Route 66 update: Hofmann triangle building is toast, ruins razed; reporters and sources goof up history, details in coverage

My, my – what an event we nearly missed in Lyons, IL right before Thanksgiving.  While much of the rest of the nation was observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, wondering if there would be any shocking new revelations from declassified files, the historic Hofmann triangle building, which stood across the street from the landmark Hofmann Tower, burned to a crisp, gutted by fire, and had to be leveled.  What was really surprising in addition to the fire itself was just how many folks got the building’s historical details wrong during coverage of the fire – and who some of those people were (see below).

Hofmann triangle building post-fire, before demolition.  Photo courtesy of and copyright 2013 by the Des Plaines Valley News.

The historic Hofmann triangle building in Lyons, IL, gutted by fire but before its demolition.  Photo courtesy of and copyright 2013 by the Des Plaines Valley News; all rights reserved.

The fire began during the wee hours of the morning of Friday, November 22.  Firemen from several surrounding towns were called out at 2:30 a.m. to battle the blaze.  Lyons fire Chief Gordon Nord said he thought the blaze might have started on the first floor, but that’s still unclear.  The fire was extinguished by 6 a.m.; however, fire crews remained on the scene throughout the morning, vigilant against flare-ups.  A demolition crew razed the remains in the afternoon.

The building was a complete loss.  No injuries were reported.  The building had been unoccupied for a long time, according to Cathy Bergman of the Hofmann Tower Restoration League.  An investigation into the fire’s cause continues, but there has been no word of any findings as yet.

The historic triangle building, which sat on the SE corner of Joliet Avenue and 39th Street in Lyons, had been under the control of the now-defunct Lyons Chamber of Commerce since the early 1980s, according Lyons Mayor Christopher Getty.  The chamber was dissolved more than a decade ago and back taxes on the building accumulated, but the building was still used for storage for the group’s effects.  There were several attempts over the years to buy the building and pay off the back taxes, but those efforts all failed due to insufficient financing.  By now, the amount owed was in the “tens of thousands of dollars,” the mayor said.  The building’s historical value, on the other hand, was priceless.  “It’s a big loss to us.”

Hofmann triangle building as a saloon, circa 1870s-1900; photo taken from documentation for the HAER report on Hofmann Tower dam (available online).

The triangle building as a saloon, circa 1870s-1900; photo taken from documentation for the Historical American Engineering Record report on Hofmann Tower dam (available online).

The triangle building was thought to have been built in 1857, making it the oldest building in Lyons.  Originally a wooden building, it had been remodeled during the early 20th century and faced with stone to resemble the tower across the street.  At that point, it was owned by the man who built Hofmann Tower, George Hofmann Jr. of the large, multigenerational Hofmann Brewing family, several members of which had lived and/or worked in Lyons from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century.

There wasn’t much of the building left to save.  The remains were demolished the same day and bulldozed shortly thereafter, reportedly because they were next door to a baseball batting cage where children gather (i.e., liability might be involved if anyone went exploring among the charred ruins and got injured).  The batting cage is operated by a private recreational facility and sports bar.  The lot is now a fenced-in empty space just south of the Barry Point Road bridge across the Des Plaines River.  Looking at it today, it’s hard to believe that a two-story building of any consequence ever stood on that tiny lot.

A landmark is lost:  the Hofmann triangle building is no more, as of Nov. 22, 2013.  Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

A landmark is lost:  the historic Hofmann triangle building is no more, as of the afternoon of Nov. 22, 2013.  Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The triangle building, which was part of the Hofmann Park property from the early 1900s through World War II, predates Hofmann Tower with its crenellated corner turrets.  Originally an all-wood structure, the triangle building was remodeled by George Hofmann Jr. to resemble Hofmann Tower, probably sometime between 1908 and 1910.  Before that, the triangle building had been a tavern that served beer made by Hofmann Brothers Brewing Co. in Chicago.  The tower was the centerpiece of a park and picnic ground created by George Hofmann Jr. that occupied a triangular piece of land bounded by Joliet Avenue, Barry Point Road (now Riverwalk Drive fronting the tower) and Ogden Avenue on the south bank of the river.  The triangle building across Joliet Avenue, only half a block east of the tower, was where George Jr. had his business office.

At last report, officials still had no clue as to why the triangle building had caught fire, but the usual suspects (old wiring, vandals, etc.) were under consideration.  We have before and after photos here of the triangle building, including an old black and white shot of the building circa 1890-1905 when it was a tavern selling Hofmann Brothers beer.  That photo was obtained from Historical American Engineering Record documents for the survey of Hofmann Tower dam (most of the HAER files for the dam are available online and include 14 historical photos).  Note that even the HAER report misidentifies the building as Doty’s Tavern, which it never was.

Reporters, sources get historical details wrong

What really amazed us – and Ms. Pankow – about the coverage of the fire is just how many details local media got wrong about the triangle building and how many of the reporters’ local sources misled them.  Some sources mistakenly identified the structure as the historic Doty’s Tavern, which was actually several blocks west and a block south on Ogden Avenue.  Moreover, Doty’s Tavern, which had begun as Sackett’s Tavern around 1832 and changed hands a few more times after Doty sold it in 1864, burned down in 1892 – more than 120 years ago.  The land was bought from then owner Louis Leonhardt by George Hofmann Jr. and became part of Hofmann Park, aka Niagara Park, where Hofmann Tower was built in 1908. So, no way could the triangle building on Joliet and 39th have ever been Doty’s Tavern.

Lyons Library Director Dan Powers told a whopper when he identified the Hofmann triangle building as the former Chateau Des Plaines (and the Chicago Tribune erroneously reported it, citing him as the source).  Worse, Powers compounded his error when he said that the building was later known as Mangam’s Chateau.  Wrong on both counts.  Once she read the article, Lyons Historical Commission president Nadine Pankow said, “I called him and told him he was wrong.”

The Hofmann triangle building in better times (2012); note the brewery crest near the top and the Art Nouveau-style entrance on the corner.  Photo copyright 2012, 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The stone-clad Hofmann triangle building in better times (2012); note the bas-relief Hofmann Brothers Brewery crest with the eagle over the entry at left and the Art Nouveau-style entrance itself on the corner.  Photo copyright 2012, 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

First off, the triangle building was way too small to ever have housed either Chateau Des Plaines or Mangam’s Chateau. Second, the Chateau Des Plaines was really two blocks east on Ogden Avenue.  It had been built as a tavern and picnic ground by George Jr.’s uncle, Valentine Hofmann, sometime during the mid-to-late 1860s.  When Valentine Hofmann died years later, George Hofmann Jr. acquired the by then expanded property and the building behind it from Valentine’s heirs (presumably George’s cousins).  George Jr. later improved the building, turning the first floor of the tavern into a restaurant and the second floor into a dance hall.

At one point after its renovation , the triangle building did have a thin vertical sign that read CHATEAU hanging near the front entrance – probably because that’s where George Jr. had his business office, from which he ran the park and boating facilities across the street and the Chateau Des Plaines two blocks way.  We know about the sign because a photograph of the building with that sign, probably shot between 1908 and 1920, was reproduced on page 69 of a 1963 book on the history of Lyons by local authors Rose Marie Benedetti and Virginia C. Bulat.  As the authors were involved with the local historical society, the society may still have a print of it somewhere in its files (Nadine, if you ever find it, please let us know).

Powers was correct in thinking that Chateau Des Plaines and Mangam’s Chateau were located at the same place, however, on Ogden Avenue.  Mangam’s was the remodeled-again Chateau Des Plaines:  part of the second floor was from the original building. Helen and Fenton Mangam bought the defunct Chateau Des Plaines in 1944 and began renovating it into a nightspot and eatery.  During the 1950s and ‘60s (the Rat Pack years), Mangam’s Chateau was famous as a popular nightclub and featured many national celebrities as performers.  However, Mangam’s burned to the ground in a spectacular fire in 1979 that got massive coverage in the Chicago and national media (the nightclub had already closed three years earlier).  By that time, however, Mangam’s had been a pale shadow of its earlier self long before its closing, and Lyons and Ogden Avenue in particular had become a seedy home to a good number of taverns, private clubs and strip joints that favored illegal gambling and prostitution instead of nightclubbing celebrities.  The spot where Mangam’s and the former Chateau Des Plaines stood on the north side of Ogden Avenue is now a parking lot for a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant.

Powers came closer to the truth when he told Chicago Tribune writer Joseph Ruzich that George Jr. had used the two-story building for his brewing company, but library clerk Pat Demco probably erred when she said that Hofmann Brothers beer had been brewed in the building.  It’s true that Hofmann Brothers beer was served at the tavern in the triangle building during the last quarter of the 19th century and right up until George Jr. remodeled the building into offices; but was it a brewery, too?  Again, the triangle building was simply too small to have contained both a tavern and a brewery, so that’s highly unlikely.  One look at the size of the old Mueller’s Brewery, which was just north of the Ogden Avenue Bridge on the east bank of the Des Plaines in the Cooksville neighborhood, in historical photos should indicate just how unlikely it was that the triangle building ever held a similar enterprise.   However, the tavern might also have served as a local distribution point for the beer, which was sold at a number of local drinking establishments by 1908, when Hofmann Tower and the park were completed.

Besides, the main brewery of Hofmann Brothers Brewing – which was founded by George Jr. and his two brothers, Alves and Valentine (not to be confused with Uncle Val, George Sr.’s brother) – was located in Chicago on Monroe Street near Peoria Street, right where the East Garfield Park and North Lawndale neighborhoods meet on the Near West Side.  There’s no evidence that they ever had another facility in or near Lyons.  What George Jr. did have, however, was a business office in the triangle building, where during the years before Prohibition he quite likely did conduct some brewery business there, especially as the Hofmann Brothers Brewery emblem was cut into the stone above the main Art Nouveau-style entrance of the triangle building.  After 1920, of course, George Jr. didn’t run the brewery for more than a decade:  it was ‘rented’ out to mobster Johnny Torrio and, later, Torrio’s protégé Al Capone until Chicago’s reform mayor, William Dever, had the brewery cited for Prohibition violations and shut it down for a while during the mid-1920s.

Hofmann Tower in Lyons, IL; photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska.  All rights reserved.

Hofmann Tower in Lyons, IL; photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska. All rights reserved.

Landmark tower unscathed, still needs restoration

Hofmann Tower, which was unharmed during the triangle building fire, is a village and state landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.  The tower was sold in 1946 to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and has had several alterations since then.  The windows and window frames were removed in 1954.  At some later point before 1972 (the year of the NRHP application), one doorway and all the windows on the first two floors were bricked up.  Later, even upper-floor windows were bricked.  Inside, an open iron staircase on the north side of the building was partially removed.  Machinery on the first floor that once controlled four flood gates was still visible in 1972, as were two flood basins.

Despite this, the interior was somehow made suitable 30 years later for use by the Lyons Historical Society.  Until a few years ago, it had been the home of the society, which operated a historical museum in the tower; but damage to the tower and prohibitively high restoration costs forced its closure.  The historical society’s records and other materials are now stored in a room at nearby Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on Ogden Avenue.  Nadine Pankow tells us, however, that since there is a preservation committee organized now to restore the tower, that may yet be possible once they get enough funds.  Perhaps then the historical society can return to its former digs in the tower.

In the near future:  more on the entrepreneurial Hofmann family and Hofmann Brothers Brewing Co.

 
Your own snow bunny/reporter,
Marie

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