I recently started listening to Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible and am thoroughly enjoying it. Especially the concept of always reading the plaque. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, the idea is to always read the plaques that you find on the street. You’ll likely discover something notable, historical or bizarre happened there.
My personal corollary to this concept, by no means original or unique, is look up. in Chicago, I sometimes forget or simply not notice the sheer beauty of its architecture. I don’t mean missing the John Hancock building or that; I’m talking about the lesser known buildings. For instance, I live in West Town and commute to work by bus. My commute is actually quite charming if I remember to look up (instead of my smartphone).
As I go east, I’m keenly aware of how many buildings have pretty incredible facades despite the most ordinary of purposes. The taqueria/burger joint has intricate colorful modeling while another building, sadly empty, appears to be covered in what looks like green tiles. These buildings were built in a bygone age of architecture and probably wouldn’t feature in any tour. They aren’t in the Loop or in any obvious historical area but they exist, weathering the elements and bringing occassional delight to those who remember to look up.
In addition to these beautiful facades, there are what I will term ghost buildings. There are many buildings that have names chiseled into them for businesses and people that probably don’t exist. For instance, the Chicago Public Library on Chicago Avenue has the name “Goldblatt Bros” written over the door in remarkable letters. Further down is this bizarre red brick building that contains a liquor store with the name “Neckhardt” situated between the 2nd and 3rd floor. IIf you go really far east to Streeterville, there is US Bank that has the name “Cosmopolitan State Bank” engraved high up near the roof.
What were these old businesses? What happened to them? Clearly, they thought that they would be around forever, or for many years, given that they permanently marked these buildings in their names.
I was able to find some wondrous information about the the Goldblatt Brothers from Encyclopedia of Chicago. The Goldblatt brothers were Maurice and Nathan Goldblatt, young Polish immigrants, who ran a discount department store that even did well through the Depression. It actually ran for many years, though eventually succumbing to K-Mart and other rivals. It finally closed its doors in 2003.
I didn’t find info about Neckhardts so far. The Cosmopolitan State Bank looks to have had a recent, scandalous past. According to a Chicago Tribune article, “Federal regulators Friday evening seized the insolvent Cosmopolitan National Bank, a $121 million institution on the Near North Side tainted by political scandal in its dealings with former state Treasurer Jerome Cosentino.
James E. Wells, the one-time trucking executive who until recently ran the bank, had been banned from banking after regulators last year charged him with using his wife`s construction company to divert $230,000 in Cosmopolitan funds to a restaurant he owned.”
So yeah, look up and see the ghost buildings.