side and a bank drive-through to the other.

If you've been in many log cabins, you might expect to see a sparse, cramped, simple interior. Such was not the case for Hoffman - this would perhaps more appropriately be called a Log Mansion. This house was an absolute luxury. The house was originally adorned with every hind of hunting trophy, taxidermy, and nature scenes, and even the furniture reflected these interests. This explains the elk horns at the peak of the roof. Throughout the home, there was always a pair of glass eyes fixed on you, in a dead pose. Hiding behind branches and logs, all brought home by Hoffman, were wildcats, mountain lions, opossum, bison, elk, moose, deer, eagles, herons, pheasants, ducks, and so forth. Starting with the front door - a huge slab of solid wood with hand-forged hinges and hardware. The house also contained many portraits of Hoffman with other officials, and furniture like a teak wood chair, bear trap, and a wardrobe painted with a mountain scene. The entire house is built of true logs - no visual tricks here. Through the front doors, you come upon a dramatic, 5-foot-wide central staircase, originally carpeted in an Oriental Rug. Hanging above it was a huge wrought lantern on an 8-foot chain.

On one side of the stair is the impressive formal dining room, with huge solid-wood furniture. This room was decorated with a portrait of Lincoln and a huge wrought-iron lantern.

To the rear is the reception hall, which had the most elaborate furniture: needle-pointed chairs with hand-carved walnut frames brought from France by Hoffman's mother; tables of teak inlaid with mother-of-pearl (gifts from Chinatown's 'mayor'); a tall grandfather clock; an American flag on a 12-foot pole given to Hoffman by the "40 and 8" for his charity to World War I veterans.

An archway framed in philodendron leaves leads to the 35-foot living room with a 12-foot natural river stone fireplace. The room had a warm glow emanating from candlelight bulbs, antique furniture, and oriental rugs. The hand-wrought drapery rods bore an "H" monogram. The first floor also contains an ample kitchen, a guest room, and a den complete with a 1930s jukebox. Upstairs, a balcony opened onto three bedrooms and a bath; several of the walls are composed entirely of flattened bark.

So who was Peter M. Hoffman? After graduating from Des Plaines' schools, he went to a 2 year business college, worked as a grocery clerk and as Money Order Clerk at the Chicago Post Office. He then went to work for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, where he worked for 17 years, becoming chief clerk for the Freight Department. During this time, he began his climb up the political ladder.

He was described as coarse, rough around the edges, sometimes oafish. He cut an imposing figure, with a walrus mustache, curly hair, and steely eyes.

In his time, Hoffman was clearly the biggest political name in Des Plaines. He served as Des Plaines Village Board President in 1893-1894, where he worked hard trying to get cement sidewalks in town. He was Board of Education president from 1898-1917. In 1916 he was also president of Des Plaines State Bank, a director of the Des Plaines Commercial Association. He was also a member of the Chicago Association of Commerce, the Hamilton Club, the Illinois Athletic Club, the Chicago Real Estate Board, the Masonic Fraternity, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Royal League, the Royal Arcanum, the Modern Woodmen, the Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose, the Maccabees, the German Benevolent Society, the Plattdeutsche Gilde and other fraternal organizations., Meanwhile, he was a Cook County Commissioner from 1898-1904 and then County Coroner from 1904-1923, where he went through a series of typical Cook County scandals - patronage, etc.

In those days, a coroner served an administrative function - not directly examining bodies. As coroner, he claimed to have "posted over 100,000 bodies." In 1912, he brought in modernization to the coroner's office; he brought in a laboratory, began keeping detailed records, and formed a committee to select physicians to hire. In 1913 he kicked off the Safety First campaign with the Public Safety Commission of Chicago, an early effort aimed at cutting automobile and industrial accidents, including educational programs in schools. He pushed for paved railroad crossings and marked crosswalks. In 1915 he played an important and often-overlooked role in the Eastland disaster.

With a rapidly rising body count, Hoffman realized that a large, central location was needed to store the dead, so that identification could take place in an orderly manner. Observing rescue efforts, he immediately launched a special jury to find the blame for the disaster. Later, he would be tasked with keeping order in the inevitably heated and chaotic scene at the warehousing site.

In 1922 Hoffman was elected Sheriff. Remember this was the roaring 20s, Prohibition. Hoffman saw Leopold & Loeb; saw Capone's rise to power, and so forth. An ingrained politician, Hoffman would be involved in one of the more embarrassing Cook County scandals ever. In 1926, Republican bosses had slated Hoffman to move up to County Treasurer as a reward for his work with a political alliance in the "country towns" - Cook County at that time had separate boards for the City and still-rural suburbs.

Hoffman had run for Sheriff as a reformer - odd given his track record as Coroner - and vowed to clean up the corrupt and seriously overcrowded (built for 500, housing 1500) Cook County Jail. He hired Warden Wesley Westbrook from the Chicago Police Department, who was hailed by reform groups as squeaky clean.

Two of the inmates were bootleggers Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan of the Valley Gang, bigger than Capone in their time. They had been sentenced to a year in prison by Federal Judge James Wilkerson for contempt of court. They arranged to pay the squeaky clean Westbrook $2,000 a month for special privileges, discovered when a newspaper reporter came to interview Druggan.

He was told by the jailer, "Mr. Druggan isn't in today." The reporter then tried to interview lake. "Mr. Lake also had an appointment downtown. They'll be back after dinner." Naturally this raised the newspaperman's eyebrow.

The reporter learned from other jail personnel not receiving pay that, after morning roll call, Druggan and Lake were able to do whatever they wanted. In trial, the District Attorney found that Druggan had visited the dentist approximately 100 times in the year, where he met friends, did business, and stopped at banks, friends, and associates on the way to and from the office. Druggan was chauffered from jail in his own limousine to his 15-room Lake Shore Drive apartment with a silver plated toilet seat to spend evenings with his wife. Lake visited his mistress. Other times they went to their doctors and dentists (a dozen visits...), shopped, dined, golfed, went to the nightclubs. They also recieved private rooms with baths, and pampering by the jail staff. That's one way to address overcrowding.

Hoffman was shocked, shocked! that something like this could happen under his watch, and immediately fired Warden Westbrook. In court, before the same Judge Wilkerson, Westbrook then turned the blame on Hoffman. He explained that, following a visit from 20th Ward Boss Morris Eller, Hoffman came to acommodate the boys for their clearly unfair sentence. Although nobody could prove Hoffman recieved any part of the bribes, which totalled $20,000, Hoffman was found in contempt of court, and entered the history books by becoming the only Cook County Sheriff to serve prison time while still in office - 30 days, plus a $2,500 fine. Later that year, he resigned, claiming he would work as a private citizen to amend the Volstead act, which he said was unenforceable and overtaxed the Sheriff's resources.

Two weeks later, he was appointed assistant forester in charge of the county forest preserves, where he served until 1932.

In 1990, the Sun-Times described him so: "Perhaps the most buffoonish of all Cook County sheriffs was Peter M. Hoffman , who wore a diamond-studded gold star in the Prohibition era. Hoffman was the prototype for dim-witted sheriff Peter B. Hartman in the rollicking newspaper play "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was Hoffman who merrily opened up the western suburbs to Capone's mob. The sheriff also was reputed to be on gangster Johnny Torrio's payroll."

In 1970, Hoffman's daughter, Evelyn Johnson, who lived in the house from 1948 until her own death in 1995, said in a newspaper piece on the house, "I love this place, and I love old things. There is so much around that should be preserved. I have tried to keep everything in its original state - the lanterns, the collection of old guns, the oxen yoke and bear trap, as well as all the animals, fish, and birds."

Unfortunately, the house today is starting to show its age; sags are visible in the roof and bark and logs seem to be rotting. The house has been listed for sale several times in the past several years, and, judging from this video, is now unoccupied with many of its furnishings missing. This house is clearly one of the most interesting in Des Plaines and is more than deserving of landmark protection; why isn't it?

UPDATE 09/10: The house was rehabilitated over the summer to address the previous issues. Many of the logs were stripped of bark, stained, and sealed to prevent rot; many boards and logs were replaced; and the trim was painted green. The Hoffman cabin has a refreshed look and a new lease on life.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Updates downtown

It’s spring, and downtown is buzzing with work crews. You have to admit - things ARE getting better. Throughout downtown, crews are busy continuing to overhaul the landscaping. There are new trees, grasses, and shrubbery – and they’re in well-designed, attractive arrangements.

Sim’s Bowl has sprouted a “For Sale” sign, now that the city appears to be backing off its purchase.
The familiar “Acorn” streetlights that have been downtown for about 15 years now have almost all vanished, in anticipation of the new streetlights. I am hopeful that this means the new streetlights are better-designed.; it would be disappointing if the older ones were refurbished.

Metra Dry Cleaners has moved from the building next to Sim’s into the C.W.M. Brown building at the northwest corner of Miner and Pearson.

An air conditioning unit has been installed in the train station, for commuter comfort. The Brasserie restaurant in the station unfortunately still has handmade paper signs.

The Masonic Temple building has received fresh white paint on its piers, instead of the differing, peeling colors that were there before, with a gray coat over the concrete base. The dry cleaners storefront has also been repainted gray from blue. It’s too bad they didn’t match the brick and concrete’s natural colors, but it’s a big improvement nonetheless. There is also a fresh coat of paint on the city-owned 1486 Miner building.

Most of the downtown traffic signals have been replaced with LED lights (I hope they have accounted for a way to keep them from getting snowed over – the old lights produced heat.) As part of this process, many of the crosswalk signals now have countdown timers, and the poles have been stripped down to bare metal instead of faded, peeling, and rusting yellow paint.

It is a great sign that we have several Aldermen and a mayor taking an active interest in our beautiful downtown. Not only Alderman Patti Haugeberg, 1st ward alderman, but also Bogusz and Mark Walsten. We are fortunate to have a leadership that cares about making things better. These little improvements add up; taking a walk through downtown is starting to feel significantly better. With the right plan, this direction can yield great results.

The Des Plaines Journal today features a photo of the old Prince Castle ice cream stand that was once at the northeast corner of Lee and Prairie, where the 701 Lee (First National) office building now stands.