Once Upon a Time on Washington Street – One Fantastic Block

  The east-west presidential streets we know today already existed on an 1833 map of the Chicago Loop – Washington, Madison, Monroe, Adams, and Jackson. During the 20th century, a number of intriguing businesses existed on Washington Street. The most famous non-defunct landmark may be the Marshall Field clock at the corner of State and Washington (installed in 1897) and the one on the corner of Randolph and State (installed in 1902). While many people, including yours truly, mourn the demise of Marshall Field, at least we still have the beautiful, massive iconic clocks. This blog is specifically about Washington Street from Dearborn to State Street and the businesses lost to history that once graced this block. It all started with the above photo and blossomed … as the saying goes, one thing leads to another. Unfortunately, some of the photos I included don’t have dates – the majority of the street shots are from the 1940s to 1950s. We’ll start this tour at the northeast corner of Washington and Dearborn Streets and the sign atop the landmark McCarthy Building and travel east, then cross the street and head back to Dearborn.  George D. Kells Democrat George D. Kells served as an alderman of the 28th Ward from 1931 to 1951 and also made an unsuccessful run for County Treasurer in the November 7, 1950 election. This is the same election in which Richard J. Daley became the Cook County Clerk, a position he held until he became mayor in 1955. Kells was born in 1893, died in 1959, and is buried in Hillside at Mount Carmel Cemetery. According to the book Organized Crime in Chicago: Beyond the Mafia, the 28th Ward was the headquarters of Pat Nash, who was Kells’ mentor. The book states that the underworld forced Kells…

Continue reading

Downtown Providence – A Nostalgic Stroll Down Westminster Street

When I was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I loved exploring downtown Providence and taking photographs. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of my RISD graduation on May 24, 1980, I’ll be posting a series of blogs looking back – featuring historic photos and postcards. The first blog is about Westminster Street and some of the wonderful landmark buildings that still exist. Also included are now-defunct businesses I encountered during my RISD years, as well as long-forgotten ones from the late-18th to early 20th centuries. I fondly remember walking on Westminster all the way past downtown to Olneyville to buy jewels at Wolf E. Myrow. During my RISD years, the portion of Westminster in downtown Providence was a pedestrian mall and closed off to vehicles. I loved the somewhat seedy quality of downtown Providence and would likely bemoan its gentrification if I returned. Department Stores Woolworth: Located at 185 Westminster in a five-story building from 1920, I would buy things at this five and dime now and then, but it didn’t have the charm of my favorite Chicago Woolworth store.     Thom McAn: I remember this retail chain on Westminster since it was near Woolworth, but I never went inside nor purchased shoes from this brand. Their retail stores closed in the late 1980s after being bought by K-Mart and subsequently Sears, who still sells this brand – that doesn’t bode well, although I think Walmart also sells them. Lerner Shops: Located in the former Wilkinson Building (mentioned separately later) at 210–216 Westminster, I never shopped here, nor at the location on State Street in Chicago. Founded in 1918 by Samuel A. Lerner and Harold M. Lane in NYC, New York & Company purchased the company in 2004 and they’re still in business.   …

Continue reading

The Demise of Gem Spa is Another Sign of a Vanishing NYC

Like so many others businesses that have closed in the last decades, Gem Spa in NYC’s East Village couldn’t sustain its business and closed in early May 2020. Although they had financial problems over the years, and most recently in 2019 after losing their lottery and tobacco license, the current owners said the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw. If you read my blog, you may know that NYC is like a second home to me. The closing of Gem Spa feels like one other place of my youth has slipped away. Although I’m also upset that Jeri’s Grill closed in Chicago, NYC will always be associated with a magical time in my early adulthood when I was spreading my wings creatively, intellectually, and emotionally. This was before sky-high rents forced so many businesses to close and prior to gentrification stripped the Big Apple of much of its gritty character. Unfortunately, Gem Spa isn’t the only thing that has changed on this once incredibly hip intersection of the East Village. When I visited in 2018, I thought St. Mark’s pretty much resembled many other somewhat gentrified NYC streets, albeit with a few vestiges of its storied past.   Located on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, the beloved and iconic newsstand dates back to the 1920’s. It operated under a different name until 1957 when the name changed to the Gems Spa – at some point the S was dropped in Gem. It was a favorite hangout of Beat poets, hippies, punk rockers, local residents, and tourists. They sold local newspapers and magazines, including a wide array of international and underground papers and magazines, except for pornography. The little corner business was also famous for its egg creams (a NY drink made from milk, chocolate or vanilla…

Continue reading

Take Me Back to the Five and Dime

In April of this year, I posted this 45-year-old photo I took of the Woolworth at 674-676 N. Michigan Avenue on Forgotten Chicago’s Facebook page. It generated more than 2.8 thousand likes, 384 comments, and 157 shares. When I shot this photo, I was a high school junior and my mom and I sat down at the counter for lunch afterwards. I always loved this location more than the giant flagship store on State Street. It was a block away from my dad’s Michigan Avenue office and I found the atmosphere more intimate than the vast downtown store.  I believe this photo struck a chord for so many people due to the nostalgia factor – looking back on a more “innocent time” helps people momentarily forget about reality – and this horrific pandemic. Many people were appalled by the smoking woman and wrote pithy comments. The overwhelming response was also indicative of how many people loved Woolworth back in the day. I reread the comments and incorporated some of them in this blog, including the bold robbery that occurred in October 1952. Since scant photos of this location are available, I’ve included other wonderful photos and ads culled from my research.   My Candy-Coated Woolworth Memories I went to the Gold Coast by myself as a child on the Pace bus, but my mom rarely gave me any money beyond what I needed for bus fare. I managed to find spare change on the ground or sometimes brought meager savings earned from returning Diet Rite bottles to the corner store. Buying little trinkets at Woolworth provided solace during some difficult years of my childhood, which thank goodness were mostly behind me by the time I took the 1975 photo. I loved the counters and displays filled with delightful trinkets, and…

Continue reading

Vintage Photo Led to Discovery of One of Chicago’s Very Own – the Man in the Iron Lung

After I graduated from high school and prior to leaving for art school, my mom and I would go on little excursions to different neighborhoods in Chicago. I recall taking photos of several quaint shoe repair and barber shops on Lincoln Avenue, but recently unearthed this photo and decided to do some research. I had no idea a random photo I shot in 1976 would lead to this blog! Fred B. Snite Sr. Fred B. Snite Sr. founded Local Loan in 1908 with $5,000 in personal savings and an $11,000 loan. Snite also owned his namesake Chicago furniture store at 4822 N. Lincoln Avenue, which was going out of business when I shot the photo in 1976. In 1976, Fred Sr. sold his loan firm to Mellon – he was 92 and died the following year. A few months after the sale of Local Loan, he presented then-University of Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, with a $2 million check from the Fred B. Snite Foundation. This generous gift provided funding for a new art museum on campus, the Snite Museum of Art, named in memory of his son, Fred B. Snite Jr., who died in 1954 after living 18 years and seven months of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio.   The Smiling Boiler Kid Known as the man in the iron lung and the “smiling boiler kid,” Fred Jr was a cheerful man, despite the need to live in an iron lung. The image of “The Boiler Kid” and accompanying articles were frequently published in newspapers (including The New York Times), magazines, and newsreels. Fred Jr. published a newsletter entitled Back Talk, and his optimism encouraged countless other polio victims. Fred greatly benefited from coming from a well-heeled family and his father’s ability…

Continue reading

The Greatest Magician of the Early 20th Century Wasn’t Houdini

A few months ago I was looking for vintage magic images to use in my collages. I stumbled upon wonderful posters for a magician named Howard Thurston. Well, you know how one things lead to another – I soon found myself engrossed in a superb book about said magician and the early history of magic in America. The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer sheds light on the greatest magician of the early 20th century who essentially faded into oblivion. Unless you’re a magician, magic aficionado, or collector, you likely haven’t heard about this guy. Everybody has heard of Harry Houdini, but as Steinmeyer points out, while he was a great escape artist, Houdini wasn’t all that impressive when it came to card tricks and illusions. Thurston was five years older and four inches taller than his peer and oft adversary Houdini. Early Beginnings Born on July 20, 1869 in Columbus, Ohio, Thurston had four siblings – May (Myrtle) the eldest was born in 1865, followed by Charles, Howard, Harry (who figures prominently in this story), and William. Their father’s carriage business collapsed in 1873 and he subsequently tinkered with making a wide array of inventions, none of which were successful. Unable to support his family, his father had a mild nervous breakdown and started spending a lot of time at the corner saloon. By all accounts, he was a wretched and abusive father and husband who regularly beat his children and wife. Other than Harry, the only mention of the other siblings in the book is when Charles was murdered in February 1920 while working as a railroad detective in Columbus. The murderer escaped after pumping eight bullet holes into Charles’ back. When he was just 12, Thurston started earned money selling newspapers on trains between…

Continue reading

A Visual Tribute to Barber Shops

As a fine artist and photographer, I’ve always been obsessed with barber shops – visually. I don’t particularly like going to beauty salons to get my hair cut. I think barber shops are far more interesting and less snooty. After graduating early from high school, I would go on outings with my mom (who is also an artist) on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where I photographed interesting storefronts. Even back then I was drawn to barber shops. My admiration of a few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as the great photographer Berenice Abbott. All of them took wonderful photos of barber shops.     Back when I was an art student at RISD, I photographed quite a few barber shops in Providence and NYC. Unfortunately, I didn’t note where the NYC barber shops were located, however, I do remember one because of the circumstances. The below barber (on Lafayette Street) came outside when he saw me photographing the exterior. He volunteered to pose, which seemed nice enough. Nobody else was there and after he made a few suggestive comments and asked inappropriate questions, I high tailed it out of there rather quickly.     Many barber shops are still decorated with really cool ephemera and antiques that add to the appeal of getting your hair cut. An example is the JMC Barber Shop, which I stumbled upon last August in Elmhurst, Ill. I have never seen such a visual explosion covering every imaginable wall space – you couldn’t possibly get bored when you get your hair cut here!   While I prefer my vintage late 1970s black and white shots, I have taken color photos of barber shops when…

Continue reading

The RISD-Chicago Vintage Party Favor Connection

  My friend Barbara recently sent me a stack of old student newspapers from our days at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Perusing these was an enjoyable trip down memory lane and I certainly plan on mining these for future RISD and Providence-related blogs. I uncovered a completely unrelated, unexpected, and delightful surprise in the October 28, 1977 Halloween issue. Lo and behold, one of the contributors included visually-intriguing catalog pages from Van Housen’s Favor Co., Inc. My assumption is that they found this in the RISD clipping room (now called the Picture Collection), a wonderful historical archive of all sorts of paper ephemera. Naturally, the cool-looking graphics beckoned to the sleuth in me and I had to do further investigating. Dennison Was Primary Competitor Van Housen’s was a Chicago-based company located at 81 W. Lake Street. Their primary competitor was Dennison Manufacturing Company which was founded in 1844 by Colonel Andrew Dennison. They opened their first store in Chicago in 1864, with subsequent store openings in the 1870s in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Although Dennison already had a longstanding reputation for manufacturing high-quality paper goods, it was crepe paper decorations that set them apart. If you recognize the Dennison name, it’s likely because the company merged with Avery International Corp. in October 1990.   I couldn’t find definitive dates when Van Housen’s was in business, but I did uncover ads from 1922, 1923, 1924, and the 1930s. I also uncovered an interesting article on crepe paper decorations that appeared in the Autumn 1924 issue of Fort Dearborn Magazine, with excerpts below: During the holiday season when entertaining is the order of the hour, many a social affair is given festive background by the use of appropriate crepe paper decorations, favors and novelties. While the demand for…

Continue reading

Howard Clothes: The Final Chapter

  When I wrote the second article, Howard Clothes Tribute: Epilogue in January 2016, I thought I was done. Yet, this is still a topic of discussion in my family and clearly resonates with others, given the ongoing comments. As the sole surviving child of Samuel and Minnie Kappel, Elaine Winik provided a great deal of insight for the second article, as did her book Still Looking Forward, published in 1996. Elaine, who sadly passed away in September 2017, was a pillar of the Jewish community with a deep passion for and commitment to Israel. This article is dedicated to Elaine, her family, and all the relatives of the owners. In the last four years, I uncovered additional images and intriguing facts about Howard Clothes worthy of this final third article. The image below was being sold on eBay and I shared it with Elaine’s family members on Facebook. Unfortunately, nobody recognized anybody in the photo. Given the caption, I’m guessing this was a gathering for employees of one of the Brooklyn stores, rather than the factory.     The second photo is an undated Magic Lantern slide being sold on eBay. The back of the slide reads: A section of the Hand Sewing Department where the careful tailoring of our most skillful tailors is reflected in the fit and finish of Howard Clothes. It’s not a great photo technically, but it certainly has historic importance. I’m guessing it was taken in the 1940s or 1950s, given the media it was created on.     A Chicago Tribune article dated June 2, 1936 revealed that Howard Clothes made its first foray into the Midwest market with a store at the northwest corner of State and Quincy Streets in the Consumers Building at 220 South State Street. I found this great…

Continue reading

A Chicago Kind of Christmas – Childhood Favorites

  Although my family isn’t Christian, I was fortunate as a child to get presents for eight days of Hanukkah, visit Santa Claus at Marshall Field and Saks Fifth Avenue, eat lunch once at the Walnut Room with my mom, and enjoy the wonderful Christmas window displays on State Street. I grew up in Lincolnwood just east of the Edens Expressway – a few blocks from the famous Lincolnwood Towers with its magnificent Christmas displays. This holiday season, I’m sharing a few of my favorite memories and some wonderful nostalgic photos that embody the holiday spirit, Chicago style.   Picking Out Gifts From Sears Wish Books   As I mentioned in this old blog, my little sister Janet and I would spend hours picking out gifts from Sears Wish Books. Our parents always let us select one impressive toy for the first night of Hanukkah and a few small “stocking stuffer” gifts for the other seven nights. The one present that will always stand out is my first Thingmaker by Mattel – classic Creepy Crawlers.     Downtown Christmas Lights and Window Displays   My dad worked on North Michigan Avenue his entire career and as such, we spent a lot of time there. I would often go to his office and drive home with him in his white Porsche. I loved the classy white Christmas lights that illuminated the chic boulevard before it became an over-commercialized street.  Of course, no Chicago Christmas blog would be complete without mentioning the great window displays on State Street, especially at Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott & Co. I remember one Christmas season my mom took me to an eye doctor appointment in the Pittsfield Building and the doctor dilated my eyes. I didn’t have any vision problems when I was young,…

Continue reading