Route 66 update:  Mysterious, odd and historic, Chicago’s tiny Pickwick Stable lives and shines again

Do you know the story of the sweet, overlooked antique just off Jackson Boulevard called Pickwick Stable?  No??  Well!  Do let us acquaint you.  Like many an antique, this little charmer has a questionable provenance with a gap or two in it; but like a rediscovered gem placed in a new setting, it’s been brought to life again and is enjoying a resurgent popularity it hasn’t had in 140 years.

The address is 22 E. Jackson Blvd., not that you could tell.  It’s one of the oldest buildings in the Loop – and one of the hardest to find, or was until recently.  Moreover, it’s a real architectural curiosity, not the dead end it seemed for decades.  If you live or work in Chicago, you’ve probably gone right past it dozens of time, if not hundreds, and never noticed.  The reason is because it’s severely recessed and looks like the end of an alley instead of a building.  But it is a building (honest!), and the rest of the neighborhood grew up around it.

The main reason Pickwick Stable isn’t readily visible is because it’s been encased over time by the much taller buildings that grew up around it.  The Steger Building (1911) stands in front of the Pickwick’s southern side and largely blocks the view.  It’s also blocked on the east by the 228 S. Wabash building (1927), hemmed in on the north by the back end of the 226 S. Wabash Ave. building (1932), and bordered on the west by the alley that runs between the Steger and the Gibbons Building (1912), which sidles up against the former Lytton Store Building (1913) at the NE corner of Jackson and State Street.

Pickwick Stable can be hard to find -- even when you heoretically know where it is.  (Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

The tiny but historic Pickwick Stable can be hard to find, even when you know where it is: in Pickwick Court, 20 E. Jackson Blvd. (Photo copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Court records found by the Chicago Tribune indicate that a stable was there at least as early as 1857, with a yard where the owner’s son played, and that during the 1860s this building was owned by greengrocer, grain merchant and pillar of the earliest Chicago Jewish community, Henry Horner, grandfather of the illustrious Illinois governor Henry Horner.  Today’s structure must have been built – possibly as early as 1872 – on the site of the original, which burned down like everything else in the area did during the Great Fire of 1871.  As far as anyone can tell, Horner the elder still owned the land after the fire, and as he was still living in the city only a few blocks south of the stable site during the recovery, he could have rebuilt on the same spot and probably did: an avid if scholarly businessman, he wasn’t a man to let opportunity escape him.  Official city records claim that the diminutive structure was built in 1892, and another source of dubious origin claims the third floor was only added in 1907; but most city records burned during the Great Fire, and it may well be that the third floor was added in 1892 and renovated or improved in 1907, which would explain a lot.  Regardless, the Horner connection lends the building that extra historical significance.

Horner, a German-speaking Czech immigrant from Bohemia, was one of the first Jewish immigrants in Chicago.  He arrived in 1840, only 22 years old, at the same time as at least three Bavarian Jews who came as part of a larger German emigration.  In addition to Christian Germans, who were escaping high taxes and other economic and political woes, were emigrating German Jews; they came because there was great pressure on Jews to convert to Christianity, particularly in Bavaria, with reprisals if they didn’t (bad behavior that the Bavarians would happily repeat a century later after the Nazis came to power).  Buoyed by favorable reports from an earlier generation of Jews who had settled on the East Coast, Horner and his contemporaries thought it better to leave for America.  In the early Chicago, they found opportunity and prospered.

Horner was a young man with an education, a library full of books, and almost nothing else when he arrived, so he began working as a clerk in a clothing store.  However, he was intelligent, hard working and enterprising and soon opened a own wholesale and retail grocery business at Randolph and Canal Streets.  This area of the west side across from Wolf Point was near the early center of town, and there were market gardens and farms to the west.  Horner served a clientele that included pioneers moving westward, and business steadily improved.  A quiet, introspective man, he was content to be a businessman by day and an intellectual the rest of the time.

Pickwick Court sandwiched in between the Gibbons Building (L) and the Steger Building (R) during the renovation.  (courtesy of Google street view)

Pickwick Court sandwiched in between the Gibbons Building (L) and the Steger Building (R) during the building renovation early this year.   (Photo courtesy of Google street view)

His background made Horner and the German immigrants, many of whom had similarly come from well-to-do, professional or intellectual families with mothers and sisters who were respected members of their communities, vastly different from that first group of pioneer settlers:  the trappers, traders, half-breeds and voyageurs such as du Sable, Jean La Lime, the Beaubien brothers, Antoine Ouilmette, Billy Caldwell, Gurdon Hubbard, and the Kinzies.  In fact, they had more in common with the moneyed, intellectual Yankees like first mayor William B. Ogden and his brother Mahlon, Ogden’s brother-in-law, Charles Butler, the Newberry brothers, J. Young Scammon, and Isaac Arnold, the boosters and investors who not only built the city but brought culture to it.  That is, they shared much with one huge exception:  Ogden and his WASP-y friends had come to Chicago with money to buy a considerable amount of land for themselves and others, which allowed them to make a whole lot more money quickly, first from buying and selling real estate, then from other businesses that their real estate profits funded.  In contrast, Horner and most other immigrants came with nothing and had to make their fortunes from scratch.  The successful immigrants’ prosperity rarely approached the considerable wealth of the ‘Old Settler’ Yankees who had arrived before 1840.

In November 1847, Henry Horner became one of the organizers of the city’s first synagogue, the historic KAM Temple that stood on the east side of Clark Street where the Kluczynski Federal Building is now.  The elder Horner was also one of 22 business organizers of the earliest iteration of the Chicago Board of Trade – as was the omnipresent entrepreneur William Ogden, who no doubt knew Horner through business because Ogden knew everyone who helped make the city grow and, therefore, mattered.  The Commercial Exchange, as it was first known, opened in March of 1848 in rented rooms on the second floor of a flour store at 101 South Water St., only half a block from the business district on Lake Street.  The opening of the I&M Canal that year and the flood of incoming grain that McCormick’s reaper made possible demanded a more organized way of dealing with agricultural products, and the exchange was the answer.

That was also the same year the recently orphaned, 19-year-old Hannah Dernberg of Zeilhard in central Germany arrived in New York.  She was tall, statuesque and well educated, from a prosperous, distinguished and intellectual family.  Her great-grandfather had been the rabbi of Hanover, and she’d grown up with books and without anti-Semitism – but a resurgent German nationalism had driven out or killed many Jews, especially in Bavaria, so that she was the last Jew left in her village.  Hannah could see that she wouldn’t be allowed to be a teacher there; so there was nothing left for her in Germany.  But Horner biographer Charles J. Masters notes that she was also “capable, energetic and independent.”  So, she decided to emigrate, arriving in New York in 1948 and making her way alone to Chicago, where Horner was by now a respected member of the business community.  They met.  Less than a year later, in 1849, they were married.

The Gibbons (L) and Steger (R) buildings after the renovation, autumn 2014 -- shiny!

The Gibbons (L) and Steger (R) buildings after the renovation, autumn 2014 — shiny!

Chicago flourished during the 1850s, and as Henry’s business grew, he and Hannah became more involved in the city’s growth and development.  They were key participants in founding some of the oldest Jewish organizations (Hannah was a charter member of a women’s group known as the Johanna Lodge).  Horner’s business interests broadened, and he became a prominent figure in local banking.  Hannah made him a good partner: a strong personality with leadership qualities, she soon took over the day-to-day operations of the grocery business, looking for ways to improve it and freeing her husband to focus on new business ventures, his other activities, and his books.  Far from being territorial, Henry welcomed her good business sense and was happy to hand over much of the responsibility.

Hannah became an adviser to and organizer of the local Jewish community.  Always interested in giving a hand up to new Jewish arrivals, she was a one-woman de facto social service agency.  She offered them orientation and help in finding housing, work, and needed services; she lent them money; she even provided matchmaking services and advice on fitting into the community  Hannah was Jane Addams half a century before Jane Addams – in fact, she was Jane Addams on steroids, except Hannah kept kosher.  And while active in business and tireless in charity work, she still managed to give Henry 11 children, starting with daughter Dilah in April 1851, and often ran the grocery business with a baby clinging onto her shoulder.

Hannah seemed to do nearly everything well.  The only big mistake she made was in early 1871, in allowing a social acquaintance to introduce her recently arrived nephew to the 20-year old Dilah.  The woman neglected to mention that her handsome nephew, Solomon Levy, a Bavarian Jew and successful importer many years older than Dilah, had left San Francisco because his beloved fiancée had just died, and the grieving man couldn’t bear to remain there.  It also didn’t help that he was a bully who would abuse his wife, but nobody realized that yet.  Levy met and married Dilah that spring, on impulse and on the rebound, and their marriage was tempestuous from the start.  As the old adage warns: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.  And repent Dilah did, almost immediately, for she and Levy began to argue soon after their vows were said.  Their 12-year marriage would be one long trial for both.

Hannah quickly saw the marriage was a huge mistake.  Levy, in turn, decided to move his new household away from the Horners as soon as possible, relocating himself and Dilah to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue, just north of 12th Street.  Levy also had trouble working in the Horner family business (he’d joined it just after the wedding) and taking orders from or having to answer to a micromanager mother-in-law who was only half a dozen years older than he was, despite the fact that Hannah had successfully run Henry’s grocery business for more than two decades, with his blessing.

Although Henry Horner the elder and Hannah lost their home, their business, and all of Henry’s precious books and papers in the Great Fire of 1871, at least they had family nearby and a way to rebuild.  Dilah and her husband had just moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue north of 12th Street less than a year before the fire, and their dwelling survived.  Henry and Hannah moved around the corner from Dilah to Park Row, an east-west side street tucked in west of Michigan between 11th and 12th Streets, near the 11th Street Illinois Central train station.  Hannah relocated their grocery business, and Henry shifted it to all wholesale.  However, Henry never completely recovered from the fire: his library was gone, his peace and calm had been shattered, and he increasingly suffered from asthma attacks, probably due to smoke damage to his lungs.

Despite their bitter arguments, Dilah and Solomon managed to produce three sons – James, born in March 1872 while the family was still rebuilding; Sidney, in 1873; and little Henry.  Alas, the 60-year-old Henry senior never met his namesake, having died of a brain hemorrhage (probably a stroke) during the autumn of 1878, whereas baby Henry was born several weeks later on November 30.  Shortly after young Henry’s birth, Solomon Levy broke with his in-laws’ firm and started his own export business; this didn’t improve matters between him and Dilah, and their marriage continued to be rocky for the next five years.

Abused but strong like her mother, Dilah didn’t suffer in silence.  By 1883, she’d had enough and took her sons, moved into her mother’s house, and found herself a divorce lawyer.  This was considered a drastic move and was generally discouraged back then, especially in the Jewish community.  Dilah’s life would be a matter of public record.  Nevertheless, the judge not only found that the marriage was beyond repair but that Levy was also “guilty of extreme and repeated cruelty” to Dilah and granted a divorce.  Yet despite that, custody of James was awarded to his father because established legal precedent then required the judge to give the first-born son to the father, and that was too ingrained a practice for him to make an exception.  However, only James would keep his father’s surname:  when Dilah moved in permanently with her mother, she and her two other sons retook the Horner name.  Thus, the governor-to-be grew up in his grandfather’s house with his grandfather’s name.

Henry’s grandson, Horner the younger, was the first Jewish governor of Illinois and a liberal.  A judge and a reformer, the bachelor civil servant and attorney served two gubernatorial terms (1933 to 1940), during which he enacted much of the state’s social safety net that helped many Illinoisans survive the Great Depression.

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The current Pickwick Stable may or may not have been originally built for horses, but it’s spent far more of its life converted into a succession of restaurants and cafés.  By the 1890s, it was known as Colonel Abson’s Chop House, an intimate eatery popular with politicians, bankers and actors of the time.  Thereafter, it had a variety of tenants and names:  Pickwick Café, Robinson’s, 22 East, and the Red Path Inn, among others.  In 2004, John Meyers of Grand Realty Group Inc., Grayslake, bought the property from the Aurora-based Continental Community Bank, hoping to resell it to someone who would make a creative office or office/residence of the place, but that didn’t happen.  It languished for years, unnoticed unless someone used the corridor for parking, the gated entry to the court usually chained and padlocked.

Then in a lucky trifecta for the developer, CA Ventures LLC snapped it up in early 2013 when the firm also purchased the Steger and Gibbons buildings on either side.  The alley entrance via Pickwick Court is now partially sheltered by the new multi-story skybridge high above that connects the other two buildings.  The Steger and the Gibbons, built in 1911 and 1912, respectively, were both designed by Marshall & Fox, who were best known for designing tony homes for the rich and elegant hotels (the Drake Hotel is theirs, for example).  Since they’ve been cleaned up, renovated and repurposed as independent student housing with 135 units between them, they look quite smart and bookend Pickwick Court beautifully.  In particular, the Steger Building, which was once home to a piano company, has delicious off-white terra cotta trim along the bottom three floors and makes a great street-level impression at the Wabash corner, even with the ‘L’ there.

The diminutive Pickwick Stable is only 19 feet wide by 19 feet deep and a mere three stories tall.  All you can see of it from the ‘alley’ entrance along Pickwick Court (west of the Steger Building) is the southwest corner.  That’s also the only part of the building that has any windows – in this case, the oversized double-hung windows have replacded the tall wood-framed, French-door style windows on the second and third floors that look toward Jackson Boulevard (too bad: we miss the elegant mullioned look; but at least the roll-down steel garage door that covered the first-floor entrance is gone).  Now that the building is occupied again and the nine-foot-wide court is lit by a string of overhead lights, it’s more easily visible from Jackson – and totally too cute and funky for words.

The new tenant is the upscale Asado Coffee Company, which has two other locations – on Irving Park Road in Lakeview and Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village.  Wherever there are college students, there must be coffee; so no surprise there, although it’s a welcome development with DePaul University’s downtown campus just across the street.  In September 2014 while awaiting a final visit from inspectors before the opening, Asado owner Jeff Liberman told Crain’s Chicago Business that the coffeehouse would shortly receive a new awning, along with galleria seating and standing room for customers in the narrow courtyard.  Now you know why it’s our favorite building on the block: it’s historic and darling.

If either its east or south sides were closer to the street than to other buildings, Pickwick Stable would be one very expensive, very sought-after piece of real estate.  In fact, it might be anyway someday if the Steger and Gibbons buildings are ever torn down to make way for newer structures.  Should that be the case, we’d probably lose a charming little historical oddity in the heart of the Loop.  In fact, if ever someone wanted to create a small museum honoring the two Henry Horners and their contributions to Chicago and Illinois, an upstairs floor of Pickwick Stable would be the perfect place (hint, hint).  With the new coffeehouse there, it seems to be safe for the moment; but with hungry real estate developers constantly on the prowl for more spots to squeeze in new skyscrapers, you never know.  See it while you can, before someone with no sense of history tears it down.

As usual, if you enjoy our posts, please rate them with a Like at the bottom of this post and using the star system on the home page, which is right under the headline for this post.  Don’t forget to sign up to follow the blog and follow our Twitter feed, @CuriousTravel66 – and please pass the word and tell all your friends, family and colleagues who love history or Route 66 about us!  We appreciate your interest, and we thank you for your support.

Please note:  this post is partially excerpted from the upcoming book The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago, by Maria R. Traska and Joseph D. Kubal with Keith Yearman.  Copyright 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.  No part of this post or any of our other posts may be copied, redistributed or otherwise used without express written permission from the authors.  Unless otherwise noted, the same copyright notice applies to the photos, too.  Just protecting the intellectual property, folks.

Until next time,
Your 66 tour guide, Marie


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