Forest Park has a long history of selling alcoholic libations, food and entertainment to locals and neighboring communities. When Forest Park officially incorporated in 1907, Madison Street was already a booming enterprise — partially because the neighboring towns of Oak Park and River Forest had adopted Temperance so no spirits could be purchased or served.
The Historical Society of Forest Park took about 30 guests on a stroll through the history of Madison Street, Sunday, during their first annual Historic Restaurant Crawl. Crawlers dined at five historic restaurants, where they learned about the past businesses and histories of each building along “The Street.” Light fare was served in each eatery where guests got a tour from the proprietors and looked at historic newspaper clippings and photos.
“There were many saloons and neighbors in Forest Park, unlike its dry neighbors to the east and north,” said Historical Society Director Diane Hansen Grah. “I guess you can say Forest Park was the ‘rebellious’ one of the three communities.”
Skrine Chops: Moose Lodge, 1919
The tour began at Skrine Chops, 7230 Madison, on the eastern edge of the street. According to Grah, the east part of town in 1907 consisted of harness shops, grocery and dry good stores.
Grah noted that the shabbily proud but down-at-heels USA Beverage building, at 7200 Madison, was once called Nicholas Schank’s Castle. In 1897 it was the tallest building west of Chicago. It’s always been a liquor establishment, Grah said.
The Skrine Chops building was initially purchased as the headquarters of the Independent Order of Moose in 1919. Between 1922 and 1936 it was a market. The establishment then became “Artie’s Brass Bowl,” and some variant of the Brass Bowl Tavern, for almost 40 years. Upstairs was a pizza joint (Upper Deck Pizza) for 15 years. It was ultimately purchased and refashioned as a Wisconsin Northwoods-themed chophouse in 2006.
Diners sampled the Skrine “stick in the mud,” a barbecued chicken drumstick slathered with garlic mashed potatoes.
Skrine Chops caused some history of its own in Forest Park in September 2011 when the back half of the restaurant was destroyed by fire. The eatery reopened last year.
Brown Cow: Vaudeville house, 1900
The group next stopped at the site of Forest Park’s first turn-of-the-century vaudeville/silent movie theater at 7347 Madison, now home of Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor.
Grah mentioned the early introduction of electric street lighting on Madison Street, which earned it the moniker, “The Great White Way.”
The Forest Park Theater was owned by Leopold Osterreicher in 1912 and then changed hands and names over the decades until it became the Lil Theater and then the Lil Manor Banquet Hall in 1960. After a stint as a tavern called Weibel’s Bitter End Lounge, starting in 1965, the theater was a storage warehouse, an antique shop and finally remodeled by Connie Brown of Brown Cow.
Over homemade rootbeer floats and sundaes, Brown pointed out the space’s projection windows and the decorative filigree patterns on the walls. A stage and orchestra pit have been partitioned off by a wall in the back party room, she said. Brown salvaged the vintage wainscoting from a Chicago mansion that was being torn down.
Shanahan’s: Tavern with a candy shop
Following the theme of sweetness, the groups then traveled to Shanahan’s and La Maison de Bonbon, 7353 Madison. Nicholas Schank also had a hand in this building. Having disposed of his “castle” in 1905, he erected “Nick Schank’s Sample Room Saloon” at what was then 101 Madison.
A string of candy stores followed in the spot, including Stejr’s in 1921 and Jerome’s in 1949. The Maison de Bonbon name started in 1972. In the past, the entire store was devoted to candy, but today, proprietress Radana Shanahan uses a corner of the store to sell chocolates, truffles, bonbons and caramels.
Today, the majority of the space is occupied by Shanahan’s tavern and Cajun cuisine restaurant. Restaurant crawl guests ate mini-sliders and potato chips followed by Radana’s French crèmes.
“Clarence Hemingway, Ernest’s father, had his medical offices upstairs,” Shanahan said, pointing at the ceiling.
Junction Diner: A failed bank, 1931
Next, diners took a ride back in history to the Junction Diner, 7401 Madison.
The building was formerly the A. Roos and Sons bank, built in 1897 by Albert Roos, son of one of the founders of Waldheim (Forest Home) Cemetery. In 1919, the sons, Fred and Albert Jr., helped their cousin Edward finance the Roos cedar chest factory, now being demolished by the Park District of Forest Park at the corner of Circle Avenue and Harrison Street.
The bank was remodeled to its current art deco look in 1920. During the Great Depression, the bank failed and the building reopened in 1933 as Brun’s Palm Gardens banquet hall. Ten years later in 1943, it was the Forest Casino Theater Restaurant. In 1949 the building entered more mundane usage as a medical center, an accounting business and a business school. Krest Custom Tailors made the building its home for 18 years from 1975-1995. Madison Street business boosters Tonya Hart and Cece Hardacker moved Two Fish Art Glass from Oak Park in 2003, but the Great Recession and eBay brought them down. Flavour Cooking School moved into half the space in 2004 and the Junction opened in 2011.
Over buffalo chicken and turkey wraps, Brad Wahl showed off the dentil molding, skylights and ornate carving that had been hidden under a suspended ceiling when the restaurant moved in. The kiddy party room is located in the bank’s vault.
Jimmy’s Place: Former Calderone grocery store
Jimmy’s Place, 7411-13 Madison, was the last stop on the history crawl. Over pizza, antipasto salad and gnocchi with cheese, diners heard about the double storefronts’ past lives: A barber shop in 1909, clothing stores, including Zussman’s, run by Forest Park fixture Sam Zussman, who died at age 92 in 2000. Next door was Mike’s Ice Cream Parlor in 1912, followed by Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea House in 1919. An IGA grocery filled the spot in 1931, which became A. Calderone and Sons grocery store, 1943-51. (The shop was run by Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone’s grandfather.) In 1951, the shop housed the Manella Twins Music House, and the mayor’s sister, Wilma Calderone, ran a beauty shop and boutique in the spot from 1972-77. Bob Cox and family ran Daniel’s Bakery at the site from 1980 to ’85. The store went through incarnations as a decorating joint, a steakhouse and restaurant and a hair salon and was even the first Brown Cow location in 2004. Jimmy Jodoin opened Jimmy’s Place in 2005.
Grah deemed the tour a success and said she hoped the Historical Society would host more tours like this. The society has even talked about a “historic plaque” program that provides a history of commercial buildings in town and researches a timeline of businesses that occupied the spot.
“We may introduce that at the Chamber of Commerce meeting next winter,” said Augie Aleksy, historical society board president.
“I know there are more restaurants who want to be included and want to find out the history of their establishment,” Grah said.