Recycled buildings, rediscovered stories: Local Jewish history unearthed in architectural research

Robert Morris image
The current Robert Morris University building is a Siegel, Cooper & Co. department store owned by Henry Siegel, Frank Cooper, and Isaac Keim. The 1891 structure, later Sears’ State Street flagship, was built by Levi Leiter (whose name is carved on the top of the west side of the building) and designed by William Le Baron Jenney. Credit: V.O Hammon Publishing Co.

I didn't set out to write a book about Chicago Jews, but apparently did it anyway.

Some owners of adaptively reused buildings featured in This Used To Be Chicago I knew were Jewish: Morrie Mages was related to a late great-aunt, my dad, and uncle. 

But as I searched deeper through entries in my completed book, I stumbled upon many less-obvious (to me, at least) Jews.

I knew Alfred Alschuler was the architect of featured buildings including the magnificent London Guarantee and Accident building on Wacker Drive and Goldblatt Brothers Department Store on Chicago Avenue. 

But not that he, nor the Florsheim family, (whose two former factories, also designed by Alschuler, are now residential complexes) was Jewish. German immigrant/shoemaker Sigmund Florsheim's son Milton founded Florsheim & Co. in 1892.

Jewish merchants, of course, are hardly surprising-though I hadn't previously considered whether the Goldblatts, A.M. Rothschild, Schlesinger & Mayer, and Siegel-Cooper were Jewish. (Spoiler alert: they were.)

Truly out of the blue were the Chess Brothers, responsible for recording many early jazz and blues musicians and "Johnny B. Goode." Brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, sons of west side Polish-Jewish immigrants, had opened a chain of South Side nightclubs catering to a mostly black clientele in the 1940s.

After working at their father's junk shop, Leonard was employed in the liquor distribution business. That led him to specialize in tavern/nightclub operations, including the Macomba Lounge, which he opened with Phil in 1946. The nightclub's entertainers included Ella Fitzgerald, and many visiting musicians who sparked spontaneous jam sessions the brothers later captured on their records.

According to the historic designation report for their former (1957-67) recording studio, famously at 2120 S. Michigan Ave., "The Chess brothers recognized the commercial potential of the local jazz and blues musicians who performed in their clubs, and sought to capture the intensity of these performances on records. Although they initially knew little about the specifics of the music they were recording, the Chess brothers relied on instinct, hunches, and a gut emotional response to what they heard." Chess Records was once considered the country's greatest blues label.

On the flip side, a couple of opposite extremes from the book: the undoubtedly Jewish former Anshe Sholom Synagogue, now a Greek Orthodox Church; and the deceptively not Jewish roots of a former Bucktown/Wicker Park bank.

The former Noel State Bank (now a Walgreens) ceiling is covered in what looks to be Stars of David,  a nod to the "building's original owners,"  according to one (apparently unreliable) source. No further evidence could be found, however, so I queried the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. 

Board member Carey Wintergreen found the same article describing the bank as "Jewish in the same way Northwestern Trust and Savings was Polish … The grid of the enormous ceiling resolve into six-point Stars of David." She, too, couldn't find any hint of owners Theophilus and son Robert Noel being Jewish.

"The hexagonal geometric pattern that can be misread as Stars of David (a not uncommon neoclassical architectural motif) is far more likely to have resulted from the 60- degree angle of the flatiron shaped building. Furthermore, with the climate of anti-Semitism in the U.S. at the time Henry Ford was publishing The International Jew , I can scarcely believe that a Jewish or a non-Jewish banker would be plastering Jewish stars on the ceiling of his financial institution."

So, no.

Most heartwarming story? Jews helping to preserve the old South Shore Country Club, from which they had been formally banned since 1930. Members doubled-down on bigotry as the club was failing financially in 1967-refusing to open membership to African-Americans and Jews, though that might have been a path to, shall we say, resurrection.

A late-1970s neighborhood newsletter article, written by John Camper, was headlined: "Fighting to save the club are people who never would have been allowed in."

"Until it was sold to the park district in 1974, you couldn't get in if you were black or Jewish or of modest means … The clubhouse will be demolished if the park district prevails over the neighborhood groups."

The previously banned neighbors prevailed.

As a former newspaper reporter, it seems fitting to end with my belated, accidental discovery about The Front Page's Ben Hecht. Not only was the reporter/ playwright connected with featured building Courthouse Place Jewish, but also the developer responsible for the old courthouse's (and many other buildings') restoration: Albert Friedman.

Just the kicker old Hecht might appreciate.

Joni Hirsch Blackman is a Chicago native, a former newspaper reporter/columnist and the author of This Used To
Be Chicago. The book can be purchased at most bookstores, as well as on Amazon or by emailing her at


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