Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More Thoughts on Sims Bowl

 This letter appeared earlier this month in the Journal. What do you think?

Sims Demolition Could Be Another Mistake

In 1985, an ambitious development called River Woods Park was proposed for the same block of Ellinwood Sims occupies. It would have featured a four-winged, nine-story, 436-unit apartment building with an underground parking lot, a health club, small office building, and green space. Ellinwood Street would have been eliminated. Then checks started bouncing in 1986. The proposal languished for another year because the developer had options or owned the parcels on the block. The city considered taking over these properties, but decided they could not afford the risk.

Then The Prime Group bought the old Riverwoods Lumber property at the corner in 1988; four other developers had been looking at the block. They proposed an 11-story senior citizens home and a 22-story apartment building on the site of Sims and other businesses, with 20% set aside for low-income subsidized apartments and the rest luxury apartments. Ultimately the 22-story building was dropped, and the senior proposal became the Heritage, finally opening in 1993.

You might remember yet another high-rise proposal from 2005 that would have covered the entire block. The same year, there were vague rumblings of an "entertainment" proposal. Neither came to pass.

This isn't the first time the city has taken the "demolish first, ask questions later" approach. The block between Pearson and Miner actually was cleared in 1986-1987 in hopes of attracting new development. Officials believed this would "serve as a catalyst to redevelop the area and bring back the intense interest despite more than 10 years of redevelopment talk." Three or four plans came and went until 1999, when Library Plaza was finally developed - building single-story strip malls on the sites of stores that had apartments above. A net loss, with 12 years of lost property and sales taxes, plus the cost of demolition and construction, plus the loss of attractive historic buildings. The ten years of vacant lots between Lee and Pearson didn't attract developers and only further disconnected downtown, since nobody likes walking through a vacant lot. Chicago did the same thing with Block 37 across from Marshall Field's, cleared in 1989 and finally opening as a lackluster shopping center this year. 

Let's look at some other examples of this strategy. Two doors down from Sims is a small, barely-used or visible pocket park; the building there was demolished all the way back in 1954 as part of the large city parking lot that was once behind it. (The city must think the citizens miss that parking lot more than we'll miss a bowling alley!) The park that was between the Sugar Bowl and Brown's was cleared for a walkway between two parking garages that were never built; this vacant land created an opportunity to stick a driveway to Metropolitan Square right in the middle of our most important business street. Old Maine Township High School/Thacker Junior High, replaced with the lackluster Central Park that could have occupied the footprints of any of the surrounding condominium buildings. The 1874 North School, torn down to make way for a parking lot. And so forth. I'm hard-pressed to think of an instance of Des Plaines-led demolition without a redevelopment plan that has produced anything better than a small park or parking lot.

Unless they are a threat to public safety, vacant buildings are better than vacant lots, because vacant buildings have reuse options and vacant lots - especially city-owned ones - are tax drains.

City officials would be well-advised to learn from these past mistakes. They say they're talking to three developers now. How many of them are serious? How many will stick around for two years? What will the climate be like in two years? The plan is for retail and condos, but we have plenty of those to go around. There are many retail vacancies in Metropolitan Square, and there are storefronts in Library Plaza that have still never been occupied. What would draw shoppers to that side of downtown, without an entertainment anchor like a bowling alley? There are condo buildings that aren't complete. There are plenty of office vacancies, too. So why are we so confident a big development is around the corner? "If you tear it down, they will come?" Demand for quality new development will not come until we have fully utilized the resources we already have, by establishing downtown Des Plaines as a worthwhile destination for distinctive shopping, dining, entertainment, and living.

This assumption of redevelopment has been a big factor in depressing downtown revitalization. Why invest in maintaining a building or running a quality business when redevelopment might be imminent? Sims had been expecting a buyout for years.

TIF money is designated to remove blighted conditions from downtown. But now we propose to use it to send a functional building to a landfill and create a vacant lot. In the meantime, it will be a mid-block parking lot - something specifically discouraged in the 2007 parking study, in a block that same study showed had no demand for parking. We will be creating blight and taking properties off the tax rolls.

Let's not make the same mistakes yet again. Instead of buying and demolishing the block, secure options, or let the developer do it. There is no good reason to demolish anything until new development is financed and shovel-ready. In the meantime, if the proposals fall through, existing businesses can continue to be productive. Let the park district run the bowling alley, or let someone else run it on short-term leases, so it is productive. Would it cost more to fix the roof than to demolish the building? Rosemont and Melrose Park are building new bowling alleys - and you can't build the retro character Sims has.

It's time to stop the unsuccessful "strategy" for downtown that we've pursued for the last 40 years. We have aggressively removed much of our history and character. Before losing the things that can give our city a unique identity, before we go past that tipping point towards Anytown, USA, we need to step back and create a real plan for downtown - to use our resources efficiently to achieve a reasonable goal. We need to identify and protect many of the dwindling historic places that are left so that they can help us have a more productive future.  Most of all, we need a vision of what we want downtown as a whole to be, instead of continuing its death by a thousand cuts. Creating a strong downtown isn't as easy as making a parking lot and crossing your fingers. Before we do something else we might come to regret, step back and think about how it factors into a comprehensive master plan in revitalizing downtown Des Plaines. It's too important to leave to chance or developers.

Brian Wolf

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoma House Hotel, 1504-1508 Miner

The Thoma House Hotel, also known as the Desplaines House, was one of the most distinctive landmarks in downtown Des Plaines from 1883-1929. It was built for about $10,000 back in 1883 and containing a noted bar. It was purported to be one of the finest hotels in Chicago suburbs, located directly across from the railway depot.

The three story building contained 35 guestrooms, a lodge room, entertainment room, place for public meetings, and later the first bowling lane in Des Plaines. It advertised itself as a summer resort. Remember, Des Plaines was "out in the country" for Chicagoans at that time, and the Methodist Campgrounds were a popular destination - though you wouldn't find the Thoma House's "fine brands of wines, liquors, and cigars" there.

The Thoma House was frequently used for meetings, including those of the Village Council before the Village Hall was built in 1893.

Around 1915, Thornton Shaw took over the historic Thoma Hotel, renaming it "Shaw's". Mr. Shaw extensively remodeled to make it again the pride of the town. Catering to "first-class patronage and banquets," Shaw's became known for good cooking, however briefly. He designated the Bowling Alley for the use of "the most fastidious Ladies".

It was sold to Bernhardt "Barney" H. Winkelman in 1916. He replaced the bowling alley addition with his own Recreation parlor building in 1921. He continued to operate it as the Des Plaines House until 1929, at which point it had become outdated and to some degree dilapidated, and was replaced by a furniture store. Today its site is occupied by Leona's and Total Security.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Brown's / Winkelman Recreation Parlor Building, 1502 Miner

This building served the vast majority of its lifetime as Brown's Department Store. It has a few stories to tell.

It was built on the site of the Thoma House Hotel's bowling lane annex and stables. The bowling lanes had opened by 1905.

Bernhardt H. "Barney" Winkelman, one-time proprietor of the Thoma House, built this building in 1921. Winkelman was a very prominent businessman; over the years he also owned and operated the lumberyard next to the tracks at what is now Ellinwood and Lee, and the adjacent saloon; the American House saloon on Ellinwood where Center Street was eventually built, and the land behind it reaching to Prairie. His house was the former home of Socrates Rand's widow at Lee and Miner, where he eventually built the Des Plaines Theatre (his house was moved to Jefferson Street and later demolished).

The building was based on a stock design from the Midland Terra Cotta company. At this time, you could basically order a building facade from a catalog. Don't be surprised if you see a twin somewhere. Since it was replacing bowling alleys, the new building featured 7 pocket billiards tables, a snooker and billiard table, and 2 bowling alleys. This closed in 1932.

By 1935, it had become home to Janet's Tea Room, formerly of Lee Street, described thus by the Suburban Times on February 2:
   Janet's Tea Room is one of the most popular in this section and merits the large patronage it receives, for it's one of the cleanest and most sanitary—serving the most palatable foods to be found anywhere. It is very popular with the people of Des Plaines and Cook county.
   This tea room has gained a name that has spread far and wide as a place where the local people and the traveling public can more than satisfy their demands in the matter of obtaining good food.
   The menu not only consists of the prime necessities of life, but many delicacies are offered that are inviting and tempting to the taste of the most fastidious appetite.
   Cleanliness is one of the outstanding features of this modern eating place, and this is not  confined to the counter alone, but goes into kitchen, where all dishes are thoroughly washed and sterilized.
   The service is equally satisfactory whether your order be large or small, as the owner makes you feel at home and that your patronage is appreciated.
   Let us suggest that if you want your next luncheon party to be a success that you call and make arrangements here and leave the rest to them. You are sure to find everything to your entire satisfaction.
It seems that the restaurants downtown clustered around the train station to better serve that clientele. Later in 1935, the building became home to Sears, Roebuck, and Company, which remained here only two years before swapping locations with the struggling Brown's Department Store in summer 1937.

In this location Brown's refocused on soft lines - clothing and fabrics, and eventually focused even closer on women's and children's active clothing. Known for its parakeets and other birds kept throughout the store, Brown's closed its doors in February, 1996.

The building almost became a Bruegger's Bagels, going so far as mounting a sign, but then that chain ran into financial trouble. It instead became a National Quik Cash payday loan office. The back half was converted into a series of shops, including Bagel Cafe (then a-Adams Driving School), Family Hearing Center, Ursula's Jewelry, Clip N' Curl, and Stuff & Puff Tobacco.


The building was demolished to make way for the driveway to Metropolitan Square.

(top photo by Malcolm Mlodoch)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Manuel Post Office Building, 1500-1496 Miner (Brumlik's; Demolished)

This building was built as the Des Plaines Post Office, a Taxi Garage, and store. It was the Manuel building, built by Dr. Edward A. Manuel, a veterinarian who established Des Plaines' first public transportation system, a horse and buggy, out of a stable on this site.

The Suburban Times, October 15, 1920

Expected That It Will Be Ready For Occupancy November 1st
Building is Finely Equipped - Fine Construction - Will Be A Credit To Our Town

(By E. D. MacL[uckie])

    Dean Swift once said that the man who could make two blades of grass grow where one grew before deserved better of mankind than the whole race of politicians put together.
    Then, what shall we say of the man who plans and erects a fine business structure in the center of his own village, not only as an example of thrift and good business principles, but as an example for his neighbors to emulate? Pericles of old adorned Athens, so is our good fellow citizen, Dr. E. A. Manuel, beautifying this little town of Des Plaines.
    Let us call your attention to how this is being done:
    Facing the Northwestern station on the north stands Dr. E. A. Manuel's new store, garage, and apartment building, which is fifty feet wide and one hundred thirty-eight feet from front to rear. Seventy feet of the front portion is two stories high, the remainder being one story in height.
    The rear portion fifty by sixty-eight feet is a convenient and substantial garage, which will not only be the home of the doctor's fine taxi-service but which will comfortably house twenty automobiles. The garage has a cement floor, is provided with an office ten by sixteen feet, and a lavatory and toilet. Its large basement accommodates the steam-heating apparatus and call the coal required for a season's run. A chute from the garage floor to the basement permits the convenient handling of the coal. The floors, stairways, and supports are all reinforced concrete and cement.
    The steam heating of this portion of the structure guarantees a temperature of 50 degrees in the garage and 70 degrees in the office during any kind of weather.
    A cement driveway nine by seventy connects the garage with Miner street. Were this driveway extended seventy-five feet, it would run under the west eaves of the Northwestern station, which shows how conveniently located this building is.
    The driveway has a hundred barrel cistern under it, which will supply the entire building with soft water (what a luxury!) Besides the cistern there are two man-holes in the driveway, one for coal and the other for goods.
    The front fifty by seventy feet of the structure will accommodate two business houses, the new post office on the left and a store on the right of the automobile entrance. The post office is twenty-two by seventy feet, while the store is sixteen by sixty feet. Each of these is supplied with a lavatory and toilet. These are on the first floor. On the second floor are two up-to-date six room apartments, each boasting a parlor overlooking Miner Street, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and three bedrooms and (housewives take notice) each bedroom has a clothes closet. Hot-water heat supplies the front seventy feet of this building.
    The dental suite in the front and middle part of the second floor is uniquely complete and arranged, consisting of a handsome waiting room with a liberal skylight, an office separated from the waiting room by a heavily-plated opaque glass partition, an x-ray room, a toilet and lavatory, two operating rooms, and a laboratory. This suite has two entrances, one for ingress and one for egress. The walls of the operating room are padded to keep out the noise from the trains.
    On the second floor is a large central hall communicating with a gentlemen's and a ladies' toilet, the dental suite, and the apartments.
    At the rear of the seventy-foot addition and on the second floor is an immense open-air porch, extending across the building, which will be closed in by wire screens in summer and glass in winter.
    This portion also has a liberal basement for the hot-water heating plant, coal, and storage, Its stairways, walls, and supports are re-enforced concrete and cement.
    Not even the roof has been neglected or overlooked; for it is made with sheathing on the rafters; this is covered with flaxlinum, which is a strawboard of seventy-five percent flax and the [SNIP] "If it will keep out the cold, it will keep out the heat."
    The floors are cement and terrazzo mosaics, cement on the parts to be covered in linoleum, and terrazzo mosaic in halls and rotundas.
    Lastly, but quite important, is the attractive facade, or front, of this new business block, (and we call it "business block" with much gusto.) It has four entrances. Over the left one in raised terra cotta letters are the words, POST OFFICE. Over the right hand entrance is the one wod, STORE, in the same kind of letters, while a long ornamental lintel over the middle, or garage, entrance bears at each end a representation of an automobile wheel, flanked on the left by a pair of nippers above a wrench and on the right hand by an automobile "jack," which replicas are bound together by the appropriate legend: TAXI SERVICE. This lintel with its adornments is strikingly appropriate for a garage whose location is the very best. The word OFFICE adorns the stairway entrance.
    Above the central entrance near the roof is an eagle perched upon a United States shield with its traditional thirteen stars and thirteen stripes, all in terra cotta.
    The large plate glass window frames are trimmed with genuine copper, thus insuring safety and durability. The front entrances are trimmed in terra cotta, while the front wall is capped with cut stone.
    The construction of this building has been greatly retarded because of the inability to secure material. Few buildings are built on the careful and honest lines in both material and workmanship that this one has been, which is a compliment both to the builder, Mr. W. G. Wille, and the owner, E. A. Manuel.
    The building will be fully completed and occupied by November first.
    In conclusion, this whole structure embodies the ideas of comfort, solidity, strength, durability, and congruity, which typify in many aspects the character of its owner, Dr. E. A. Manuel, who could give to this community no better example of progress and no more fitting monument of his own worth and business integrity.
...and now it's a driveway!

Before this building was built, Dr. Manuel was already operating the Des Plaines Depot Garage here, selling Hupmobiles and Dodge Brothers Motor Cars; this later became Des Plaines Motor Sales in the new building. Manuel's taxi service grew into the Suburban Auto Coach Company and then United Motor Coach (with its passenger depot later in this building), before being absorbed into the Regional Transportation Authority in 1965. Dr. Manuel's impressive house still stands at the corner of Rand Road and Elk Boulevard.

The E.A. Manuel Livery and Boarding Stable, circa 1900. From "March of Progress", 1956

The post office moved to the Masonic Temple building after five years, in 1925, although the back garage portion was later used by the Post Office. Over the years, much of the Terra Cotta on the first floor was removed as the store and garage became an auto showroom, and in about 1954 a total modern aluminum storefront system was installed as Brumlik Shoes moved in.

1946 postcard, 1950s postcard, 1960s via Chamber of Commerce booklet
In 1980 the Des Plaines City Council elected to purchase the Brumlik building to provide access from Miner Street to the Park Place parking lot. This was done in anticipation of a 3-story transportation center on the train depot's site, which would have connected via overhead walkway through this property to another parking deck in the Park Place lot. The transportation center would have connected to the Behrel deck, and in turn to the rest of Superblock, had it developed as planned. Although the owner of Brumlik's protested, the store closed in September, 1980, and the building was demolished the next month.

By the following March, the transportation center was down scaled to what we see today; there would be no overhead walkways going through the site. A park was built there, Miner Square, and was outfitted for $8,000, then upgraded for $20,000 more two years later. The building's demolition was ultimately unnecessary; an 'arcade' could have been built directly through the building for parking access, as many other downtowns have done. The park was again redone in the late 1990s. The removal of this building made it possible 20 years later to remove the adjacent Brown's building and put in a driveway to Metropolitan Square, further degrading Miner Street.

1926 - Dr. Heller
1935 - Dr. R.W. Schulze
1953 - Dr. Warren W. Kreft

1496 -

1916-1925 Post Office
1926-? - Behrens Realty
1935-1947 Women's Specialty Shop
1940-1947 - Seurborn Singer Repair (upstairs?)
1956?-1960 - Bus Depot
1958-1964 - Maine Travel Agency
1968-1980 - Ivy Temps

1500 -
1935-1951 - Des Plaines Motor Sales (Del Townsend Chevrolet)
1954-1980 - Brumlik Shoes

Photo 1 Courtesy of Mace Mlodoch; Photo 2 Courtesy of Malcolm Mlodoch

Monday, February 1, 2010

John Behmiller Building, 1520 Miner

The Behmiller Building is one of the most attractive buildings downtown. Built in 1897, it is the only example of Queen Anne architecture downtown, with distinctive twin oriel (bay) windows. It seems to use the same brick, name plaque, and limestone banding courses as the C.W.M. Brown Building next door, suggesting it was probably designed by the same builder/architect, believed to be Frank Cook. There is a cornerstone, but it is now too weathered to read. From what I've been able to discover, it was originally the Behmiller Grocery store, although it became (briefly) Brown's shortly thereafter.
At some point, probably the 1950s, it was "modernized" with the addition of a permanent wedge-shaped canopy and new storefronts, with Lannon Stone below. While these aren't terrible and don't detract too much from the building, they do obscure some of its detail.
This photo shows the now-hidden base of the oriel windows and the glassy storefronts. Surprisingly, the building also had storefronts in the basement, with a stair going down. (What an awful-looking tree in this photo!) The building today is not too far off from the original. The biggest difference is the now-missing, unusual parapet at the roofline, which contributed to the "peaky" pattern of this end of the block.
Miner & Pearson - Hoffman Card
Here are some of the businesses that occupied the Behmiller Building:

1937 - Singer Sewing Machine Store
1954-(1979) - Sebastian Real Estate
(1984) - Louis Delegge American Family Insurance
1987-1990 - Susie Software
1993 - The Clock Doctor
Complete Business Center
John's Shoe Repair


1935?-1950 - Square Deal Shoe Store
1956 - Holmes Motor
1959 - Des Plaines Dental Laboratory
Piggy's Market
1982 - Lee Camera