Richard Gengler (Transcript Only)


DATE OF INTERVIEW: June 24, 1986
PLACE OF INTERVIEW: Felice’s Restaurant on 5700 N. Clark Street
My name is Richard Karl Gengler. I was born in Chicago in 1914 in Edgewater area on Balmoral Avenue east of Clark Street. My father came from Luxembourg, which is between France and Germany. My mother is from Chicago. She was born on Argyle Street, east of Clark. My mother was raised on a farm which started one block east of Clark Street on Argyle and ran down to Magnolia or Broadway, between the St. Boniface Cemetery at Lawrence and Clark, and Argyle itself. This was a regular truck farm. My mother’s mother moved here from Port Washington, Wisconsin around Civil War time. She met her husband, Peter Disdorf, in Port Washington. They married before, during, or shortly after the Civil War. Then they moved to Chicago. My grandmother’s maiden name was Leiter. The Leiter family then lived on Melrose.
Probably not within the first two or three blocks, but closeby on Argyle was the old Essanay Movie Studio. My grandparents owned the farm between Jansen Street down to Magnolia or Broadway, then on to Argyle. They sold part of their farm to Essanay Studios, which rose to some prominence before the 1920s. Movies were in their infancy. That was before Hollywood was heard of. Essanay Studios were in­novators in the movie industry. There were historical actors and actresses who got their start in Essanay Studios. People like Gloria Swanson used to come into my father’s tavern on Clark Street to take her father home. Gloria was probably 12 or 14 at the time. Her father indulged in a little alcohol on occasion. Even then, Gloria was apparently a very talented, beautiful young girl.
Parts of that building are still there on the south side of the street east of Glenwood. It was at least one of three major studios in its day. My grand­father’s farm house is still there on Melrose. It had a windmill, pumping water. The house was one leg of an "L-shaped" home. When Peter Disdorf married my grandmother, Anna Leiter, they were given, by the older Leiters, half of the house on Melrose. The house was actually cut in half and one leg was moved up to Argyle Street and became the home of Anna Leiter and Peter Disdorf. It is still there–you can’t miss it! It’s on the south side of the 1400 block. It has a stairway of about twenty stairs straight up the front. There’s not another house around like it with a stairway going up straight to the second floor. A Mrs. Gustafson, I believe, lives these now. She keeps it really nice. It’s painted yellow. It was probably moved from Melrose between 1871 and 1880, around the timeof the Chicago fire, which was in 1871. My grandfather owned a wagon with horses. The fire was south of here, but he moved things for people who were fleeing. That lasted two days. My grandmother was a little disappointed for some reason, because with all his hard work for the two days, all he came home with was an old beat-up washboard.
During the 1920s there was the Calo Theater on Balmoral and Clark, which was then in its prime. It has now been renovated and is being used for live theater. It seated perhaps a thousand people. It began with silent movies, then moved into the talkies. At the same time in the mid 20s was another movie house between Farragut and Berwyn on the east side of Clark Street, roughly where Happy Foods now is or at the northern extremity of the Happy Food building. It had a balcony. It was a nice little theater, always a nickel or a dime cheaper than the Calo Theater. Temple Theater was its name.
This is a little political background: Since 1928, Chicago as a whole generally has been a Democratic forte. Forty-eighth Ward was an exception. This encompasses
Andersonville, Edgewater… It was one of the few Republican party areas
compared with the rest of the city. The Irish were inclined to be Democrats, the Swedish people of Andersonville Republicans, and the Germans mostly split down the middle. Most people might not realize this: the northeast corner of Balmoral, the terra cotta building was a bank called the Capitol State Bank. It probably opened about 1912-13. It grew then they built a building which is now the Swedish Pentecostal Church. That building was the Capitol State Bank. This is getting toward the Big Depression. The Capitol Bank, a state bank, could not survive. The Builders and Merchants Bank on the southeast corner of Foster and Clark merged with the Capitol State Bank and the surviving institution in the building at Rascher and Clark was known as the Builders and Merchants Bank with the demise of the Capitol. A few years later the Builders and Merchants Bank also collapsed.
That’s true. Of course he has since died. Then around 1975 we got a new bank, the Community Bank of Edgewater. This was much needed and is a great help to the area. As for other characteristics of the area–St Ita Church at Catalpa and Broadway was, of course 90% Irish. It had a well-to-do membership because it had the lake front to draw from: Edgewater Beach Hotel, Edgewater Beach Apartments, and Ken­more and Winthrop Avenues. It was a Yuppie neighborhood of its day. That is totally changed now. In this stretch Kenmore and Winthrop are not highly desirable, though they are better now than five to ten years ago. St Gregory Church at that time was not nearly so affluent. Its primary nationality was German and Luxembourg. The Ebenezer Church was more Swedish, Swedish Lutheran.
Automobiles were owned mostly by affluent people, people who were upper middle class and who were somewhat successful. People who could afford cars took good care of them. They did not leave them on the street. They parked them in private garages on their own property, rented a space in a neighbor’s, or rented a space in what was known as a public garage. That was common. These were all over the city. Now they are hardly heard of. But then, public garages were successful business. For example, the building at Rascher and Clark where Joe’s Barber Shop is now, across from the old Builders and Merchants Bank, was called the Catalpa Garage. It leased space to about forty automobile owners, neighborhood people. Some of these public garages had employees who would dust the car, bring the car over to the house if you phoned for it. They dusted the car every night, you might even get one or two car washes a month. That same garage had its own gas or fuel. There were few gas stations so the garage would pump gas for your car. They also maintained the cars because they had repair facilities in the rear of the garages. The garage mechanics gave various services. It was altogether a different civilization. Today such a garage could not exist–people could not afford to pay the rental just to house their cars. What cost a renter $20 then would be over $200 a month now. Now people would just as soon park their cars on the street, but then cars were prized possessions. Then the cars had to be protected from the elements, no such thing as rustproofing.
AGAIN ABOUT THE MOVIE HOUSES–they accommodated four to five hundred people who walked to and from the movie house. Another feature–stores along Clark Street were opened–they had many men’s, women’s clothing stores. Clark Street was alive! You don’t see much of that at night now. Because of only about 5% of a neighbor­hood owning cars the people were more neighborhood-bound. They found their plea­sure in the neighborhood. Walking was their mode of transportation. There were no super markets, no shopping malls, but there were many quality stores: Friedman’s was a department store at the southwest corner of Summerdale and Clark (now Alamo Shoes). Winsberg’s was a high quality store. In fact I think Winsberg and Friedman were related. Today Winsberg’s has only school uniforms.
Lind’s built that store–it was a major builder’s supply outlet that had a retail outlet on the first floor, wholesale on the second and third floors. It was a big building, six stories tall. Keep in mind that this was predominantly a Swedish neighborhood and many of the people were construction minded, in the construction business, so Lind’s supplied them with the necessary tools and hardware. It was a very successful business. One of the store’s attractions for me was the way they transported their orders and money to the main cashier and returned the receipt and change to the salesclerk by way of overhead wire baskets run on trolley-like cables.
BEACHES–There was a beach at the foot of many streets: one at the foot of Bryn Mawr, one at Ardmore, Hollywood, Berwyn. This was before the landfill went north. Landfill up to Foster was about the 30s, 1933-35. The Edgewater Beach Hotel was a very sophisticated prestigious address all through that period of the 30s, 40s, 50s. It wasn’t until the landfill was put north of Foster on to Hollywood that the Edgewater Beach Hotel faded. The landfill cut the hotel off from the water’s edge. Its 500 foot boardwalk became obscure. Once the Outer Drive was extended all those Edgewater Hotel attractions diminished–their band shell, the boardwalk, the whole bit. But they maintained their beautiful and popular Marine Dining Room clientele and a smaller restaurant people frequented. No doubt about it, the ex­tension of the Outer Drive contributed to the hotel’s downfall. This was probably in the 50s. Further north at Loyola University, Madonna Della Strada chapel was built facing east the lake because it was thought the Outer Drive would be extended that far and the main entrance to the chapel would be facing the Drive. Every so often the council talks about it even now, but plans for it have never been completed.
Walking down Sheridan Road from Foster or Berwyn to the Edgewater, that area was very sophisticated, especially on the east side of the street. Edgewater Hotel was a beautifully structured building with its circular driveway. Edgewater Apart­ments, north of the hotel, were beautiful also, with its tennis courts, unusually terraced landscaping between the hotel and the apartments. I have some slides taken during the demolition in the early 70s. Mansions lined Sheridan Road.
The first high rise along there was built around the 20s at Glenlake, the Park Edgewater Apartments at 6100 north, probably the only high rise on the north side. Of the residences and mansions lining both sides of Sheridan, those on the east side, were of course more choice. Most of those homes are now replaced by apart­ment buildings or condominiums. Two that were saved were the Viatorians’ near Devon.
An interesting sight was the double-deck public transportation buses with the upper deck open, years later enclosed. These open-decked traveled down Sheridan Road to the Loop, circled around to State Street, came out on Michigan Avenue and headed back north. All this for a dime. Keep in mind, this is before most people owned automobiles so even a bus ride was a real pleasure, a pleasure of necessity. Many people, including me, would get on the bus, pay ten cents, ride the route on a lovely summer evening. We’d pass very fashionable shops especially on the cor­ners along Sheridan at Lawrence, at Wilson, at Montrose. Imagine! That original dime took you the whole route and returned you home. Of course many got off in the Loop, then you paid another ten cents to return. An interesting aspect of that was sometimes as kids we did not have a dime, so eyeing the stairway which was open and leading to the upper deck, the adventuresome one or two would wait until the bus started up then grab the railing and sneak up the open stairway. I have to con­fess I did it more than once and that was probably as much fun to get away with it as the ride itself. You can now take the same route, the express Outer Drive, but the adventure is not there.
Clark Street had street cars. The tracks were built into the brick roads. If today you were to pull up the asphalt you’d probably find the next layer below to be bricks and car tracks. Also under the asphalt would be the railroad tracks. As for the street cars the rear and front platforms were enclosed, the rear only on three sides. You got on the car in the rear, first a high step, then the platform. It had a vertical bar to assist the getting on. One of the more interesting ways of boarding, especially if you were a little late, was – as the car started up, you’d chase it. It had a running board or step. You could leap on the running board. With the car going 10-15 MPH, you’d grab that vertical bar or hand rail, and hoist yourself to the platform. Sometimes the conductor who was in the rear would even assist you in your pursuit. The cars were horribly noisy. Later they had what was called the modern street car “Green Hornets”. They ran somewhat like a bus with bus-like wheels, but the car still had an overhead trolley. The cars had natural air conditioning, in the winter you’d freeze, in the summer you’d swelter. If a car broke down, traffic could be lined up for three blocks - no way could one vehicle pass the other like they can do with today’s bus. The main street car barn was at Howard Street, a smaller one at Devon and Clark.
The Edgewater area was great for parades. We loved them because most of the floats had someone tossing candy bars or wrapped candy to the kids. In today’s parades that cannot be done.
Some of the buses were electrically run, for example, Montrose and Irving Park were, but most of them were run by gasoline. Broadway street cars were of a slightly different style from those on Clark.
In the 30s, Senn High had about 4,000 students. It was highly ranked with 60% of its graduates continuing on to college–and this was during depression! That was an extremely high rate for that era. Senn was not outstanding in athletics, but it had a championship band, an outstanding Glee Club, and a wonderful orchestra. Many prominent people graduated from Senn; one name I recall was Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie fame. Senn drew heavily from the Swedish and Jewish families. Jewish people always saw to it that their kids were educated. They encouraged them to be ambitious. In those days there was no need for block clubs. There was no such thing as litter on streets the way we see it now. One reason, I suppose, was that paper products were not so common. There were no fast food places serving in paper and plastics. People didn’t smoke as much either–no cigarette butts to litter the sidewalks. Litter just wasn’t. You’d be ashamed to drop even candy wrappers to the ground. Soft drinks didn’t come in cans to be thrown away. They were in returnable bottles, where you’d get a rebate upon return of empty bottles. Street cleaning was done by a sprinkler system from a truck that came around once a week, washing even the side streets.
Felice’s Round Table (restaurant) closed entirely from 1918, to repeal the Pro­hibition. When the repeal came, the restaurant place reopened to my mind as a rather dumpy tavern, big dumpy tavern. Of course by some of today’s standards, it might be considered a jewel. It had a lot of cut glass, a Victorian interior/ exterior. In the 1933-35s it sold beer. For example, a 26 ounce stein for 10. That was a lot of beer. But, if I recall, beer was then $16 a barrel, and a barrel contained 32 gallons, so a gallon of beer from the saloon cost about 50 cents. That was a special, so Felice’s surely did not make much money on the gallon. Today, Felice’s is a very fine restaurant.
Getting back to community groups—community organizations weren’t necessary. On a given street like Balmoral, every family knew the names of 80% of the residents on the street, except for the 20- and 24-flat buildings. The three-flats were built in the early 20s. The Greystones in 1900s. Another thing: Memorial Day celebrations were something like they are now celebrated in small towns with pic­nics, parades, speeches, services at cemeteries. Let me also mention the Mann families–there were two who lived on Gregory Street near Catalpa on the west side of the street where the Jewel and the Kentucky Fried Chicken are now. The Manns were farmers on the site of St. Gregory Gym on Ashland. They had a couple of cows, some chickens. Then Ashland was only two lanes wide. All of the two-flats on Ashland were built along that two-lane road. Later the two-flats were physically moved back about thirty feet, chopping off the two-flat’s property in order to widen Ashland as it is now.
The End