Thursday, April 15, 2010

McDonald's - 55 Years Since 1955

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the first Ray Kroc McDonald's.
Mid-60s, with "Winterfront"

Why is McDonald's in Des Plaines important? It was not the first McDonald's - it was the the 9th overall.

Drive-ins and chain restaurants already existed before McDonald's, of course - there were many drive-up food stands throughout the country, of variable quality, and there were chains like White Castle and Howard Johnson.

McDonald's started off as an orange juice stand run by Dick and Maurice McDonald in Monrovia, CA called the Airdrome (it was adjacent to an airfield) in 1937. In 1940 they cut it in two parts and moved it to San Bernardino as a popular BBQ stand. The real innovation of McDonald's came in 1948 as they streamlined their menu to maximize profitability, slashing it to the core most popular, profitable, and efficient items. They fired all the carhops and created a new self-service window concept. They divided labor, setting aside a window for burgers, a window for fries, a window for drinks, a window for shakes. Through these innovations, they were able to maximize turnover and serve many more people.

In 1953 they employed architect Stanley Clark Meston to develop a new building with them, one they could franchise. It had to be efficient, eye-catching, modern, and identifiable. Meston's design created a fishbowl kitchen with glare-proof tilted glass walls, so that customers could see for themselves how clean and fast the food was made. It was bright and inviting. The first of 9 of these was built in Phoenix. These early franchisers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted, which resulted in several failures; some were serving tacos, hot dogs, and all manner of things. Meanwhile, business at the San Bernardino location continued to thrive, and Ray Kroc, a multimixer salesman, came to town to see how they could possibly be selling that many milkshakes.
1982 AIA Photo

Arlington Heights native Kroc secured the franchise rights, and chose Des Plaines for his first store. Even though it wasn't an optimal location, it made a good pilot store, because it was near his home, at the intersection of several major highways, and he could easily get to downtown Chicago on the train for meetings. Kroc enlisted Des Plaines architect Robert Stauber to modify Meston's plans, down-scaling it to make it more efficient for the market  and site, and adding a basement for storage in lieu of the outdoor sheds used in sunny California. Eventually the McDonald's Corporation Kroc founded would develop a new real estate strategy that allowed them to grow explosively and remain stable (in many ways, McDonald's Corporation is as much a real estate company as a food service company). The McDonald's system of careful regulation instead of total control made it a dependable and cheap option, leaving much of the competition behind in its early years.

So, McDonald's in Des Plaines represents the synthesis of chain restaurants, drive-ins, and division of labor; innovations that catapulted McDonald's to the top of the heap, inspired hosts of imitators, and changed the way America and the world eat.

But this misses part of the story. It's also how America developed after World War II - in sprawling development outside the established city. And McDonald's would become the opening shot in many of the suburban strips. Lee and Rand in Des Plaines is an excellent example of one of the earliest strips. When McDonald's came in, there was in fact ALREADY a self-service chain just a couple doors down - Dairy Queen. It's still there, the Las Asadas Mexican restaurant on the corner. There were gas stations (3 of them still there) and other drive-ins. So in addition to this very significant and visible McDonald's, there's a context with an important story about America's development that remains ignored.

This is more important in light of the fact that McDonald's was largely reconstructed in 1984-1985. Reports differ on whether only the original basement was reused, or if the walls and roof were also. It's a mostly accurate reconstruction; they recreated the original dies for the metal trim and used old stock tile where possible; basing it all on blueprints from a 1958 restaurant since Stauber's could not be found. However, they added gardens where none existed (supposedly at the City of Des Plaines' insistence) and moved the sign from the south end of the lot. The reconstruction is not necessarily significant as the 1st McDonald's itself, but as one of the first times a national corporation created a museum to itself on the site of its founding. It gains added significance from that context of other development around it.

There's more to the story, but I'll talk about that another time.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Letter from Conor Kendrick - A Proposal for Sim's Bowl?

I received this note from Conor Kendrick, a fan of Revitalize Des Plaines! He has some great ideas - see what he has to say!

Hi, my name is Conor Kendrick, I have been a lifelong resident of Des Plaines, Illinois and I am about to graduate college with a degree in Parks and Recreation with a minor in Environmental Science. In returning to Des Plaines, I have an idea of what can help revitalize the downtown.

Let me start off by saying isn’t this “Revitalize Des Plaines” group great!? I like all the old pictures that have been posted, of places I remember, and place’s I had no clue even existed until now. I had no idea that this many people cared about the city.

Second, as I've stated on multiple posts in this forum about Sim's Bowl, I am looking to buy it and operate it. I worked there for 7 years (throughout high school then when I was in on breaks from college), and did everything except bartend and cook. I was successful in attracting new leagues and parties to Sims, and I even ran my own league that took up most of the 16 lanes. I was also instrumental in getting the bowling alley at Palwaukee Airport operational once again, and now it looks like they are going to have two night leagues there. Given my previous experience I know how to operate a bowling alley successfully in today’s market. The problem with the previous operation was that they still thought it was 1959 and not 2009 when it came to marketing and upkeep. 

However, it is estimated that it would take about $1,300,000 to acquire the real estate, refurbish the equipment, remodel the kitchen and bathrooms etc. The initial plans are to get a loan for $1 million so we need to raise $300,000 in capital. The purpose of this letter is to see if anyone was interested in investing with me in this enterprise. I am not asking for money right now, just what you are willing to invest. I am in the process of setting up a new company to own and operate the bowling alley.

I strongly believe that Sim’s can be a successful enterprise; it just needs the right owners with the right plans. I have plans for the bowling alley and the storefront and apartments next door which include:

• Bringing the building up to code
• Refurbishing the Retro charm and equipment
• Developing the cleaners building next door (which comes with the purchase) into a storefront and a microbrewery
• Attracting bowling leagues
• Making it a clean family friendly place for parties and open bowling

I appreciate your time in reading this, and if you have any questions or are interested in investing you can contact me through my email or my cell phone, both are provided below.

Conor Kendrick
(847) 373-7500

Saturday, April 10, 2010

80 Years of Maine East High School

This post comes a little late - Maine East actually opened March 24, 1930.

1941 Maine East

The original Maine Township High School first opened in 1902 and will be the subject of a future post. The history of Maine Township High School East began in October, 1924, when the school board passed a resolution ordering the purchase of sixty acres at Potter and Northwest Highway. This choice went against the wishes of the township voters. This must have remained the subject of controversy, because the school board subsequently in December set a special election for May 23, 1925 to allow voters to decide on the site. Ultimately, the same site was chosen, the former Hoffman Farm - smack dab between the two towns - and out of walking distance for anyone. Until Maine West was opened, Maine High was identified as being in "Park Ridge or Des Plaines, IL"

Maine East with Gym
Dempster & Potter - Maine East High School - Vogel Card

The conflict between Des Plaines and Park Ridge was evident nowhere more than in the high school. Describing the 1902 building, Mark Henkes later wrote,
since 1892 there had been a rivalry between Des Plaines and Park Ridge concerning the all-important location of Maine High School. The Des Plaines Village Council drew a petition that year asking that Park Ridge unite with Norwood Park to build a school so Des Plaines could locate one of its own.
Even though Maine High School created somewhat of a bond between Des Plaines and Park Ridge, it obviously went only so far. A distinctive competitive spirit between the two villages would continue in respect to the high school as well as other fields which would evolve with the progression of expansion.
This conflict dragged on into the 1920s:
Another hot issue during the '20s was the Maine High School. A petition signed by 500 Park Ridge parents in 1921 asked that Park Ridge be able to build a high school because of what they called unsatisfactory busing of pupils to and from Park Ridge.
By this time of course veterinarian Edward Manuel had departed with his horse and buggy service and livery stable and had graduated to the bus service we now call United Motor Coach. Many Park Ridge pupils took the train to the high school in Des Plaines, but Manuel did have a morning and afternoon route for the students.
Dr. Earle, president of the school board (and a Des Plaines resident), argued that departments would have to be dropped because there would not be enough students to fill classes. He also said that Maine Township was one of only three townships in Illinois that offered free bus service, even though it was against the law. "Would Park Ridge be able to provide its own free transportation?" he asked.
Park Ridge retorted that the town would double its student population in two years, thus requiring a high school of its own. A high school would also enhance the growth of the town, they said.
In the end, Park Ridge did even better. In 1930, Maine High School was moved from Thacker Street in Des Plaines to Potter and Dempster in Park Ridge. Now it was Des Plaines' turn to bus its pupils.
Maine East High School 40's

Of course, Park Ridge would still bus its pupils too. With the site selection squared away, next came the design of the building itself. A $500,000-$750,000 - in 1927 dollars - building was announced in September, 1927. It was the product of Zook, McCaughey, and Chubb, a Park Ridge firm best known for the Pickwick Theatre and St. Charles Municipal Building, as well as the Rand Park Fieldhouse, 1930 Des Plaines Post Office (now pawn shop), and numerous other buildings in the region; the firm later specialized in schools. But this was perhaps the most elaborate and beautiful of their school buildings.
Designed after the Powell Library at UCLA, Maine East is an exuberant exercise in Spanish Revival mixed with Art Deco and Prairie influences. It is easily one of the most beautiful buildings in the area, and one of the most historic and beautiful high schools in the Chicago Suburbs. When built, it was also one of the largest, tallest, and most elaborate buildings around. The building clearly follwed the trend established by Dwight Perkins' Schurz High School, which had revolutionized the design approach to high schools when it was built in 1910.
Maine East
The unconventional, state-of-the-art design focused on a central entry tower capped with a green skylight. The new school's design was to feature a paved court in the Italian Style graced with a fountain, which the 500 seat cafeteria would open onto.  It also featured a 40'x80' library finished in knotty spruce with floor to ceiling windows for ample natural light and views of the countryside, with alcoves and conference rooms, designed to hold 7,000 books, expandable to 20,000 with a balcony. Now the study hall, this room had attached senior history and English classes, so that students could easily access reference works. There would be a 80x100 foot gymnasium with 500 fixed spectator seats, and a small girls gym which could open onto it, seating up to 1000 spectators. A $50,000 40'x75' swimming pool with seating for 350-500, to house Maine's national champion swim team. An auditorium seating 1,000, designed to accomodate a future 800 seat balcony, with an orchestra pit. 48 rooms - 6 English, 5 Math, 4 commercial, 2 mechanical drawing, 3 shop rooms, a public speaking room equipped to show film, 3 history and civics, 4 foreign language, 2 sewing, 1 cooking, 5 laboratories, an accounting room complete with bronze fixtured cashier windows, and 1 science room. A central tower with a radio room in the roost and a band/art room below it. The school was divided in two wings, with boys lockers and washrooms in the South wing and girls in the East. And the whole school was set far back with dramatic, beautiful landscaping including a formal garden. Blueprints were provided for another wing and other additions. Voters passed the plan by an 8 to 1 margin.
1955 Maine East
The school was designed to accommodate 1000 students when it was built, and to easily accomodate additions. Old Maine had been built for 250, and was later expanded to 650. Maine was built over the course of 1929. Unfortunately, owing in part to cost overruns and the onset of the Great Depression, the auditorium - which would have rivaled the Pickwick in size and beauty - and fountain were dropped from the plans, set aside for a future date that would never come (although this would still be the right place to build a future addition, adding visual balance to the old Gym). The swimming pool came very close to being cut. The school's opening itself was jeopardized. Luckily, the principal marshaled a $100,000 loan and was able to convince board members to go on full steam ahead. It opened March 24, 1930. In November of that year, Frank Lloyd Wright gave a lecture in the Gymnasium pleading for a greater role of Art in America's schools; he could scarely have chosen a better location. The newspaper noted that although his topic was "New Schools" he instad talked about how the machine age called for a new style in architecture, and that Schools are the appropriate place for that to grow.
Maine East
By 1935 Maine needed to grow, applying for a $60,000 federal grant; matching the original architecture, it would contain 10 classrooms; four on the second floor and the remainder on the third floor, to be used for music. Music rooms were finished with acoustical treatments of pecky cypress wood ceilings and acoustical plaster made to look like stone.
Dempster & Potter - Maine East High School - Cameo Card
In 1938 the township voted on borrowing $50,000 in bonds to pay the township's share of a $150,000 PWA auditorium with 2,200 seats and seven classrooms. The voters overwhelmingly said "no".

Need surfaced again in 1949 as enrollment surged to 1,800 and expected to reach 2,400 in the near future; the principal called for 29 new rooms including science, 6 shops for woodwork, metal craft, electrical, printing, blueprint reading, and mechanical and architctural drawing; music rooms; an auditorium seating 1,850; a new cafeteria; a new gym with a capacity of 3,588; a library expansion; and more shop space. The $2,500,000 proposal was approved by voters, but the same voters also turned against the bond issue, beliving it too expensive and expansive. The plans were further delayed by a government restriction for steel in gymanasiums. However, because the margin of defeat was less than 100 votes, a new campaign was launched and the bond passed the second time.

The addition, by school architecture firm Childs & Smith, who went on to design Maine West, opened in May, 1953, while the Gym and Fieldhouse remained under construction. Again, the design was state-of-the-art modern. The new corridors were softly lit with recessed fluorescent lighting, pastel tiled walls, two murals (one of Noah's Ark, the other of an editorial cartoon) and giant 6-foot bulletin boards inviting posters. The music department's old practice room was replaced with seperate band and chorus rooms with practice studios. The old cafeteria was remodeled into a freshman-sophomore library. And again, the building was built of brick to harmonize with the old building and set in landscaping. Part of it was even an extension to the original building with matching brick and spanish tile roof. The auditorium was graced with a 48 foot wide by 34 foot deep stage and 80 person orchestra pit, while the beige and blue color scheme and upholstered seats made the audience comfortable. The fieldhouse was touted as so large that it could accomodate a basketball game, shotput, pole vault, high jump, broad jump, and track running - all at the same time, while wrestling, shuffleboard, and trampoline events happened in the balcony. Theoretically, at least.

As the baby boom went on, enrollment reached 4,500-5,300 - the maximum comfortable capacity of the school was 3,800 - and the need for a new high school became obvious. A few classrooms were added in a hyphen addition between the old building and auditorium, perhaps the main architectural misstep at Maine East, but at least the historic campus was preserved. This small addition partially covers the original cornerstone; if another addition ever becomes necessary, this would be a good place to put it, as this was where the auditorium would have originally been sited. This would visually balance the original building. Maine West opened in 1959, and Maine Township High School became Maine East for the 1960-1961 school year. Maine South opened in 1964, and more growth came in 1968, as Maine North was built along with additions at East and South.

These additions, by the firm McCaughey, Erickson, Kristmann, and Stillwaugh (the same firm that was once Zook & McCaughey) included a Girl's Gymnasium, new art, industrial arts, occupational therapy, exercise, printing, television, ceramics, and special ed classrooms, in an addition in the courtyard of the school. More shops were added as well as a new pool. The old girl's gym - the original school's gym - was remodeled into a library and classrooms. Part of this addition would have included an addition to the Potter Road side of the school, on the end of the old Gym, which would have destroyed the patio and gardens. History teacher and Maine alum Paul Carlson - who would go on to teach for 48 years at Maine East - led an opposition to save the gardens, and ultimately succeeded. The administration offices were instead located at Maine South. Unfortunately the gardens have since disappeared, and all that is left is a few bushes. Maybe it's time to put them back, as the Paul Carlson Alumni Memorial Garden?

In 1981, the state-of-the-art (and it would be even today) Maine North was closed due to declining enrollments. Outside consultants suggested the older and larger Maine East should close instead, but community sentiment prevailed. A third floor was added to the south end, making it better match the rest of the school. In 1999 science rooms were rebuilt within the school and masonry repairs were undertaken by the ARCON firm. Last year, training rooms were added and some rather unsympathetic windows have replaced older, slightly more sympathetic ones.

The old pool is worth special note - it still exists under the patio outside the gym. It has elaborate, beautiful tile mosaics, but unfortunately can no longer hold water. What is to become of this extraordinary feature?
Some more great pool pictures are at

Although time has altered and eroded many of Maine's details, such as the gardens and the elliptical walkway to the tower entrance, it still stands today as a living, working part of our history; one of few public buildings of its age in our area still serving its original purpose.