Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Prohibition is better than no liquor at all (Will Rogers)

I’m thirsty tonight, but I’m just going to have a Diet Coke and save the beer calories for a time when it’s really important. Instead I’ll pour a page or so of words about one of the oldest beer sellers in Chicago.

The Berghoff story begins with Herman Joseph Berghoff, who left Dortmund, Germany, at age 17 and landed penniless in Brooklyn in 1870. During his initial travels in America, he worked on a sugar plantation in the South, as a pastry cook on a freighter and a seaman on a cruise ship. He also spent time with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and a year working on the railroad out West (Chicago Architecture Foundation).

Settling finally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he represented a Cincinnati brewery until he opened his own brewery in 1887. With eyes on the expansion of his business, Berghoff set up shop in Chicago at the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, an event unlike any the world had ever seen. In the six months that the fair ran, over 27 million thirsty folks came to Chicago.

Taking the popularity of his beer at the fair as a sign, Herman opened the Berghoff Cafe in 1898 to showcase his Dortmunder-style beer. Originally located at the corner of State and Adams Streets, one door down from its present location, the bar sold beer for a nickel and offered sandwiches for free.

The bar prospered even during Prohibition (1918-1933) when it served near beer and Bergo Soda Pop. Clearly, a bar without alcohol could not last long, so the business expanded into a full-service restaurant, which gained wide popularity by the end of Prohibition. In 1933, when Prohibition ended, Herman Berghoff was first in line at City Hall to receive Liquor License Number One. On that one day the establishment served 50 barrels of beer.

Long after most restaurants ended the practice, the Berghoff maintained a separate men's only bar. The segregation ended in 1969, when seven members of the National Organization for Women sat at the bar and demanded service. One particular female lifted her stein and her camera to record the occasion. A "gentleman" took exception, and attempted to end the photo session. The photographer was not about to give the camera up without a fight and bit a chunk from the man's hand. The emergency room doctor told the man that it was dangerous to be bitten by a human. "I don't think the bite was from this world," the man responded (Chicago Architecture Foundation). One is reminded of W. C. Field's line, "A woman drove me to drink, and I hadn't even the courtesy to thank her."

The Huber Brewing Company of Monroe, Wisconsin began supplying beer to Berghoff’s under contract in 1960. It remains one of Huber’s flagship beers (The Best Breweries and Brewpubs of Illinois). The popular restaurant ended operations on February 28, 2006. The building now contains a bar and a cafe that is open during weekday lunch hours, along with a large banquet and catering facility.

Of particular note in the three-building complex that comprises the Berghoff property is the west structure, designed by Charles M. Palmer and completed in 1872. The facade is of cast iron, which was ordered from the foundry and bolted to the exterior of the building. Looking carefully, one can see the bolts that secure the facade to the building.

Cast-iron storefronts began to appear in Chicago as early as 1857. For example, between 1857 and 1858 John Mills Van Osdel built approximately 1,100 feet of cast-iron frontage. During this same period many iron foundries were established in the city, many of which produced cast-iron storefronts. Such facades found favor with builders as an alternative to elaborate masonry construction (Chicago Architecture Foundation), foundry work being cheaper and quicker than the work of an individual sculptor or stone mason.

Although cast iron facades gave designers the chance to beautify the exteriors of their buildings, lending the structures a substantial and sophisticated appearance, the material had one serious flaw. Its melting temperature of 1150 to 1200 °C is about 300 °C lower than the melting point of pure iron and about 200 °C lower than the average melting temperature of steel. When the great fire of October 8th and 9th of 1871 swept through the business district, largely located in and along Lake Street, cast iron facades became molten, pulling down the masonry walls on which they were hung.

The Page Brothers Building at 177 North State Street, directly across the el tracks from the new Wit Hotel, is the only other building in Chicago’s Loop to have such a cast iron fa├žade. One can see it from Lake Street, around the corner from the Chicago Theatre. It was the work of early Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel, who designed the first Palmer House and the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield. Purchased from the City of Chicago in March of 2007 for 1.625 million dollars (City of Chicago Department of Community Development), the Page Brothers Building is another early Loop building that has stood the test of time.

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