Friday, July 24, 2009

New Businesses Downtown - And You'll Never Guess Where

Despite the continuing struggle at Metropolitan Square, and the overall financial world, new businesses ARE coming to downtown Des Plaines.

Recently, Twice A' Round, a consignment store, opened in the Masonic Temple building at Lee and Miner; shortly thereafter, signs went up next door for Sweet Remembrance, a cafe serving "coffee, cake, and comfort" (and presumably madelines,) opening in September. It's been a while since there has been a nice cafe or bakery downtown. Kaffecino sort of fit that bill, but it was always a strange hybrid of coffeeshop, convenience store, and sandwich shop. If Sweet Rememberance is good and builds a good buzz, it could go far. Assuming the city doesn't tear down this fully-leased historic building to put up an ill-considered Police Station.

This raises an important point. These businesses have chosen to locate in a historic building, NOT Metropolitan Square or Library Plaza, both of which have vacancies. This points to precisely why a healthy downtown needs a mix of old and new buildings. Old buildings have somewhat lower rent and lease prices and smaller spaces that make them viable for small businesses to start out in. There is less overhead, less risk. We all know that an ecosystem needs diversity to thrive - the same is true of a downtown. You need that mix of uses, a mix of rental prices, a mix of small and chain businesses, to make it work. These historic buildings are incubators to small businesses. That's why the Masonic Temple is full, and Metropolitan Square isn't.

Morava Building, Before and After Remodeling
And on the other side of the railroad tracks on Lee Street, a new restaurant is going in at 686 Lee, next to Alpine Camera, most recently Little Amsterdam Restaurant. I have heard rumors that the Fiesta del Sol Express Mexican Restaurant that was until recently in the Des Plaines Theatre building is the tenant. Whoever it is, I wish them luck - this space seems cursed, having hosted Little Amsterdam, the extremely short-lived "Maroo", Elliott's Off Broadway Deli, Deli Headquarters, Bud's Deli, and for many years Morava Stationery. And if it is a Mexican restaurant, they have to compete with the long-lived Mexico Restaurant just a few doors down.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Restoring the Sugar Bowl Sign

Sugar Bowl Exterior

Lately, there has been a lot of press about city's plan to restore the Sugar Bowl sign, including a Chicago Tribune article this morning. Don't forget to take a look at our history of the Sugar Bowl.

Des Plaines preserves 1957 'Sugar Bowl' neon sign for the sweet memories
by Chicago Tribune - United States
Des Plaines recently decided to do that for a 50-year-old sign: the bright red and yellow neon one atop the Sugar Bowl restaurant. Officials worked with the..

Strong Reaction To $20,000 Sugar Bowl Sign Payment
by Journal & Topics Newspapers Online - Des Plaines, IL, USA

An invitation to readers of the Journal & Topics Newspapers to engage in public discussion about the city of Des Plaines' recent decision to fund the restoration of the downtown Sugar Bowl lighted sign has triggered a flurry of response.

While respondents expressed interest and support for the longtime downtown restaurant, nearly everyone said they believe the decision to spend $20,000 in public funds to pay for its total restoration is wrong.

Taxpayer Money To Fix Up Sugar Bowl Sign: What Do YOU Think?

by Journal & Topics Newspapers Online - Des Plaines, IL, USA
By TODD WESSELL Journal & Topics Editor To some Des Plaines residents, preserving the "historic" Sugar Bowl Restaurant sign that hangs over the downtown

City To Pay For Sign Restoration
By TODD WESSELL Journal & Topics Editor 7/8/09
The city will pay for restoration of the large outdoor downtown Des Plaines Sugar Bowl Restaurant sign, aldermen decided Monday night, even though some concern was expressed about the city having the authority to take over ownership of the sign should the business close.

Des Plaines to pay for historic sign preservation

via on 7/6/09
Des Plaines will pay to preserve a piece of its history starting with the iconic Sugar Bowl Restaurant sign that hangs outside the recently reopened downtown eatery.

Should City Restore Sugar Bowl Sign?

by Journal & Topics Newspapers Online - Des Plaines,IL,USA on 7/3/09
The proposal to change Des Plaines' Fa├žade Rehabilitation Program to permit the paying of 100% of the cost was initiated after the new owners of Sugar Bowl ...

The Journal solicited opinions, and I submitted a letter. This is also a good place for discussion. The key points I made were:
-Because it is TIF money, it is not directly from taxpayers; this is money that must be used for downtown.
-It is a legitimate use of TIF.
-New development, particularly in downtown, has been financially facilitated by the city and has impacted the long-term downtown businesses negatively; it is right to improve them so that they contribute more to downtown economic activity instead of dragging it down. The TIF has been funded by these properties, and new developments should not be the only ones to benefit.
-However, it is not the best-structured plan; the city doesn't need to take it as an object, nor maintain it; the owners should be compensating somehow, perhaps through easements, covenants, or other forms of protection. Or the city could have matched the 50% of the facade program with a low-interest loan out of the TIF.
-It doesn't really protect anything; we need to preserve more parts of our history than signs. The fact that the sign ordinance was used to protect the sign (because it was non-conforming, the city had the ability to review proposed changes - had the owners wanted to, they could have just taken the sign down, and changed the name, but since they wanted a hanging sign, they had to play ball.) It's good that the city was able to convince the owners of the value of the Sugar Bowl name. I am sure La Mellet wouldn't be doing as strong business as the Sugar Bowl is.
-The city shouldn't be paying to alter the sign to suit the new owners.
-The bid for the sign includes repainting the faces, which is unnecessary and will require more maintenance in the future.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Old Video on Youtube of downtown trains

I thought this was a little interesting. These look like they're from about 1984:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Unbuilt Des Plaines: The Arcade - Our first Superblock?

Des Plaines has often tried making large-scale downtown redevelopment plans. This one might have been the first.

In 1926, Des Plaines was growing in a big way. Northwest Highway had just been made into a highway from a string of segments and was fully paved, connecting Chicago to Barrington and later Crystal Lake. Mannheim Road was being paved, and River Road had been paved not long ago. Add in the railroad tracks, and downtown Des Plaines had really become a hub of activity. Rand Road was on its way; these were the interstates of their time. The village government had just given way to a city, and Riverview was annexed. So it's no surprise that downtown went through a major growth spurt: within a few years, the Masonic Temple, First Congregational Church, Des Plaines Theater, Echo Theater, and Des Plaines State Bank buildings, some of the best structures downtown, were all built.

But one wasn't, and it might be considered the grandfather of the Des Plaines Mall and Metroplitan Square, two big shopping projects that went through a series of revisions before being built and struggling.

Des Plaines State Bank Bankers Magazine Dec 1927a

A few months after construction started on the Des Plaines State Bank building, the Chicago Tribune reported on plans by the Bank building's architects, Wolf, Sexton, Harper, and Trueax, for a new building on the site of the Des Plaines Lumber and Coal company, which was then located along the train tracks, where the block of Ellinwood between Lee and Graceland is now.

The plans for the Arcade, a building that wouldn't look out of place in Lake Forest or Oak Park, called for a 200 foot long building with a series of thirteen stores along the Ellinwood side. The second floor would have had a large restaurant. The Arcade would have been a Mission Revival styled building, with stucco walls, a red tile roof, and green trim, and would have been landscaped with grass plots, fountains, and planters. It would have cost $80,000 at the time.

Had this building been built, downtown Des Plaines might have looked much different today. It would have cememnted the Spanish look established by the Bank and Des Plaines Theater, and the diamond pattern on the Masonic Temple brickwork. Such a building would have made a big impact and shifted the center of downtown; if popular, it might have kept enough business going downtown to make a Des Plaines Mall never necessary. It may not have been built due to a lawsuit that sought to keep Ellinwood from being opened; Ellinwood wasn't opened until 1930, at which point financing would have been impossible due to the depression. Instead, Ellinwood Street was opened and the buildings along it were built years later, in the 1930s through 1950s, buildings that aren't particularly attractive or productive. The Arcade is a landmark that never was.

The site remained empty through the 1930s, except for the Oriental Cleaners and a gas station. Here's what was ultimately built there. These buildings still stand, though a few have been modified. For example, the two-story building had windows cut into the upper floor, and the Jewel has been painted black for Naked Furniture, then white again.

1940s Ellinwood between Graceland and Lee
Des Plaines Sinclair - 1939
Curt Teich 1950s postcard; Kruse's Sinclair Station, circa 1960 aerial photo

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Help Finalize Des Plaines Bicycle Network

The city of Des Plaines, Illinois is working to improve commuting via bicycle. On Wednesday, July 15th city officials will be meeting to finalize the routes of a proposed bicycle network. Des Plaines residents have been encourage to show up and offer their input. For time, location and other information click here.Brendan Kevenides, The Chicago Bicycle Advocate, Jul 2009

Some 1970s Photos Posted on our Facebook Page

Mark Mensching, a Fan on our Facebook Page, recently shared a few photos with us and I thought I would share them with our blog readers along with Google Street View of the same places today. These look from the late 60s or early 70s, since the Des Plaines National Bank building and Superblock had not yet been built.

View Larger Map
Oakwood and Center

View Larger Map
Prairie and Lee, looking North

View Larger Map
Prairie and Lee, Looking South

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Remembering Fireworks in Des Plaines

Every July 4th, Des Plaines has a tradition of fireworks displays. Over the years, they have been held at Northwestern Park (now part of the Forest Preserve, along Campground Road south of Miner), Rand Park (now Mystic Waters), Lake Opeka, Oakton Community College, and elsewhere.

However, perhaps the most spectacular - and tragic - displays and disasters in Des Plaines history, took place on July 4, 1927. Fireworks were halted for a number of years, but resumed by 1938. The news articles from 1927 follow.

Cook County Herald:

Many people were injured at Northwestern Park at Des Plaines Monday evening, when the entire supply of fireworks for the Legion celebration exploded. The display of rockets had just started, when the accident happened and hundreds of men, women, and children made a mad race for safety, leaving behind them many injured. Ropes had been stretched in front of the display ground at an ample distance from the fireworks. However several hundred gathered at the sides of the area where there was no rope. Some of these people were as near as 25 feet from the stock of fireworks. Those injured were in this crowd. In their dashes for safety men and women climbed under autos and every possible screen of protection was utilized. The police and Legion officials made every effort to rescue the injured. The Lauterburg and Oehler ambulance was near and was utilized to take some of the injured to the hospital. Children became separated from their parents and it was over an hour before the excitement had entirely quieted down. Fear was entertained that some unexploded bombs might later become discharged and the police took no chances, ordering everybody off the park.

Chicago Tribune:
1 Dead, 60 Hurt, City Toll; Autos Kill 4

An unhappy climax to the celebration of Independence day in Cook county came last night when a deflected skyrocket plunged into a huge pile of fireworks in Northwestern park, near Des Plaines and the massed explosives were hurled into the crowd of more than 3,000 persons.
Twenty-five, many of them small children, were injured by the bursting bombs and by being trampled on in the general rush to get away from the rain of fire. Fifteen were so severely hurt that they needed treatment by physicians and most of them were removed to hospitals.
Mayor C. S. Stewart announced early this morning that the explosion would be investigated thoroughly and that some action would be taken tonight at the meeting of the village board. It was recalled that a boy was injured last year at the fireworks display when he picked up a rocket. The police believe that the board will pass a ruling forbidding any more displays of pyrotechnics in the village.
The explosion at the park near Des Plaines, which is fifteen miles northwest of Chicago, came a few minutes after the celebration, managed by Des Plaines post of the American Legion, the Elks, and the business men of the town, had begun.
John Knoch, the manager of the pyrotechnic display, started off by discharging skyrockets. The crowd had been forced to stand back a distance of about twenty-five feet, behind stretched ropes. There men, women, and children were thickly massed. Babies were held in their mother's arms so they could get a good view of the fireworks.
One of the rockets, evidently defective, failed to raise skyward when it was set off. Instead it caromed to one side, struck a tree and burning fragments were hurled back into the pile from which supplies were drawn.
Immediately the whole pile took fire. To the sharp crack of the small crackers and the deep boom of the larger explosives was added o the hiss and the zoom of the sky rockets and the Roman candles as they poured into the crowd. The pile had an estimated value of $1,000 and it all went at once.
In the general rush to get away several women fainted. Others were knocked down and trampled on. Several children, it was reported, were more seriously hurt by the feet of hundreds than by the burns they received.
As soon as the first panic was over members of the Legion post and their fellow townsmen rushed back and rendered aid to those who had fallen. Ambulances were hastily called and the injured were taken to hospitals.
"I was in the front row when the fireworks went off," said Mrs. Lamberty Prideaux, wife of a county highway policeman. "Everybody started to run at once. There were policemen arouns and they tried to quiet everybody, but it was impossible. They broke through all lines nd it was remarkable that some were not killed."
Five of the more seriously injured were taken to St. Mary of Nazareth hospital in Chicago. Two of them were Stanley McGuire, 10, and his brother Neal, 3, of San Mateo, Cal. They were visiting friends in Des Plaines and went to the celebration with Russell Chidley, 4, and his brother Douglas, 10, of Des Plaines. The Chidley boys also were taken to St. Mary's. All suffered severe burns.
Mildred Jahnkow, 7, of 2763 Francis place, was wounded in the left arm and shoulder by a skyrocket that tore her skin in addition to burning her. She was taken to St. Mary's after treatment by Dr. C. A. Earle in Des Plaines. Dr. Earle also treated Edward Priebe, 6, of 565 Des Plaines avenue, Des Plaines. He was severely burned and cut on the back.
Edward Kehe, 32, and Bryan Melzer, 32, Legionnaires of the Des Plaines post, were among the injured.
Melzer's injuries occurred when he seized a tarpaulin, ran forward, and threw it over the exploding fireworks. According to Chief of Police C. F. Risser of Des Plaines his action probably prevented injuries to a large part of the crowd.
Another victim was Mrs. Walter Hanson, 1486 Prairie avenue, Des Plaines. J. S. McClure, 55, of 4436 North Winchester avenue, Chicago, was burned on the face and the chest and was taken to the Ravenswood hospital. C. A. Wilson, 65, of 1411 North Mansfield avenue, was cut on the face.
Victor Siljander, who gave a business adress in the Monadnock block; Miss Minnie Gabbanni, who lives near Western and Milwaukee avenues; Ray Koch, 7, of Des Plaines, and a man named Davis were also among the casualties.
The county highway police and the Des Plaines forces cooperated in clearing up the wreckage and conveying the injured to hospitals. The celebration was in charge of a Legion committee headed by Ralph Allison of Des Plaines.

And from Phyllis Bentley's excellent autobiography,

On the 4th of July, 1927, in addition to the many fire-works which each child had to set off at home, Des Plaines had a big fire-works display in Northwestern Park, on the east bank of the Des Plaines River, just across from the down town section. The American Legion and the Fire Department, who were largely the same men since our fire department was almost entirely volunteer, bought and set off the fire-works. Literally every child in Des Plaines went, including a bus load of orphans from St. Mary's Orphanage. That particular 4th of July a defective rocket, instead of mounting high into the sky, sailed into the pile of remaining fireworks and set off the whole mass. Never have I heard or seen such a sight, nor such panic and screaming. The orphans had choice seats down in front, and several of them were badly injured. That was the day of really big fire-works display, and the booming of the shells, and the wild display of color and smoke was terrific. The crowd was largely composed of women and children, all of whom were terrified and screaming. Men who had stayed at home could hear the terrible noise, and as we streamed from the park over the only bridge toward town there was a mad rush of men streaming the other way, from town to park, either to rescue their own families, or to see if they could be of help. It was many a year before Des Plaines had another public fire-works display. When I was young it was possible to buy fireworks almost anywhere, and for those who remained uninjured it was great fun and excitement to set off the different sizes of fire-crackers, hold the roman candles in your hand to shoot them up into the air, tack pin wheels and other displays to the trees in your back yard, and almost best of all throw down the little bombs which went off with such a ferocious bang if you hit the ground just right, to scratch the side-walks with son-of-a- guns, or light snakes which came piling out of an innocuous looking little pill.