BRICKS THAT TALK: A new book by Joni Hirsch Blackman looks at buildings that tell the story of the Chicago that was

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Long before she chronicled Chicago buildings that had the proverbial nine lives, Joni Hirsch Blackman counted her daily rounds in several of those structures.

She had many pleasant childhood hours hanging around the family auto-additive plant in a bad neighborhood on Clybourn Avenue. The structure began its life as a paint factory, and now lives on as condos in one of the most trendy areas of the North Side.

Later, Blackman was one of a number of Jewish kids from west Glenview, and also from the more Jewish west part of Morton Grove, to attend the new Maine North High School on Dee Road in unincorporated Maine Township. Opened in 1970, Maine North closed only 11 years later. The school was re-incarnated as a filming location for movies, a pro football team headquarters and finally state offices.

Even the most modest building has its back story. Longtime journalist-turned-historian Blackman tells some of them in “This Used to Be Chicago,” a new book from Reedy Press. Along with a number of other Jewish professionals, she is a docent for the Chicago Architectural Foundation and a guide to tours on the Chicago River.

“This Used to Be Chicago” profiles more than 90 buildings whose functions were far different than their present uses. Included are stories of buildings once used as the centers of retail operations or even residences for Chicago’s most prominent Jews – and even the other way around with the Ivanhoe Restaurant on Clark Street evolving into Gold Standard Liquors, now the Binny’s beverage chain.

The book was no stressful assignment for Blackman compared to her writing history. In a more prosperous media era sans the hypnotizing sites appearing on iPhones, she worked as a reporter for the Associated Press and the Denver Post. Blackman also contributed to Time, People and Ladies Home Journal magazines along with the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, two Seattle daily newspapers and Sports Illustrated for Kids. For good measure, she authored a 2009 biography of actor George Clooney for Greenwood Publishing.

But as Blackman raised her three children in Naperville, a city now of nearly 150,000, where Jews are fewer and farther between, she began evolving into an urban-history writer. Arcadia Publishing recruited her to do a history book on downtown Naperville, which first developed in the latter part of the 19th century along the old Burlington Railroad.

“I ended up with many, many stories about these buildings I could not use,” she said. A seed was planted.

Soon she authored a regular monthly column on historic downtown buildings for the Naperville Sun.

“I would track down people who had built the building, relatives of them or people who had worked in the building,” Blackman said. “I would always do a complete biography. I enjoyed the research, and enjoyed talking to people about their memories. I got wonderful feedback from people in town, including e-mails with further memories.”

Blackman became enmeshed in the telling of history for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and as a river docent. She found a kinship among the foundation’s some 400 docents, at least 25 percent of whom she estimated were Jewish. They came from the ranks of retired attorneys, physicians and professors.

“A lot of us liked it for the learning,” Blackman said of docent work. “It’s considered the equal of a graduate-level course.”

A fellow docent had penned a book entitled “100 Things to Do In Chicago Before You Die” for St. Louis-based Reedy Press. Blackman had wanted to write a children’s non-fiction book. The publisher passed on the kids’ tome as not the type of book the company would produce, but came up with a series of history books. “This Used to Be Chicago” would be the first of the group. Blackman had a book deal.

First tapping into fellow docents’ own memory banks and the files of the Chicago Historical Society, Blackman opted to focus on structures that still existed, rather than historic buildings that had long submitted to the wrecker’s ball.

“It would be buildings that were still being used in a somewhat interesting way,” she said.

She could start with her own family history. Grandfather Armin Hirsch quit his job as a salesman in the depths of the Great Depression when his boss carved into his sales territory. Hirsch was indeed a brave soul at the time to give up even reduced income to start his own business mixing auto additives – tapping into a sharply-reduced industry that itself was responsible for a few million unemployed workers. But Hirsch persevered, built up his Gold Eagle business, and eventually moved into an old six-story factory building in 1964 at 1872 N. Clybourn. The turn-of-the-century structure had begun its life as the Smith, Barnes and Strohber Piano factory. The building had been sold in 1926 for $150,000 to the James B. Day Co., which made shellacs, enamels and floor wax.

Blackman recalled her mother not liking her going to the family business in a tough neighborhood. The nearby North-Clybourn subway stop was considered an exit into a slum area, and thus to be avoided. But in spite of her mother’s fears, she recalled “spending countless hours there, playing on typewriters, riding the freight elevator and watching filling lines in the 1960s and 1970s.”

The family sold out to developer Tem Horowitz in 1983. Just as brash as Armin Hirsch two generations previously, Horowitz imagined 57 loft-style condos in the then-wasteland. He sold out the property, and the residences are right in the middle of the prime Clybourn Corridor.

Blackman found a gold mine of information about the former Morrie Mages sporting goods store on LaSalle and Ontario streets. Mages’ daughter Lili Ann Zisook provided photos, while son Larry Mages shared his memories.

Morrie Mages had worked in his family’s original five-outlet sporting goods business. He even co-starred with the legendary Jack Brickhouse on live commercials for the Mages’-sponsored late-night movie on WGN-TV. But the original chain eventually was sold in 1960.  Mages re-opened in 1971 under his name at the LaSalle-Ontario location. The eight-story building had been built in 1906 for the Chicago Flexible Shaft Co. In 1916, the building was sold to W.F. McLaughlin Co., producers of Manor House Coffee. Major Frederic McLaughlin, founder of the Chicago Blackhawks, housed the team offices in the structure.

Eventually, Mages had 80,000 square feet of retail space. He’d get on the public-address microphone to heckle customers to buy even more in his 18-hour sales.  He also established his personal Hall of Fame on Ontario Street, on which athletes cast their handprints into the sidewalk. In 1987, Mages sold to MC Sporting Goods. He died a year later with Brickhouse delivering the eulogy. Eventually the store became a Sportmart, which was absorbed by the Sports Authority, which in turn went out of business. The building now is empty, ready for renovation.

After the book was published, Blackman was amazed to discover Larry Mages was a fellow docent.

“Lili Ann bought a bunch of books, and gave one copy to each guest at her (Yom Kippur) break-the-fast meal,” she said.

Several excerpts Blackman provided to Chicago Jewish News showed how a synagogue and a landmark Jewish-owned department store had different uses through the decades:

Anshe Sholom, 733 S. Ashland Ave.

“It was a hot day during the summer of 1870 when a Lithuanian immigrant showed up for services at a Chicago synagogue wearing a straw hat. City folks, unamused by his casual attire, threw him out. So the hat wearer joined with other immigrants from the old country to establish another house of worship for Chicago Jews. Ohave Sholom Mariampol, at Polk and Dearborn Streets, grew rapidly after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, which brought many newly-homeless Jews into the neighborhood.

“In 1892, merging with Anshe Kalvarier — whose building wasrazed because of the 12th Street/Roosevelt Road widening — the larger congregation was dubbed Anshe Sholom. Still nicknamed “The Straw Hat Shul,” the congregation moved to a new building in 1910 at Polk Street and Ashland Avenue.

“The Greek Revival-style temple was traditional, with pews upstairs for the women.

“It thrived for a decade, but when many in the local Jewish community moved farther west to the Lawndale neighborhood (dubbed ‘Little Jerusalem’), the synagogue first opened a social center on Homan Avenue and then moved to a new building at Independence and Polk Streets.

“On April 9, 1927, the former Anshe Sholom became a Greek Orthodox Church, St. Basil, designated the first Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Chicago by the city’s first Greek Bishop. The local Greek newspaper noted more than 2,000 people participated in the dedication, 600 of whom were standing in the aisles.

Original Goldblatt’s, 1613-35 W. Chicago Ave.

“Polish immigrants Simon and Hannah Goldblatt settled near the intersection of Ashland, Division and Milwaukee Avenues in 1903, when the area was known as ‘Polish downtown.’ The following year, the Goldblatts opened a small grocery store, the Polska Skalp, on Chicago Avenue, living above the store with their children.

“Eleven years later, the eldest boys — Maurice, 21, and Nathan, 19 — opened a small dry goods store down the street, with a loan from their parents and money they’d saved as department store clerks. Younger brothers Louis, 11, and Joel, 7, helped on weekends. Focused on working-class customers’ schedules, they were open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and offered affordable prices.

“The combination worked so well that the store’s size doubled onto an adjoining lot within a year — the first of seven expansions there in 13 years that eventually spanned from Ashland to Paulina avenues.

“The city’s landmark application for the [Jewish architect] Alfred Alschuler-designed building noted, “From a twenty-five-foot-wide storefront in 1914 to a 275-foot-long block front in 1928—[Goldblatt’s] was integral to the very development of this commercial district. The five-story facade dominates the streetscape in virtually every direction.”

“One of the country’s oldest large neighborhood department stores, it was the first in a regional chain of more than three dozen Goldblatt’s stores. Known nationwide for retailing innovations — including displaying merchandise out in the open instead of behind counters — they offered more than one hundred departments, such as automotive parts, beauty salons, garden centers, pet stores and uniforms.”

“Nathan died in 1944; Maurice retired to raise money for cancer and heart research. The younger brothers expanded to the suburbs and small Midwestern towns. In 1981, Goldblatt’s filed for bankruptcy. This, the first store, was the last closed, in 1996.

“The two Goldblatt Bros. buildings are among the best-preserved, surviving examples of early neighborhood department stores in Chicago or the U.S.

“The building was slated for demolition, but protesting neighbors saved it. The East Village Association was honored by the state Landmarks Preservation Council for its intense efforts, saying, ‘These people never gave up.’”

Blackman also profiled the longtime Goldblatt’s Loop flagship store, now the DePaul Center, at 333 S. State. The historic 11-story, block-long, 520,000-square foot building was originally built in 1912 for the Jewish-owned A.M. Rothschild & Co. department store. Goldblatt’s bought the building for $9 million in 1936, occupying the structure as one of the downtown department store anchors for 45 years.

Carson’s flagship store two blocks north originally was the Jewish-run Schlesinger and Mayer. Blackman details the fate of the old Florsheim Shoes factory and Chess Records on the near South Side. The Rolling Stones recorded “2120 South Michigan Avenue” at the studio as a tribute to Chess. The recently-deceased Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode” at Chess.  

The longtime castle-like Ivanhoe restaurant, 3000 N. Clark, was a longtime restaurant, bar and theater-in-the-round. Famed Wrigley Field public-address announcer Pat Pieper (“Attention…attention please…have your pencils and scorecards ready…”) worked after daytime baseball hours as a waiter. But after the original business died out, Harold Binstein bought the property to evolve into Gold Standard Liquors in 1978. In 1999, the retailer re-named the store Binny’s Beverage Depot.

Blackman regretfully cannot include her high-school alma mater in the building timeline. Reedy Press only wanted profiles of buildings within Chicago’s city limits. The modernistic, well-equipped Maine North was opened to serve the middle of the Baby Boom. However, the campus was not centrally located in the district, and too close to the long established Maine East, a school attended by Hillary Clinton and the half-Jewish Harrison Ford. When the District 207 school board had to choose between the two campuses amid budget issues, the well-established alumni of Maine East lobbied hard, and successfully, to close Maine North in 1981.

The empty school soon found new life with interiors used for the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club” and exteriors featured in the 1986 film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The 1984 Chicago Blitz of the short-lived United States Football League encamped at Maine North. Coaching the Blitz was future NFL Hall of Famer Marv Levy. Still a Chicagoan, the greatest Jewish coach in pro football history took a financial bath coaching the Blitz, but gained wife Fran, whom he met at the nearby Omega restaurant on Golf Road. Now the campus hosts local operations offices for the Illinois state police and Cook County sheriff, and state Environmental Protection Agency and lottery offices.

Blackman will have constant reminders of “This Used to Be Chicago” during her Chicago River tours when the weather warms months from now. The book has a chapter on the 1929-vintage Art Deco Chicago Daily News building, now Two Riverside Plaza, at 400 W. Madison.

The Daily News moved to the new Sun-Times building at 401 N. Wabash when the afternoon paper was purchased by Marshall Field IV in 1959. The Daily News folded in 1978. A decade ago, the Sun-Times sold its property to Donald Trump, who tore down the newspaper plant to build his spired Trump Tower. Under new owner Edwin Eisendrath, the Sun-Times in turn moved out of the river-bordering old Mart Apparel Center to smaller quarters near Madison and Racine.

Finally, the former “World’s Greatest Newspaper” will leave its 97-year home at Tribune Tower, just north of the river at Michigan Avenue, later in the year. The Tribune will move to the Prudential Building.

The times are always achangin.’

“I always mention I’m a former journalist on the tours,” Blackman said. “I like to talk about newspaper buildings while I have people on my tour who still know what a newspaper is.”

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