Monday, July 19, 2021

A landmarked White Castle and the development of East Cermak Road

Cermak Road looking west at Calumet Avenue, 1933

The neighborhood around Glessner House possesses many landmark buildings, ranging from Gilded Age mansions to large manufacturing plants. Perhaps the most unusual, and definitely the smallest, is White Castle #16 at 43 E. Cermak Road, designated a Chicago landmark in 2011. In this article, we will look at the development of East Cermak Road (originally Twenty-second Street); the founding of White Castle, which is celebrating its centennial in 2021; and the history of White Castle #16, constructed in 1930.

The Development of Twenty-second Street

Twenty-second Street, which formed the southern boundary of the exclusive Prairie Avenue residential district, always functioned as a commercial strip to support the residents living to the north. The street was lined with dry goods stores, bakeries, butchers, and grocers, along with tailors, dressmakers, shoemakers, milliners, and jewelers. Sullivan’s Dancing Academy (later Metcalf’s South Side Academy) was located on the south side of Twenty-second east of Michigan.

George A. Seaverns completed a series of 28 stores with flats (apartments) above in 1882. The buildings, which cost $250,000 to construct, occupied the entire block between Wabash and State on the south side of Twenty-second. The flats featured cherry wood trim, fine gas fixtures, private bathrooms, hot water boilers, and floors lined with two layers of felting to deaden the noise between units. The stores were considered the finest on the street and featured large plate glass display windows. 

Southern Hotel

The largest building for years was the stone-clad Southern Hotel at the northwest corner of Wabash and Twenty-second. In 1892, the much-larger 10-story Lexington Hotel was constructed at the northeast corner of Michigan and Twenty-second, in preparation for the large influx of visitors to the city during the World’s Columbian Exposition. That same year also saw the construction of Chicago’s first “L” – the South Side Rapid Transit (now the Green Line) – built on elevated tracks that ran above the alley between Wabash and State. The Twenty-second Street station, located on the south side of the street, opened in June 1892.

The Neighborhood Begins to Change

Wabash and State, along with the streets to the west, always had a very different character than the prime residential streets to the east – Michigan, Indiana, Prairie, and Calumet. In the 1880s, Chicago’s infamous red-light district, known as the Levee, established itself along State, Dearborn, and Clark, between Nineteenth and Twenty-second streets. Although the Levee was shut down in 1912, gambling continued to thrive in the area, which also became replete with speakeasies during Prohibition. The Southern Hotel became the “notorious” Cadillac Hotel, and Al Capone established his headquarters in the nearby Lexington Hotel in 1928. (Remember when Geraldo Rivera opened Capone’s vault in the building on live TV in 1986?)

Looking north on Michigan Avenue toward the Lexington Hotel, circa 1910

The two-story frame building that stood on the present site of White Castle #16 originally bore the address of 165 Twenty-second Street. Prior to the 1909 renumbering of Chicago streets, address numbers began with 1 closest to Lake Michigan and then increased going west. In 1909, the building was renumbered 43 E. Twenty-second Street. A meat market occupied the building in the late 19th century, but by the early 1900s, slightly more questionable businesses could be found there.

A 1905 advertisement shows the building occupied by the Eagle Medicinal Wine Company, which bottled and distributed its “Dr. Young’s Elixir of Life” that appears to have been little more than port wine being sold for medicinal purposes. The product promised to serve as “a body builder, strength creator, and blood maker for old people, puny children, and weak, run down persons.” Just a year later, Newhouse, promoted as “America’s greatest palmist and psychic reader” was offering $5.00 readings at the location for just 50 cents.

The Modern Street Takes Shape

By the early 1920s, the growing number of automobiles in Chicago required a major reevaluation of arterial streets to relieve increasing amounts of traffic. Several streets were widened during the decade including both Indiana and Michigan avenues. Twenty-second Street was seen as essential to the redevelopment of the near South Side, and the City Council adopted an ordinance to increase its width from 66 to 120 feet. With large buildings like the Lexington Hotel standing on the north side of Twenty-second street, the decision was made to demolish the smaller buildings on the south side of the street and then redevelop it with large office buildings, hotels, and apartment houses.

Demolition work was underway by 1923 when the photograph above was taken. It shows Twenty-second Street looking west at Prairie Avenue; buildings in the foreground have been reduced to rubble. The work proceeded at a slow pace and by 1926 the city had run out of funds to complete the demolitions and proceed with the street widening. By the time the work was completed, the country was just entering the Great Depression and the anticipated large-scale redevelopment never materialized. (Twenty-second street was renamed Cermak Road on March 6, 1933, just nine days after Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak died of gunshot wounds sustained three weeks earlier in Florida while meeting with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. The street was selected as it ran through the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Lawndale, both of which were home to large numbers of Czech Americans).

The street widening created another issue. The lots on the south side of Twenty-second Street were originally 85 feet deep. After the widening, the lots were only 31 feet deep, making reuse possibilities limited, especially since the lots backed up to an alley running parallel to Twenty-second. However, the shallow lot at the southeast corner of Twenty-second Street and Wabash Avenue proved ideal for the construction of a White Castle with its small building footprint.

White Castle

White Castle System of Eating Houses, Inc., the first fast-food chain in America, was founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1921 by J. Walter Anderson and Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram. The name was selected to convey a very specific message – White denoted cleanliness, while Castle conveyed a sense of strength and permanence. Ingram was said to have been inspired by Chicago’s Water Tower for the basic design of the buildings.

Although seen today as just one of many fast-food chains in America, the founding of White Castle had a profound impact on American’s eating habits. Prior to White Castle, the hamburger had a lowly reputation and was seen mostly as “carnival” food. The experimentation by White Castle with innovations including how to cook the meat for maximum flavor and serving it on warm buns instead of between slices of bread elevated the hamburger into the most ubiquitous sandwich in the United States.

The company promised speed in filling orders and also popularized the concept of “take out” food, offering only a few stools in their stands and encouraging customers to “buy ‘em by the sack.” Equally important, White Castle standardized everything it did, assuring the customer the same experience regardless of which location they went to. This included the menu, appearance of its employees, and the programmatic architecture, first utilizing white painted concrete block, then white glazed brick, and finally white porcelain steel panels, for the exterior. 

A focus on cleanliness was a relatively new and novel concept in the industry, especially since the kitchens were open and visible to customers. White tile and stainless steel were used on the interiors. The standard extended to the employees as well. An employee checklist from 1931 entitled “Before Going on Duty” noted 24 items from head to foot that were to be checked before being seen by customers. These included everything from “cap should cover hair” and “correct bad breath” to “no patches in trousers seat” and “clean fingernails.”

Extensive marketing was another part of White Castle’s success. Ingram believed the company had “performed an important public service by legitimizing the hamburger as a quick, inexpensive, tasty food fit for all income classes, not just the working class” and this was reflected in the extensive newspaper advertising. Coupons and special offers were regularly featured such as the advertisement below from 1934 promoting five hamburgers for ten cents.

During 1921, several stands were opened in Wichita. By 1930 additional stands had opened in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus Ohio, Detroit, and New York City. The year 1929 saw the opening of nine White Castles in Chicago. 

White Castle #16

There were fifteen White Castle stands in Chicago by July of 1930, when the building permit for #16 was issued. (The company numbered each stand within a city based on the order in which they were constructed). Chicago stands were all located in working-class neighborhoods on the West and South sides and were situated on prominent corners near streetcar transfer points or elevated train stations. Lloyd W. Ray, construction superintendent for White Castle, was responsible for the design of the stand, although Lewis E. Russell, a Chicago architect, was listed as the architect of record. The nearly identical design of all the stands allowed them to be built cheaply and efficiently. Stand #16 opened on September 1, 1930, just six weeks after the permit had been issued; the cost was $4,500.  

White Castle #16, circa 1930

The design for #16 called for the use of porcelain-steel panels, which were first introduced on the stands in 1928. Delays in obtaining the panels resulted in a switch to the white glazed brick that had been used since 1925. A small amount of green and beige glazed brick was used to highlight window and door openings, copings, buttresses, and the base of the building. Leaded glass filled the upper portion of several windows. The ubiquitous tower anchored the building to its corner site, and gooseneck light fixtures ensured the building would be well lit at night. 

Cermak Road looking west in 1933; red arrow shows location of White Castle #16

White Castle prospered throughout the Great Depression, but World War II brought both supply and manpower shortages. Fish sandwiches and baked beans were offered in place of the hard-to-obtain beef, and Postum replaced coffee. For the first time, the company hired female counter attendants. The number of stands nationwide dropped from 130 in 1941 to just 87 in 1945. Chicago #16 closed its door in October 1944, and the building was sold the next month to two women who continued to operate it as a food stand. It housed various businesses through the years, including a locksmith and key shop. 

White Castle #16 prior to restoration, 2010

In 1982, Rocky Gupta purchased the structure and opened his Chef Luciano Kitchen & Chicken restaurant in the building and the adjacent storefront to the east. In 2010, he undertook an extensive restoration of the White Castle building, replacing missing elements such as the crenellated tower, repairing the white glazed brick, and installing reproduction exterior light fixtures. The building was designated a Chicago landmark the next year.

White Castle #16 as it appears today

Today, the building survives as the oldest intact White Castle stand in Chicago and one of the oldest stands in the United States. Only used for its original purpose for 14 years, the building endured decades of reuse and poor maintenance before being rescued by the current owner who brought it back to life. And, by coincidence, the company (still owned and operated by the Ingram family) has maintained a presence at the intersection for decades, the current White Castle occupying a location catty-corner to the original.

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