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.

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The Lengthy Houses of Polonia

For a long time, I nourished a latent fascination with a peculiar type of vernacular house. Often gabled, sometimes flat-roofed, these houses are sized to fit the standard 25′ wide Chicago lot. They are typically two to four stories tall. But they are incredibly long, extruded all out of proportion and stretching on for bay after bay after bay. Their rooflines may have up to half a dozen chimneys, lined up like soldiers on the march. One or more entryways are often found on the long side, providing separate access to apartments further back in the building. Most are flecked with many windows.

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Long houses of Pilsen, seen from the Pink Line El, with St. Adalbert Church beyond.

Once I began looking more closely, a few things jumped out. Firstly, these houses are usually on the end of their block. The long side faces a street or alley. The reason for these abnormal houses, then, suggests itself: With the sure knowledge that no future neighbor would block up the light and the view, there was no reason not to fill the entire length of the lot with building. For an owner, it meant more space and more rental income.

Buildings on this model proliferated in two neighborhoods: Pilsen, and Pulaski Park. Both have a common point of origin as home to Polish immigrants in the late 1800s.

In Milwaukee, Polish immigrants famously developed the “Polish Flat” – a wood-frame house that, as time and finances allowed, would be jacked up a level, with a more solid brick basement built underneath. Likewise, back-lot houses would be added behind the main house to provide rental income – or a smaller front-of-lot house would be moved to the rear when a more spacious replacement could be built. In short, Poles were experts at extracting value from precious city land, and these houses are designed in the same tradition.

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1458 W. 18th Street at Laflin, Pilsen

The archetypal examples, in my mind, stand in the Pulaski Park area, clustered along Blackhawk Avenue, just east of Ashland.

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Polish housing
1362 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

Polish housing
1363 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

Polish housing
1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac

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1409 N. Greenview Avenue, at the mid-block alley. This house suffered a serious fire in 2004 that destroyed the third floor, attic and much of the roof; it has, obviously, been restored since then.

Polish housing
2100 Hoyne Avenue at Charleston

A number of things make these houses curiosities to me. First is the steadfast refusal to treat the exposed long side of the house as decorated architectural facade. The same unadorned common brick that would appear on an unexposed wall (ie, one crowded up against a neighboring building) is used in most cases; on the building above, a simple gabled roof is extruded out of the elaborate front bay. The front is the front and the side is the side, and that’s that. That elaborate façade is another point of interest – they came in all styles, arrayed with beautiful brick corbelling, pressed tin cornices and finials, cast iron storefront columns, carved stone lintels and more.

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918 N. Ashland Avenue at Walton – a particularly curious case, as a modern addition has continued the fill-the-whole-block approach begun by the original building, while conjoining it with the building across the alley.
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And then there is the final mystery – what kind of floor plans were originally hidden behind those walls? Are the interiors contiguous or separate? How did a preponderance of light and air on one side affect the design? Maybe one day I’ll turn up some plans, but till then I simply gaze and speculate.

Polish housing
1725 S. Ashland Avenue at 18th Street

Polish housing
1400 N. Noble Street at Blackhawk

Green on White

In the years leading up to World War I, a popular facade style for small commercial buildings consisted of white glazed brick with dark green brick for accents and ornament. Examples can be seen all over Chicago.

Damen
Damen Avenue

near Irving Park Road
Elston Avenue

Little Village 26th Street
26th Street

Milwaukee Avenue
Milwaukee Avenue

Archer Avenue
Archer Avenue

I am familiar with one or two cultural trends that would have made the style appealing. The notion of hygiene was on the rise, and glossy white brick – sometimes referred to as baker’s brick – was the perfect reflection. Easily cleaned, naturally pure and pristine, glazed white brick would have had great appeal to a populace looking for ways to elevate the filthy, smoke-ridden city.

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Western Avenue

Why the olive green accent, though? While it certainly is a beautiful color scheme – the olive green comes in a variety of tones that make each brick unique – there are a half dozen other tones like blue, maroon, and caramel which would harmonize equally well with white glazed. Yet green is almost exclusively used as the accent color.

I have found one or two examples in St. Louis, too, but it seems to be more of a Chicago thing.

I have yet to locate the magical research key which will let me unlock this mystery; I have no info on any of these buildings, and little special knowledge of Chicagoland brickmaking. If any knowledgeable reader can suggest further leads to trace, I would welcome it.

Clark Street Andersonville
Andersonville

S. Michigan Ave
S. Michigan Avenue

The co-monarchs of the style are two twin buildings at Fullerton and Clark, facing one another diagonally across the busy intersection. They are both tricked out with lush terra cotta ornament, catalog blocks applied as a cornice.

Clark Street at Fullerton

Clark Street at Fullerton

Clark Street at Fullerton

Clark Street at Fullerton

If the Clark Street pair are the kings, then the prime minister must be this block-long assembly on Western Avenue, where seven out of a group of eight buildings feature the green-on-white brick pattern.

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Even with this plethora of addresses, my searches turned up nothing besides occasional random factoids about the doings of this or that tenant over the years – not even a builder’s name.

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Western Avenue

Two little theaters

Two of Chicago’s earliest surviving movie theaters – the Park Manor Theater and the New Devon Theater – were built in a similar material palette, a common scheme of white glazed brick with dark green glazed brick trim. It’s an often-seen style from the years just before World War I. I will cover it more expansively in a later post; however, in the process of researching these two, I came across so much info that it seemed fair to give them their own separate writeup.

Both were relatively small houses, running what the Tribune referred to as “photo plays”. They were built at the declining end of the nickelodeon era, when features were short, admission was five cents, and “talkies” were still over a decade away. These smaller theaters often could not compete against the much larger movie palaces which began appearing only a few years later, though some stayed in business into the 1950s or later.

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In Rogers Park, the short-lived New Devon Theater, 1618 W. Devon Avenue, was built in 1912 (previously covered in this post.) Among its earliest listings were the photoplay The Diamond from the Sky, a drama hyped with a full-page ad in the Tribune. The New Devon only lasted a few years as a theater, and housed a series of businesses in the following decades. The first was a Ford auto dealership in the 1920s, the Hughey Motor Company.

The former theater included a residence during the Depression (one tenant died in 1940; another was busted in 1948 for operating gambling equipment in Northbrook), and served as a meeting hall for the 50th Ward Republican Party (where a 1939 speaker histrionically declared that the “New Deal-communist alignment [has] made the Democratic party the party of dept, depression, disorder, and destruction. For many years the democrats have been destroying the country.”)

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In 1941 it housed the Rogers Park chapter of America First, an anti-war group which had trouble finding lodgings in the area due to landlords’ fear of being seen as pro-peace while war raged in Europe. The group had been summarily kicked out of another meeting space after only a few weeks of occupancy, no reasons given.

By 1952, it appears to have been home to Devon-Clark Radio, which changed to Devon-Clark Television by 1954, an electronics store selling Westinghouse electronics, air conditioners (“Sleep in an ice cube on hot muggy nights”, only $2.66 a week!) and other goods – though some ads list the address as 1612 Devon, a different building entirely. Want to give them a call to check? The number is Ambassador 2-3081.

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The former New Devon Theatre has been the Assyrian American Association since 1963. The one-time competitor that put it out of business, the Ellantee Theater, is visible just down the street and today houses Clark-Devon Hardware.


On the south side, the old Park Manor Theater, 321 E. 69th Street, opened in early 1914 and lasted till 1950 as a theater.
321 E. 69th Street
Its early screenings in 1914 included serials such as The Adventures of Kathlyn (also showing at the New Devon). A Tribune listing notes the theater among contributors to relief funds in the wake of the Eastland disaster on the Chicago River in 1915; the theater commonly ran the Selig-Tribune newsreel (“The World’s Greatest News-Film”, according to their ads; again, also showing at the New Devon). A 1970 column and response letter sees old residents of the neighborhood reminiscing about their childhoods, with the Park Manor’s nickel-a-show serials and Punch and Judy shows figuring prominently.

In 1937, it was involved in a discrimination suit for refusing to sell tickets to a black couple. In November 1950, the theater was listed for sale and described thus:

378 seats, fully equipped, including $800 popcorn machine; lobby and front need painting, a few seats need repair, otherwise in first class condition. Oil heat, washed air heating and cooling system, double Western Electric sound, new projector head, new strong low intensity arc lamps, rectifiers and Martin converter, new screen…rent $150 per month…a real opportunity for the right party.

Alas, the $800 popcorn machine would not see service here again; the building was home to the Philadelpha Church by 1961, followed by the Grace Eden Church – both African-American congregations, ironically (or perhaps fittingly) enough. At some point during this era, it gained a low-budget but funky Midcentury colored window across its entrance.

In 1961 it served as a back-up site for a “mixed revival” – a racially integrated prayer rally – which was disrupted by mob violence and broken up by police at its original location at the Ogden Theater, ostensibly on grounds of the building being unsafe. Threatened by demolition in 1967, it nonetheless has survived to the present, currently housing the First Born General Assembly Church.

Lincoln Square’s house of mystery

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2515 W. Carmen Avenue has intrigued me from the moment I saw it. It’s a peculiar little box of a house, a simple rectangle covered in stucco to make a sort of Pueblo Revival style.

Nothing too strange yet… but the house sits next to a huge yard. Most of it is raw dirt under a canopy of trees. It’s fenced off for what would be privacy if the fence weren’t collapsing at the street.

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And then there’s the alley building. At first it might seem like an old garage with an apartment above… but there’s only one garage. And on the side that faces the yard, there’s some sort of strange barbecue pit.

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What did this place used to be? When was it built? Who lived there? What was it used for?

A sign on the fence notes that the place is for sale by Sperry Van Ness realtors, though it appears to have changed hands a couple of times in recent years.