Chicago’s lost Polish Stores

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3067-69 N. Milwaukee Avenue – July 2008

POLSKI SKLEP, read the painted signs – red letters on white painted brick, surrounded by a riot of merchandise ads that covered every inch of the plain Chicago storefront building on Milwaukee Avenue, turning it into a giant undisciplined Polish flag. This stretch of road through the Avondale neighborhood was one of Chicago’s predominant Polish neighborhoods for many decades, nowhere more visibly than in the two storefronts of the Polish Store Chicago, “Little Poland’s Dollar Plus Store”.

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3331 N. Pulaski Avenue, a wood frame house with a brick storefront addition  – March 2008

A modern, local, low-rent version of a five-and-dime, the stores were crammed with all sorts of merchandise, from knickknacks and everyday needs to pots and pans,  housewares and bedding, as well as Polish-specific goods including CD and tapes, flags, stickers, and other patriotic goods. Cigarettes, lottery tickets, video rentals, power converters, phone cards, key cutting – all for sale in one stop!  Tucked in there somewhere was an employment agency as well. And a cookware sales point.

Advertising was equally unsubtle, spreading to sidewalk signs, vehicles, and the building’s party wall.

 

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September 2015 – closed.

Having been open since at least the 1980s, they’ve both closed recently, seemingly in 2012 – victims of the times as the Polish population has drifted westward into the suburbs. The larger store’s signage has been painted over as a more commonplace mattress outlet has taken over the space. A mile north, the smaller Polish Store yet remains, empty and waiting for a new tenant.

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Cermak Plaza’s Lost Art and Architecture

It’s not possible to discuss Mid Century Modernism on Cermak Road without bringing up the famous Cermak Plaza Shopping Center.

Cermak Plaza

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Cermak Plaza opened in 1956, a Modernist styled shopping center primarily noted for its excellent neon signs. After losing its prominence to newer and larger shopping destinations further west, the center gained notoriety in the 1980s when the progressive-minded owner began installing works of modern art all around the grounds.

Cermak Plaza ain't nothin' new to me

Plane Crystals

Cermak Plaza

Moonbells (Bell Tree Quartet). In the distance, the “floating McDonald’s” which was inexplicably altered to no longer float.

Cermak Plaza

Ever-Blooming Night and Day Flowers

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Good Time Clock

The first and most notorious piece, Big Bil-Bored, came down in 1993 due to structural deterioration. The most well-known sculpture, the automobiles-on-a-spike installation known as Spindle, was destroyed in 2008.  Various other pieces had also come and gone by the time I made my first photo visit later that year.

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Above, the Walgreens outlot building that displaced Spindle.

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Pinto Pelt and Windamajig

On a return trip in 2009, I captured several more works, as well as some of the store frontage in the background.

Cermak Plaza

The Embrace

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Drum Yard, with the soon-to-be-defunct Circuit City in the background

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Millennium Fountain

Cermak Plaza

Kettle Head Choir

Cermak Plaza

Cermak Plaza in 2008 was on its second iteration, with a series of Post-Modern Dryvit structures tacked over its original Mid-Century elements – faux castle towers in a 1980s color palette. Some of the original elements still shone through, particularly the old Service Merchandise store, unaltered except for a shed roof tacked to the front.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

The Walgreen’s also retained some of the 1958 design, too – rough stone at the entrance, and stylized stainless steel railings along the walkways. A handful of the original storefronts survived as well.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Beginning in 2010, the plaza’s owners gave the aged shopping center a second face lift, dramatically updating it to a contemporary look. That renovation would mean the removal of almost all the remaining artwork, but it also re-established the center architecturally – sweeping away the incredibly tacky Post-Modern add-ons, and replacing them with some dramatic contemporary design.

On the flip side, the Service Merchandise building was demolished in 2011; it has been replaced by a Meijers whose Dryvit facade dwarfs the previous building in scale.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Above: The renovated space previously occupied by Walgreens; the Pinto Pelt sculpture formerly hung on the wall at left. The stone around the entryway has vanished, but the original storefront panels are still in place.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

The art may be gone, but some of its spirit is retained in a group of peculiar wind turbines in the parking lot. The turbines generate electricity to power the lights, and sometimes return energy to the grid.

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The neon signs, meanwhile, were brought down in 2012 for repairs, but found to be beyond salvage. Backlit plastic signs temporarily took their place. Modern duplicates of the original neon signs were fabricated and installed, and the difference is practically invisible.

Cermak Plaza’s architectural story is among the most interesting a shopping center could have; it is one of continual change – sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. I might mourn the loss of the Mid Century design elsewhere; here, it appears something better has, by and large, taken its place. The disappearance of the artworks is more lamentable, and removes the quirky character of the place – but the restoration of the neon signs keeps the continuity of memory intact.

Other writers have covered Cermak Plaza in more detail than I could hope to; for more on this peculiar strip mall, see:

* Sculptures in the Cermak Plaza Shopping Center

* The Art and History of Cermak Plaza, at the Pleasant Family Shopping blog

The Architecture of Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Custard

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Ain’t no two ways about it – this town’s got a thing for hot dogs.

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Henry’s Drive-In – 6031 W Ogden Ave, Cicero; opened circa 1955.  See some photos of the building’s original state here; it was later remodeled out of its fantastic Modernist style, most likely in the 1970s.

Wolfy's

Wolfy’s at 2734 W. Peterson, opened 1966. The building is a totally plain brick box with faux mansard, but the sign is worth writing home about!

The hotdog stand – and its various associated roadside cousins – has a long and rich history in Chicago and its surroundings. From full-sized diners to small custard stands with no indoor seating, the roadside stand rose in lockstep with the automobile, and diversified into an infinity of styles and programs.

How to tie together this group of buildings? They are not united by architectural style, not by venue or menu, certainly not by ownership. Most – nay, all – of these hot dog stands and hamburger carryout joints are independently owned and operated.  Some have been around for decades. Their breed is certainly diminished from days of yore, but not yet vanished.

They are less than a full restaurant. Floor space is minimal – small size is a common factor among most roadside stands. Ambiance and seating are optional. You do not come here for a fine dining experience; you come to gorge on greasy deliciousness.

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Arnie’s Dog House – 1503 Indianapolis Boulevard, Whiting, Indiana

In a blue collar town like Chicago, passions run deep about cheap eats. I am no food critic, nor a foodie, nor even much of a greasy spoon aficionado. (I’ve never even had the famous Chicago style hot dog because I don’t like onions, or mustard, or peppers – and,  horror of horrors, I like ketchup.  You may excommunicate me at your leisure.) So – we’ll just stick with the architecture and history end of it. There’s plenty to dive into.

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Terry’s Red Hot – 1554 N.  Larrabee. Check out some of their food offerings here.

One recurring style for roadside is the plain white box – intentionally simplified, with clean, neat lines reflecting the ideal of a clean, modern dining experience.

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Muskie’s Hamburgers – 2878 N. Lincoln Avenue. The business opened in 1986, but the building has been there longer. No word on where they got that fantastic neon sign.

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Al’s Italian Beef – 169 W. Ontario at Wells. Open by 1989, perhap earlier.

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Snappy Service System, 1141 N. Ashland – part of a Missouri-based hamburger chain that expanded widely in the 1930s.  They signed the lease for this location in 1936.  Later this was La Pasadita, a taco stand, whose yellow paint concealed the white tile for many decades until its removal in 2013. This info and more from The Chicagoist

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One of the city’s most revered greasy spoon joints is the Diner Grill, 1635 W. Irving Park Road. You’d never know it today, but the building is actually two old Evanston streetcars parked side by side in 1935, now so covered over and remodeled that hardly a hint remains of the building’s origins. Today it carries some hints of Mid-Century streamlining, particularly in the long band of windows and the shallow-pitched roof.

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Bill’s Drive In – 120 Asbury, Evanston.  Opened circa 1960. The glazed block, flat roof, wall of windows, and sanitary-yellow color are classic Mid-Century roadside.

A second style of hot dog & hamburger stand is much more chaotic than the examples above. These are the places where less is truly a bore, so pour on the more! Signs, more signs, lights and still more signs festoon these colorful if incoherent little buildings.

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Duks Vienna Red Hots, 636 N. Ashland. Originally a wide-spread Chicago chain called Donald Duks until the Walt Disney corporation sued them,  this location opened in 1958. 

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Shelly’s Freeze – 5119 N. Lincoln Avenue. Located at the south end of Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row, this was originally a Tastee-Freez franchise, open by 1974 at the latest.

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Harlo Grill – 2400 W. North Avenue, Melrose Park – a glass walled serving area with a terrific old neon sign out front. Open by 1957, this is a 24 hour diner with a full menu.

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Susie’s Drive Thru, 4126 W. Montrose – a 24-hour greasy spoon. Originally a Tast-e Hast-e location, it became Susie’s in 1974.

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Murph’s Place – 3930 W Montrose Avenue. Closed in 2012. 

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Hamburger Heaven – 281 N. York Street, Elmhurst – opened in 1948, this stand is known for its ice cream and its Richardson Root Beer – and perhaps for that fabulous sign on the roof. Official site is here.

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Then there are the really stylized places – the ones where, through nostalgia or lucky preservation, the vintage roadside look is in full effect.

Superdawg Drive-In

Superdawg – 6363 N. Milwaukee at Devon Avenue, opened in 1948. Superdawg is arguably the region’s most famous hot dog stand due to its flamboyant color scheme, 1950s geometry, liberal use of neon, and of course the terrifying anthropoidal hot dog cave man on the roof.

Be Careful What You Wish For.

True fact: both him and his demure hot dog ladyfriend have TWO FACES, one on each side. They’re not just humanoid foodstuffs; they’re Janus-faced monstrosities watching your every move.

You wanna know the truth about the anthropomorphic hot dog cave person?

The original building and its expansion were designed by co-owner Maurie Berman. The current look of the restaurant dates from a 1999 renovation and restoration, but largely retains the look of the place from the 1950s. Likewise, carhops still bring your order out to your car while you wait – though you can also go inside and order at the counter.

Our last two stops are part of a tradition more common to Milwaukee than Chicago: the frozen desert stand. In Milwaukee, several such stands still survive, selling frozen custard in the summer months. They’re considerably rarer in Chicagoland. They’re characterized by a single-slope shallow-pitched roof that rises dramatically over the front serving area, which is walled in glass, and an overall small footprint.

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Carvel Ice Cream, 7301 N Milwaukee, Niles – opened by 1957, the original franchise lasted into the 1970s. By 1986 it was a Hayes Family Ice Cream Bar, and a year later it was a Dairy Bar. Most recently Taqueria Los Cuates, a Mexican restaurant which closed in 2013.

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Yellow Submarine, 6825 W. Archer Avenue – now closed. No info on its previous incarnations; the building’s style clearly dates it to the 1950s or early 1960s.

The Ohio House Motel

In December 1960, a tiny notice in the Chicago Tribune announced the opening of the Ohio House Motel in western downtown Chicago, at LaSalle and Ohio Street. Fifty years later, this tiny independent motel is still going strong.

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Distinguished by its funky diamond motif, the Ohio House is a vintage slice of roadside Americana plopped down right in the middle of downtown Chicago.

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The Ohio House sits mostly at the back of its lot, with parking in front and a tiny but popular diner on the corner.

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A gigantic billboard is suspended from a huge metal column which plunges down right into the parking lot. Apart from the diamond roofline, other points of interest include the matching suspended sign, held up by a geometric metal grid which is itself reflected in the pattern block fence that runs along Ohio Street. Rough-faced stone walls and a large stainless steel sign on the east facade add further 1960s ambiance. Though it’s distinctly a Chicago Mid-Century style design, the funky lettering on the coffee shop sign – especially the boomerang “C” – suggest a hint of Googie ambiance.

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Planning for the Ohio House began in 1959, when the Miller Development Company proposed a 48-room motel on a downtown lot owned by the Chicago Board of Education, which had previously held a school. Architect was Arthur Salk of Shayman and Salk, who also designed the Summit Motel on Lincoln and the LaSalle Motor Lodge at LaSalle & Superior (now a Howard Johnson); the firm’s stamp was also on many apartment buildings in the inner suburbs. Construction cost was $500,000. The development needed a zoning variance to build at the back of the lot (without a rear yard) and for its deficit of off-street parking (only 41 spaces.)

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In the late 1990s, as the neighborhood transitioned from seedy to gentrified, the motel’s owner planned to demolish the motel and replace it with a far larger chain franchise. The building’s demolition was announced as imminent in 2001. Yet the plans never went through, and the motel still offers clean and remarkably affordable rooms right in downtown.

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Seed & Sin: Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row

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Lincoln Avenue plays host to a large number of independent motels as it runs its northwestern course out of Chicago, mostly in a stretch between Foster and Peterson, west of Western Avenue. Informally known as Motel Row, this two-mile length of road once had fourteen motor hotels built after World War II. Nine of them survive today, though for how much longer is anybody’s guess.

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Fans of vintage neon signs, Mid-Century design and roadside architecture love these old places. Travelers, by contrast, are not so kind – a quick perusal of guides like Yelp and Yahoo shows a number of scathing reviews by guests who describe deteriorating rooms, mysterious (or not-so-mysterious) stains, aging utilities, and a generally unsavory atmosphere. But weekend travelers are not the only demographic of these establishments – they are commonly used by transients who might stay a few weeks or months. More notoriously, the rooms at many of the motels have played host to any number of unsavory activities, including drug dealing, prostitution, and crimes of assault.

This wasn’t always the case – originally, these motels served families and other road trip travelers, the adventuring pioneers on the new frontier of highways and suburbia. After opening in the 1950s, they settled down for a quiet life for the next few decades. But the pull of the Interstates – begun in the 1960s – was irresistable, and business tumbled. By the 1980s, the names along the strip began to appear regularly in newspaper crime stories. Lincoln’s motel strip was well known as a magnet for crime, a reputation bolstered by hourly rates at some motels. Some fought the decay; others embraced it.IMG_2002
By 1998, the city of Chicago had had enough. It acquired three of the motels via eminent domain – the Spa Motel, Riverside Motel, and Acres Motel – and demolished them in 2000. Their lots became a police station, parkland, and a library, respectively. The survivors banded together and fought back against condemnation procedures, driving the buyout price up and delaying further acquisitions. In 2002, the city of Chicago was actively working to acquire and redevelop seven more of the motels, but it would be four more years before it acquired two more motels and tore them down. Nine remain in operation today.

Though the redevelopment bid has ended, changes are still coming rapidly. Of the great neon signs that once gave these motels their flair, only a few remain today – one standing alongside an empty lot where the Stars Motel once stood. In recent years, the Diplomat has been resurfaced in EFIS, the Summit, the Tip-Top, the Patio and the O-Mi have all lost their neon signs, and the Patio Motel and O-Mi have been repainted without their signature bright colors. The Spa, Riverside and Acres are all long gone; the Stars Motel was demolished around 2006, followed by the Lincoln Motel in 2007.

With enough research, any of these motels could be worth a lengthy post of its own, but I present here a condensed introduction to Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row. We start south, just north of Foster, and move steadily north.


Diplomat Motel
5230 N. Lincoln
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Totally reskinned in recent years, it lost an interesting geometric stainless steel facade, and is now barely recognizable as a Mid-Century design.
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Summit Motel
5308 N. Lincoln
Architect: Arthur P. Salk, 1960
The Summit Motel opened in 1962, a date which one could almost identify solely from the green schist stone facade. The “summit” refers to its location at the top of a small rise (what passes for a hill in the tabletop-flat landscape of Chicago.) Architect Salk was also responsible for downtown’s Ohio House Motel.
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The Spa Motel
5414 N. Lincoln Avenue

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Demolished in 2000 and replaced by a police station, this was a well-known stopover for touring rock bands passing through town. Known guests include Anthrax, Greg Allman, and a long list of more obscure punk and hard rock bands.


The Apache Motel
5535 N. Lincoln Avenue
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Open by 1967. Referred to by a Tribune gossip column as “the most infamous of the hot pillow joints”, it’s actually two buildings joined by a pair of suspended walkways.

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The sign was rebuilt between 2007 and 2009, by the owner who bought the place in 1987 and has worked hard to distinguish it from the more seedy establishments around it.
MOTEL APACHE

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Guest House Motel
2600 Bryn Mawr Avenue
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Open by 1965. Set just off of Lincoln Ave, the Guest House Motel is a secretive brick box with almost no exterior windows. Cars enter through a tunnel-like opening in the front facade, directed a pair of giant neon arrows (one of which still casts a feeble, barely-visible glow at night), and park in a secluded interior lot. A second driveway opens onto the alley for even more discretion.

2600 Guest House Motel

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Guest House Motel

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O-Mi Motel
5611 N. Lincoln Avenue
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Open by 1957, the O-Mi Motel once had an excellent neon sign and a much cooler color scheme. More recent years have seen it sadly toned down, and the original sign has been replaced by a dull plastic backlit one.
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The Acres Motel
5600 N. Lincoln
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Demolished in 2000 and replaced by a library.


Lincoln Motel
5900 N. Lincoln Avenue
Lincoln Motel

Built in 1958, the Lincoln Motel came in amid a court battle over zoning laws adopted just as construction was beginning. It went out much the same way fifty years later. After a four-year court fight, the Lincoln Motel was condemned by the city and demolished in 2007. The planned developer backed out the next year, and the lot remains empty today.


Villa Motel
5952 N. Lincoln Avenue
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Open by 1962. With its angled windows, angled roofline, and angled columns, this is easily the most space-age futuristic building on Motel Row. The current sign retains some space-age styling, but it’s all plastic. The original sign was far more elaborate and eye-catching. Now operated as the Lincoln Inn Motel.
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Compare the above view with a 1992 image on Flickr.


Riverside Motel
5954 N. Virginia Avenue
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Demolished in 2000. The site now serves as an expanded entryway to Legion Park, which runs along the north branch of the Chicago River.


Tip Top Motel
6060 N. Lincoln Avenue
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Open by 1959. Now the River Park Motel & Suites. The little entrance arrow sign is among the very few remaining neon signs on the strip.

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Rio Motel
6155 N. Jersey (at Lincoln)
Open by 1957. The Rio and the Tip-Top are both broad, gentle curves in plan, and literally sit back-to-back, their rear brick walls touching.
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Stars Motel
6100 N. Lincoln Avenue
The Stars Motel

Built in 1956. Rather famously, this motel at the corner of Lincoln and Peterson was demolished in 2006, leaving only the neon sign which was subsequently auctioned off on eBay. The bottom fell out of the economy before anything further could happen. Plans for a 4-story condo building named “Village Center” went nowhere, and the sign  – never claimed by the winning bidder – has presided over a vacant lot ever since.
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The latest sign to pop up on the empty lot announces that the lot will, this summer, function as an outpost of the Peterson Community Garden – which is usually a neighborhood’s desperate plea for a vacant lot to please, please, please just go away.


Patio Motel
6250 N. Lincoln Avenue
Patio Motel

Likely built in 1955, open by 1957, the Patio featured a delightful orange and aqua color scheme and a glassy entrance lobby. It retained its vintage style in 2007:

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But has been toned down since then:
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The bright colors disappeared in 2008, the sign was removed in 2009, and the motel is now the North Park Inn, with yet another color scheme.

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The sign has been chopped off; only the former letterboard remains, now with a backlit plastic sign:
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More on Motel Row:

Neons I have known

It’s no great secret that historic neon signs are steadily disappearing from the Chicago landscape. The difficulty and cost of maintenance, along with the closing of older independent businesses, are the primary causes. Even when the signs are valued by store owners, sometimes they’re impractical to move, maintain or update.

Altered:

Jim Fong Chop Suey
Jim Fong Chop Suey, a modest sign on Touhy in West Ridge.

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The former Erickson Jeweler sign on Clark Street in Andersonville, now a Potbelly’s.

American General Furniture...?
Tasemkin Furniture. Now covered up with generic paneling.

Replaced:

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Eden’s Liquor on western Devon Avenue

Vanished:

The Washing Well sign
The Washing Well, Clark Street, Rogers Park. Not a neon, but still interesting.

E-Z Credit Wheels
E-Z Credit Wheels, a Western Avenue car dealership

Meyer Delicatessen
A.E. Meyer Delicatessen, Lincoln Square. The hanging sign has been relocated to the interior of the new store on this site; however, the storefront sign is gone.

Jubilee Gas for Less
Jubilee Gas for Less – this Lincoln Avenue sign has a surviving sister in the lobby of the Chicago History Museum.

DeMar's Coffee Shop Restaurant
DeMar’s Coffe Shop Restaurant – Chicago Avenue at Paulina

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Standee’s Coffee Shop, Edgewater – closed by corporate property managers who did not consider the 60-year-old restaurant “a solid investment”. Brilliant!

Gone dark

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The “Z” Frank Cheverolet sign is a Western Avenue icon; however, it hasn’t been lit since around 2007, when the car dealership relocated. In the press, the owner stated that they’d love to donate or relocate the sign, but that it was just too big to move.