While most people associate the “Oak Leaf” neon sign with the Oak Leaf lounge, the sign actually goes back to the first business to open at 7412 Harrison St. — Oak Leaf Laundry.
The historic photos of the business show “Launderers Cleaners” written in smaller, blocky letters underneath the larger “Oak Leaf.” When the owner of the neighboring Pines restaurant bought the building, he turned the laundry into the lounge and kept the upper portion of the sign.
The Park District of Forest Park, which bought the site last spring, demolished the entire building in November, but it kept the sign. The Forest Park Historical Society expressed interest in the sign, but so did Albert Reda, grandson of the Oak Leaf Laundry owner, also named Al Reda. He told the Review that he wants to restore the sign to its original form, but he would keep it for himself.
According to a retrospective published in the Aug. 2, 1956 issue of the Review, when the elder Reda moved to Forest Park in 1921, he opened an auto repair shop, and later added a radio store. The business did “fair” until the onset of the Great Depression.
Reda was struggling to make ends meet until his friend, who owned a laundry, advised him to get into the industry as well. Oak Leaf operated at 716 Desplaines Ave. between 1933 to 1938, before moving to Harrison Street for more space. In 1950, that space was expanded as Oak Leaf got into the dry-cleaning business.
The Review reported that in 1956, Oak Leaf employed “85 men, women and girls,” including eight delivery drivers to pick up and deliver laundry to the neighboring suburbs. It earned around $500,000 a year — roughly $5.5 million in today’s dollars.
The younger Reda told the Review that, after his grandfather died in 1968, his parents continued to operate the Oak Leaf as dry cleaners. They sold it to Rich Navratil, owner of the neighboring Pines Lobster and Steak House, and offered to let them keep the sign. The newly minted Oak Leaf Lounge opened on March 15, 1983.
The park district acquired the properties on Harrison Street in order to build a new indoor recreational facility. While the details are still being fine-tuned, the district decided to demolish the now-vacant buildings because they were a legal liability.
Reda said he is interested in restoring the sign to its original form and putting it up in his “mancave.” He said that, if the historical society does get the sign, he would be willing to trade his grandfather’s old photo film archives, which capture notable events such as the Forest Park Centennial Parade, along with printing blocks for Oak Leaf Laundry advertisements.
Reda said he’s going to “try his best” to get the sign — though he’s not sure whether he’d go as far as legal action.
“There would not be the Oak Leaf sign, period, if it wasn’t for my family,” he said. “If it holds some historical value, me being one of the last living descendants, I would think that I would have a [claim] on it also.”