Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Art and History of Cermak Plaza

What in the world would ever cause a strip mall to become famous? Thousands of them have been built over the last 60 years. Because of their utilitarian nature and the relative ease of facelifting, remodeling or expanding them, a high percentage of them still stand. Over time, the "lucky ones", if such an analogy makes sense, continue to house "Class A" retailers - well-known department and specialty stores and major chain supermarkets. In others, the tenant mix has shifted to "dollar stores", off-price retailers and independent grocers. Still others are home to flea markets, thrift stores, used bookstores and the like. All serve a purpose in their communities.

But you can spruce them up, modernize them, give 'em facelifts until their ears meet, and there's not the remotest chance these things will bring fame. No, it takes something drastic. And that's exactly what happened in the case of Cermak Plaza, a circa-1956 shopping center in Chicago's near west suburbs, when it became home to some huge (and hugely controversial) modern art pieces in the 1980's.

Berwyn, Illinois, is eight miles directly west of Chicago's Loop. The physical layout of the city is very much a continuation of Chicago's perfect grid (the town of Cicero sits in between), with row upon row of two-flats, three-flats and bungalows with small but well-manicured lawns. Among the city’s streets are some major thoroughfares - Harlem Avenue and Roosevelt Road, for example, which constitute Berwyn’s western and northern borders respectively. Oak Park Avenue and 26th Street are a couple of others, and Ogden Avenue (U.S. 34), a major highway spanning from Chicago’s West Side all the way to Aurora, cuts a diagonal through Berwyn. Through the decades, the heart of town, from a retail standpoint at least, has been 22nd Street, more commonly known as Cermak Road. The road is named in honor of Anton J. Cermak, the late mayor of Chicago, who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet intended for President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at a public appearance in Miami in 1933.

In the early 1950’s, Berwyn’s retail scene looked pretty much like that of most American cities and “inner-ring” suburbs (pretty much the only type of suburb around in the early part of the 20th century). There were usually a few major commercial strips, lined end-to-end with variety stores, butcher shops, grocery stores, single-screen theatres and all manner of specialty shops. Smaller city streets were punctuated with corner grocery stores, dry cleaners, candy shops and other mom-and-pop operations. Sometimes the major chains could also be found in corner locations off the beaten path – in the late 1920’s, for example, Berwyn boasted no less than 11 A&P stores, according to the pictorial book “Berwyn” by Douglas Deutchler. As mentioned, however, Cermak Road was the “main drag” retail-wise. In the 1950’s, the Cermak Road Business Association even issued their own trading stamps, called “Blue Stamps”, that were issued by merchants up and down the strip. I’m not sure if they were redeemable for kolaches or not.

The decade of the 1950’s saw the American shopping center come into its own. In 1949, the Urban Land Institute compiled a list of major shopping centers opened or in development at that date, arriving at a total of 67. In July 1953, there were 158 centers on the list, and in May 1957, six months after Cermak Plaza’s opening, the tally amounted to a whopping 720 shopping centers, only to grow from there. Americans had discovered a new way to shop, and they loved it.

On January 10, 1954, an article in the Chicago Tribune announced a five million-dollar shopping center to be constructed on a 30-acre site at the corner of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road in Berwyn. The parcel was known as the “old Gage farm”, and had recently been owned by the city of Chicago, interestingly enough. The developer of the shopping center would be New York City-based National Plazas, Inc., which was headed by Emil Muller and David W. Bermant, who by that time had developed “15 similar shopping centers” in various U.S. cities. The center’s name would be “Cermak Plaza”, and it would be run by Bermant’s management company. (Five years later, National Plazas would open Mt. Prospect Plaza, just down the street from the future location of Randhurst.)The article named some prospective tenants – among others, there were Walgreens, J.C. Penney, Hillman’s Pure Foods, F.W. Woolworth, Thom McAn shoes and a “large eastern variety chain”, which turned out to be one of G.C. Murphy’s few ventures into the Chicago market. The center’s architectural design would be provided by Rochester, New York-based R.E. Van Alstyne and Anthony J. Zelenka, a local architect based in neighboring Cicero. Zelenka would also design “a new branch of J. Sterling Morton High School” (known as Morton West), which would open directly behind the shopping center.

The next two years would be fraught with problems, which started right away when a group of Berwyn residents sued to halt the project, citing traffic hazards. The lawsuit, which was originally filed by six homeowners whose property adjoined the tract, gathered the support of 1,600 petitioners within days of the project’s original announcement. In October 1955, after a grueling 21-month battle that led all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, the plaintiffs finally dropped the suit, and the way was cleared to begin work.

While still under construction, Cermak Plaza stayed in the news in the worst possible way when it became the scene of a murder. On June 6, 1956, a masonry contractor was shot and killed while working inside the shell of the future shopping center. The assailant turned out to be his business partner, who apparently felt that the other man had cheated him out of his share of the Cermak Plaza while contract while he was out on sick leave. The Tribune reported of four eyewitnesses to the shooting. Eventually the culprit was convicted and sentenced to 99 years for the crime.

After weathering these crises and wrapping up months of construction, the opening for Cermak Plaza was finally announced for November 29, 1956, just in the nick of time for the Christmas shopping season. The center’s 21-store opening lineup included a number of national names – J.C. Penney, F.W. Woolworth, Kinney Shoes (years before they would be owned by Woolworth), Thom McAn, Lerner Shops and Walgreens – along with some well known Chicago-based chains – Jewel Food Stores, Hillman’s Pure Foods (a Jewel competitor for whom this would be their 11th store), A.S. Beck Shoes, Suburban TV and Record and the ever-popular Fannie May Candies.

In an era where gloriously over-the-top Grand Opening festivities were the norm, Cermak Plaza’s fetes certainly didn’t disappoint. The Jewel Food Store opened on November 15, two weeks before the rest of the shopping center, to a host of grand opening giveaways and contests. The most exciting of these was a free helicopter ride for a “lucky lady” each half-hour throughout the day. The first ride, according to a Tribune article captioned “She’s up in the air about shopping”, went to Mrs. Louis Filicetti of Elmwood Avenue. For her part, Mrs. Filicetti declared it was the “first time she’d been up in anything except an elevator”. Clearly, a new era of thrills had descended upon Berwyn.

Not to be outdone, the Plaza’s main festivities, held on the “official” opening day of November 29th, brought the appropriate pomp to the occasion. Close as it was to Christmas, Santa made an appearance, flanked by eight live Alaskan reindeer (top that, Marshall Field’s!). The crème de la crème, however, was a live appearance by Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King!”, and his band. Never before or since has there been such a perfect match of artist and grand opening. Those of us who grew up watching far too much TV in the 70’s and 80’s would probably best know Mr. Yankovic from several K-Tel record commercials he was featured in through those years. One can only hope he changed the lyrics of “The Pennsylvania Polka” to “The Cermak Plaza Polka” on that day. I mean, please!

In April 1957, another key tenant joined the Cermak Plaza lineup when Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened a new “Class B” store there, replacing the existing Sears unit at 5938 Cermak Road in Cicero. The addition of the Sears store transformed the shopping center’s configuration into an “L-shape”, although the Sears was detached from the rest of the center. In the early 1960’s, Sears expanded their Berwyn location to add an auto center, and the plain signage was replaced with the much bolder 60’s serif version.

Interestingly, the iconic aqua and white signs with their huge, bent arrows did not appear until the shopping center was nearly two years old. In a September 25, 1958 Chicago Tribune article, a dedication ceremony for the signs was announced for 7pm that night. Today, of course, some folks would laugh at this, while others would place it on a level of importance with the signing of the Magna Carta. (I think you know where I stand.) It brings this picture to my mind – a couple at home as they’re getting ready to leave. The husband, who we’ll call Ralph, is standing impatiently in the gleaming pink-tiled kitchen on the top floor of a three-flat. “Bernice, c’mon, are we going to the dedication or what?” (Note: In this part of the world, the phrase “or what?” can be affixed to almost any sentence. It’s a figure of speech, not an actual request for alternatives.) It’s a good thing we can’t hear Bernice, but through the bathroom door I think I could make out something about Ralph’s “blankety-blank bowling night”. Meanwhile, Chester, their 13-year old son, yells up to the third-floor window from the front yard – “Hey Maa! I need two bucks – we’re goin’ for pizza! Can you hear me or what?” He’s got a handful of pebbles ready in case they didn’t hear him.

Well, it could’ve happened.

Through the balance of the 1950’s into the following decade, it would be safe to say that Cermak Plaza was king of the retail hill for its area. In the mid-1960’s, however, some competition began to enter the picture. Across Harlem Avenue from Cermak Plaza, in what would be called North Riverside Plaza, E.J. Korvette opened one of its “Korvette City” retail complexes in 1965, complete with a two-story “promotional department store”, furniture and carpet center, supermarket, and auto center. In 1967, Jewel left Cermak Plaza and moved into the Korvette supermarket space as a Jewel/Osco, where it remains to this day. (After Korvette’s demise in 1980, Kmart took over the main store. It now jointly houses a Petco and a Kohl’s store.)

The big change would come in 1975 with the opening of North Riverside Park Mall, developed by Melvin Simon and Company, just west of the Korvette complex. Prior to that, area residents would have to drive west to Oakbrook or Yorktown to shop at a “real mall”, but now the area would have one of its own. Anchored by Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, who would vacate their outdated 60,000 square foot Cermak Plaza location in favor of fancy new 266,000 square foot digs, North Riverside Park quickly and thoroughly stole any remaining thunder that Cermak Plaza could have claimed, including the coveted (and lucrative) role of host to community events. Service Merchandise, one of our family’s favorites, soon took over the old Penney space at Cermak Plaza.

My first exposure to Cermak Plaza came around this time, when my family moved from the Northwest suburbs to the Near West suburbs (Riverside, which is just across Harlem Avenue from Berwyn). In some ways it felt like I’d moved to another state altogether. The most striking differences, to me, were the slightly heavier Chicago accents and the strength of the ethnic traditions, particularly in older suburbs such as Berwyn, compared to the much more recently settled Northwest ‘burbs. Of course, these traditions always seem to often translate to food, and the Bohemian (Czech) baked goods and the incredible Italian food (Benny’s and Salerno’s Pizza, Novi’s Beef, Mazzone’s Italian Ice and Turano bread – yess!) soon became favorites of mine. Another way the strong sense of pride expressed itself was in the annual “Houby Day” parade, a tribute to, of all things – a mushroom. That’s right, “houby” means mushroom in Czech, and on one Saturday morning each Fall our high school band would pile into the buses and trek over to Austin Boulevard in Cicero to take our place in the parade, whose route ended at Cermak Plaza. There I was, trying to stay in step among the politicians running for office in their convertibles, garden club floats and shriners dressed as genies on flying carpet go-karts. We gave the best years of our lives to that mushroom.

One day, I noticed some scaffolding in the Cermak Plaza parking lot, surrounding what looked for all the world like a giant mud pie on a pedestal. As it turned out, what was taking place was the creation of a gigantic piece of modern art, the work of Nancy Rubins, an artist based in New York City’s Soho district. The “pork chop-shaped” sculpture, called “Big Bil-Bored”, would stand three stories tall and was embedded with the flotsam of the American consumer culture – old portable televisions, fans, bicycles, hubcaps and other debris. The work was commissioned by Cermak Plaza owner David W. Bermant, an enthusiastic, high-profile patron of modern art. When the inevitable press questions came, Bermant responded from a socio-cultural perspective one doesn’t generally expect from shopping center owners: “People can look at Nancy’s work and see their own life”, he told the Chicago Tribune in November 1980 as the sculpture neared completion. “At first I thought the plaza merchants would kill me. This piece shows the stuff they sell for what it is. But I decided to do it anyway because it was important.” (Now that’s putting the “b” in subtle!)

As you would probably expect, the community went apoplectic over the sculpture. “It’s a hunk of junk, a monstrosity”, according to one angry resident quoted in the Tribune article. “Why don’t those people do something constructive like sweeping the street instead of dirtying it up?” Judy Baar Topinka, the local state representative, weighed in on behalf on her constituents to the Berwyn/Cicero Life newspaper: “Is this the image that Berwyn wants to present to the world, a portal on a major thoroughfare? Instead of rejuvenation, revitalization, beautification and progress, the message that is being sent is that we're riding high on the scrap heap. It is, at best, the worst public relations move I have ever seen put forth.” Finally the mayor of Berwyn, Thomas Hett, conceded that due to the fact that it was on private property, little could be done. “But let me tell you, I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could have approved the thing.” In any event, Big Bil-Bored was there to stay.

My own attitude towards the sculpture was initially very negative, and I wish I could say that type of art has grown on me in the years since, although in time I kind of got a kick out of all those 1950’s-era toasters staring at me as I walked out of Walgreens or Service Merchandise. What has changed is that I’ve come to greatly admire Bermant’s courage in daring to stand out from the crowd - a bold and exciting move, worthy of note.

Over the following decade, Bermant would commission several more modern art pieces, mostly much smaller in size, for Cermak Plaza. Several of them still exist, and all are catalogued in detail on this excellent site. One that can still be seen at the Plaza is artist Dustin Shuler’s “Pinto Pelt”, which is essentially the hide of a Ford Pinto, mounted taxidermy-style, to the side of the Plaza optometrist’s shop. Given the Pinto’s unfortunate reputation, that’s probably the safest place for it.

The next large piece of modern art to appear at Cermak Plaza wasn’t a sculpture or statue, but a building. When Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Chicago-based hamburger chain, went out of business in the early 1980’s, it freed up the valuable corner parcel at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road. The “Home of the Dandyburger” was torn down, and in the spring of 1984, a new McDonald’s restaurant with a very unique design rose in its place. Designed by SITE, which according to a Tribune article was “an art and architecture organization known for its exploration of new ideas for the urban visual environment”, sections of the store were elevated, leading to an unusual “floating” appearance that I remember really digging. (The restaurant’s natural tan-colored brick, like that of many McDonald’s, has since been repainted in a two-tone color scheme that to me lessens the “floating” effect.) Much credit for the modern design, of course, must go to Bermant, who “encouraged them to build a restaurant that would excite interest in the center and would complement the art works that we have already placed at Cermak”.

Important Update: After publishing this post, I came across an intriguing bit of information about the 1984 “floating” McDonald’s at Cermak Plaza. I mentioned the new paint job and how it seemed to lessen the "floating" effect. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why it’s looked so different in recent years, but now I know. Simply put, it no longer floats! I discovered an article on this blog, with photos that show the former “floating” areas – they’ve been bricked in! Aaaugh! Why it was done, I don’t even want to know. For those who didn’t see the once-unique store before this happened, I feel bad.

On a happier note, I received some interesting information from Michael, a Berwyn resident as a youth, who with his family continued to visit the area years after moving away. The corner parcel, where the formerly unique McDonald's stands, was home, as mentioned, to a Yankee Doodle Dandy from the late 60’s through the early 80’s. Prior to that, according to Michael, it was a Peter Pan Snack Shop, that looked exactly like this one. The Peter Pan Snack Shops were owned by Boston-based General Drive-In, which later became General Cinema Corporation, a subject covered on this website last year.

The crowning achievement, as far as Cermak Plaza’s art works went, would have to be Spindle, built in 1989 by L.A.-based artist Dustin Shuler, who also created the Pinto Pelt. Spindle consisted of eight cars impaled on a giant metal spike, like a stack of skewered “guest checks” next to the cash register of one of Chicago’s great Greek-owned family restaurants. Even though it no longer exists, Spindle is easily the most recognized image associated with Cermak Plaza.

For his part, Bermant was ever vigilant in defending the art works he had procured for Cermak Plaza and his other shopping centers as a means of differentiation and cultural enhancement. As he told an Associated Press interviewer in 1990: “What makes it different from any other shopping center? I’ve got the same crappy merchants selling the same crappy stuff.” (Bear in mind that the “crappy merchants” who populated Bermant’s shopping centers represented a “who’s who” of American retail. I’d love to have met this guy!) David Bermant passed away in 2000 at the age of 81.

Unlike the Dixie Square Mall, being featured in a Hollywood film was not essential to Cermak Plaza’s fame, but a fleeting appearance in the 1994 comedy film Wayne’s World (based, like The Blues Brothers, on a popular Saturday Night Live sketch) did much to help spread it. For the five of you who may not know, the main characters in Wayne’s World are Wayne and Garth (played by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey), two teenage heavy metal fans from Aurora, Illinois, with their own cable access TV show, where they pontificated about music, movies and most of all, “babes”, and as Wikipedia mentions, “trick(ed) their unsuspecting guests into saying vulgar words”. Classy stuff! (Or at least funny, usually.) Wayne’s favorite line was “Party on, excellent!”, and despite the fact that Mike Myers is a Canadian native, he pulled the suburban Chicago accent off well. (Note: “ax-cellent” or “excell-ennt” were alternative pronunciations of “excellent” common to early 1980’s Chicago, most often used to describe the latest REO Speedwagon or Journey album.)

The movie contains a night shot of The Spindle, with the Sears store in the background, as well as a brief shot of the neon-lit Cermak Plaza sign. This follows my favorite scene in the movie, the “Stan Mikita’s Donut Shop” sequence, probably a play on the Tim Horton’s coffee shop chain, which I believe hadn’t yet migrated from Canada to the states at the time of the film. Stan Mikita was a legendary player for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 60’s and 70’s. Bobby Hull may have been more famous, but Stan was the cult hero. A few years ago, a friend of mine from work told me of how he ran into the long-retired Mikita at a Florida resort while he was there for a trade show. “Dave, I can die now”, he said. I’m a fan as well, but I don’t think I’d take it that far. (When we lived in Nashville in the late 1990’s, we split season tickets for the first three seasons of the NHL expansion Predators, and I was struck by the politeness of the Nashville hockey fans. They obviously hadn’t learned “the art of expressive language” that we were so accustomed to in Chicago. Last I hear, though, they’re really starting to get the hang of it!)

Just as controversy surrounded the introduction of Cermak Plaza’s most notable art works, Big Bil-Bored and Spindle, it also surrounded their demise. Big Bil-Bored, having survived nearly two decades of public outrage and various attempts to force its removal, was becoming an appreciable safety hazard due to severe rusting of its embedded metal artifacts. In 1998 it was dismantled. Guess they just don’t make junk like they used to.

The destruction of Spindle, which through the years had become a true Berwyn trademark, caused more consternation. In 2007, Walgreens made known its desire to vacate its in-line location at Cermak Plaza in order to build a free-standing store with a drive-thru pharmacy at the edge of the shopping center’s parking lot. The spot they had in mind, as reported at the time, was exactly where Spindle stood. This time, there were allies in the battle – the Berwyn Arts Council and the Berwyn Mainstreet Committee headed up a valiant attempt to raise money to move the sculpture to another location within the parking lot in order to accommodate the new Walgreens store. On July 22, 2007, participants in Chicago Critical Mass, a monthly bike ride that attracts hundreds of cyclists, descended on Cermak Plaza to raise awareness of the need to “Save the Spindle”, citing anger about “corporate interests erasing (the) town’s identity”. It would be of no avail. The decision was made to sell the sculpture on Ebay, but the auction, with a $50,000 starting bid, found no takers. On May 2, 2008, it came down. Somewhere recently I read that the location of the new Walgreens, which is up and operating, is actually slightly east of the Spindle location. A painful thought, but oh, well.

Recent years haven’t been kind to the shopping center from an occupancy point of view, either. The Sears store closed in 1993, replaced by a Circuit City, which closed along with the rest of the chain last year and is now vacant. The Service Merchandise store has sat empty since that chain’s 2002 closing, with the signs amazingly still intact eight years later. The recently vacated Walgreens space also sits empty. Some Bermant-style imagination would certainly come in handy now.

About a year back, two new signs were erected at Cermak Plaza. While considerably shorter than the original signs, they represent an effort to emulate the original 1958 look, albeit with directory boards added. The new signs are internally lit plastic as opposed to the porcelain and neon of the originals. One wonders why they didn’t just restore the classic signs, the support posts of which could have easily accommodated the addition of the directory boards. The appearance of the new signs has caused concern among Cermak Plaza aficionados, fearful the classic neon tower signs aren’t long for this world, although it’s strictly a minor rebellion compared to the “Save the Spindle” outcry. In my opinion, they deserve points for even attempting to capture the look of the old signs, something rarely bothered with in these cases. And the color match is pure Pantone perfection.

I’m trying to think of ways to snag a V.I.P. invitation to the dedication of the new signs. To miss out on this event would be unthinkable, but I’m stumped. Wait a minute – I’m a blogger, right? And bloggers are sorta “members of the press”, aren’t we? Then I’ll just ask for a press pass! Yeah, that’s it! That’s the ticket!

Oops, sorry…wrong Saturday Night Live sketch.

Most of the photos above are the work of Jeanette Archie, taken circa 1991. My sincere thanks to Jeanette and her husband Joe for allowing me to use them here. While the Big Bil-Bored and Spindle sculptures are the main motifs of the photos, they afford a nice view of the surrounding stores, most of which have changed greatly through the intervening years. Many thanks also to James Quinn for the close-up of the classic 1958 sign, and to Noah Vaughn for the photo of the new sign, with the new Walgreens resplendent in the background.

And now, some artifacts:

First, a trade ad for National Plazas from Chain Store Age magazine, showing the company’s current and planned shopping centers, with Cermak Plaza topping the latter list. Next are two teaser ads (November 22 and 25, 1956) for Cermak Plaza, followed by the main Grand Opening ad on the 29th. The Jewel Food Store grand opening ad, from November 15, is next. Following that is a wonderful photo of the Cermak Plaza Sears as it originally appeared. My very special thanks go to the Sears Holdings Archives for allowing the use of this photo. After that, an opening day photo of the J.C. Penney store, which many of us remember in its later incarnation as a Service Merchandise. Last up is an artist’s rendering of the unique Cermak Plaza McDonald’s.


  1. Im quite sure that some of the off-beat designs and sculptures in this shopping centers gave SITE the idea to construct their Best Products stores with their unique and rather unusual architecture. I find it interesting that there was a Service Merchandise in the shopping center as they were by far the largest competitor of Best Products.

  2. What a fascinating read! I too have always been amused when thinking about people actually attending "grand opening" events. I kind of wish we could go back to a time when that sort of thing was a big deal. It makes us look so jaded by today's standards, doesn't it?

  3. Wow, National built and managed Hamden Plaza in Connecticut. This still thrives, though has pretty much been completely renovated and rebuilt. It too had some great pop art: a main neon sign topped with a kinetic structure, and a bunch of 60s-70s cars covered in asphalt called "The Ghost Lot" located on the periphery of the parking lot facing the main road. It was actually also designed by SITE!

    Unfortunately the asphalt began to crack as the work went unmaintained, and they were removed a few years ago to clear up more parking space.

  4. SITE's stuff was always pretty striking - I always liked that "pre-distressed" Best building down South that looked like it was cracked in half. It makes sense that they'd come to this plaza.

    It's a sin the Spindle went down. That is, without a doubt, one of the most awesome public sculptures I've ever seen. Well, at least the skinned Pinto is still there... right?

  5. Ok, next time you are going to have to put up a spoiler saying "This Post May Contain Some LOL Moments" because while reading this at work, I had to giggle very quietly several times. Very well written and pretty amusing to boot.

    I was just there a couple of weeks ago and I always mean to get pictures but I never do. Last time I didn't snap any photos because we were very hungry and in a hurry to go eat. We shop at North Riverside every once in a while. Actually when my parents moved to Chicago in '89 NR was the first mall we discovered so we used to visit quite a bit back in those and as a kid I don't think I ever paid much attention to poor Cermak Plaza.

    Again, excellant post, Dave!

  6. I'm glad I discovered this shopping center in my first jaunt down to Chicago back in 2004. That year, I didn't get pics, but the following year (2005) I made sure to do just that.

    I'm glad I did that. I have the 'Spindle', and another sculpture forever digitally immortalized. I also have a few still images of the old neon sign and arrow, as well as a little movie clip of the flashing/chasing animation of said sign.

    A shame all that stuff was dismantled, but at least they kept the basic design on the new pylons, even if they are cheap plastic.

    We will never go back to a time with those kind of displays. The 1970s and 1980s ushered in a 'too much visual pollution' mentality to unchangeable city ordinances, which have pretty much stomped out the hopes of these great old artifacts that used to dot our main commercial 'guts' through the city, ever from being utilized again.

    At least some establishments and shopping centers on the Roosevelt and North Ave east-west drags through the metro region still boast some old signage.

  7. For some reason, my parents had an optometrist in Berwyn that they really liked, so they managed to schedule a visit every Christmas and drop us kids off at the plaza to do some shopping while they got their eyes checked. (I guess our eyes weren't worthy of being checked in the late 70s and early 80s.) When I heard they were tearing down the spindle, it was almost as though they tore down a part of me as well.

    Great line about the kolache, Dave. We went to Vesecky's bakery to get those after the visit...oh, my mouth is watering just thinking about them!

  8. Y'know, Cermak Plaza is one of those places that I knew all about but never was able to go see-we usually just passed through them on the way to the city. In fact, the near Chicago suburbs are still a bit of a mystery to me-I just don't have much reason to go further east than, say, Lombard unless I'm going all the way to the city (same thing when I was living downtown, only going west).

    I remember when they were finally taking down the Spindle, and I tried to get there to see the process. I was also interested in seeing the cars up close as well, to see how they'd weathered and to see how the interiors looked. But I'd started a new job and couldn't get there.

  9. I grew up in Washington DC. In February, 1959, a shopping center called Congressional Plaza opened in Rockville MD. There was all this unbelievable hoopla and hype for the event. Today most people wouldn't look twice at it. It was your basic L-shaped layout with parking in the middle. Also a Hot Shoppes drive in restaurnt, home of the Mighty Mo, was in the middle.

    To show you how different things were back then, not one but two of the stores were five-and-dimes: G.C. Murphy and Kresges. There was a JC Penney, a Giant grocery store and a People's Drug on one side.

    In the corner of the L, there was a little area paved with flagstones, and a flight of stairs. I think the stairs went to professional offices.

    The plaza is still there, although I don't think a single one of the original tenants is still there (CVS, which bought Peoples' Drug, may still be.)

    Again, when this place opened in 2/59, it was absolutely the last word in shopping centers. Then nine years later, along came Montgomery Mall. Oh well...

  10. Note to readers of this post – I’ve learned some very interesting stuff about the Cermak Plaza McDonald’s that I’ve added to the post, in light blue type for ease of identification. Thanks!

    Charles – You’re probably right about the work on Best Products stores – those are definitely classics as well. I don’t remember Best Products in Chicago, but they may have been there. McDade and Company was the biggest local catalog showroom competitor. Service Merchandise had a wonderful thing going until it started to fall apart for them in the late 80’s. Thanks-

    Mel – Thanks very much, and I couldn’t agree more about the fact that we are much more jaded today. I see or read scenes like this and sincerely think and think I would have really enjoyed the “Grand Opening” hoopla, but by the time I would have started remembering such things, they weren’t happening anymore.

    Anonymous – Very interesting stuff about Hamden Plaza, thanks! Bermant was definitely one of a kind. It’s a shame most of the art works have fallen to deterioration or commercial considerations of one kind or another, but that’s what’s happened.

    Mela – I’ve seen a photo of one of the Best buildings, and thought it was intriguing – like the earth split beneath it. The Pinto Pelt is still there, as of last week, that is! :)

    Didi- Sorry to cause you trouble at work! :) Seriously, thanks very much. North Riverside Park (and Cermak Plaza, to a much lesser extent) has been popular for years with Chicagoans escaping to shop in the suburbs. Thanks again!

    Matt – Good thing you captured the Spindle on film while you could. I agree with you on the new signs, but as of last week, when I was up there on business, the old ones still stand. They’re definitely looking much worse for wear (I was shocked, honestly), with an alarming amount of rust on the top.

    I agree that that era is over, sadly, and not at all likely to be resurrected. Even on the strips you mention – Roosevelt Rd. and North Ave., they’re disappearing fast!

    Adrienne – And Vesecky
    ’s is still there! Another great one is Vesuvio Bakery, a little further down Cermak Road in North Riverside. These are definitely the “Old Masters” at work!

    Doug – The cars on the Spindle were looking pretty sad and would have certainly required some serious rehabbing, but it could have been done. I was never familiar with the Near West suburbs until we actually moved there. It does seem to be “flyover” land (or drive-past land) for most folks who live a bit further out and occasionally venture into the city. The area does seem to have a higher percentage of surviving classic signs, however. Thanks!

    Tom – Welcome, and thanks for that great description of Congressional Plaza, which I had heard of but knew little about. Sounds like it was a nice example of a larger strip center from that era. And like many shopping centers of that time, when “The Mall” opened, it was relegated to second class status. Thanks again!

  11. Hi, Dave, loved this post! So many familiar things. I totally forgot about the "floating" McDonald's! I used to go there quite often back in the day. I went by Cermak Plaza not too long ago and it's weird not seeing the Spindle there anymore, but there is a shortage of Walgreens, ya know? (Chicago accent there! LOL)

    And I have to add: I loathe Harlem Avenue, and that's putting it mildly as possible. I have stronger words to describe the traffic but I'll shut up now. LOL =]

  12. Fascinating read! And thank you for solving a mystery for me. The link to the Peter Pan Snack Shop photos finally explains the nifty-looking round buildings with the weird roofs that are scattered around the West Side of Cleveland and its inner suburbs. I was asking family members about them this past Fall, but no one remembered what the buildings had been.

  13. Kim – Thanks, glad you liked it! I made a little note on the post on how the floating McD’s has been “brought back to earth”, unfortunately. And I definitely think the “Walgreens shortage” is a serious problem facing America today! Let’s see……what else can we tear down? ;)

    Living in the south for twenty years has kind of taken the edge off of my Chicago accent, but it usually comes back to full strength after I’ve been back there for a couple of days. Sooner if I eat at Portillo’s!

    …and driving on Harlem Avenue gives me a chance to put it to good use!

    Dcseain – You’re welcome, and thanks very much! As mentioned, my thanks to the reader who sent me the links, Michael, for the Peter Pan info. That’s very cool that some of the buildings still exist. If you ever get a chance to snap a pic of one, I’d love to see it.

  14. I grew up in Riverside but the place to go was to "the Plaza". We took the 26th street bus to GC Murphy's for a soda at their lunch counter or sometimes we would stop for one at Woolworths. Wasn't there a record store there, too? Bought lots of albums in the basement at Murphy's, next to the pet section. The Plaza was the place where most teenagers got summer jobs. Mine were at the Harlem-Cermak Cinema, Sears, and Penneys.

    In the early 80's there were "concerts" in front of Murphy's, and the advertisements suggested to "bring your favorite lawn chair." We still laugh about that

    This is a "most excellent" history lesson. What a wonderful memory you have---thanks for making me remember what I had forgotten.

  15. I grew up in Cicero and have so many memories about Cermak plaza. I never got so sick as eating french fries, grape soda and lemon mirange(?) pie at the Murphy's counter one night:0). My Dad let me get any thing I wanted that evening. You write a wonderful blog. I will be sending this to my family to enjoy. I still go there regularly to the stores that are left.

  16. Peter – Thanks so much, glad that this brought back some good memories! What a different era it was – imagine a “two lunch counter” shopping center today – they just don’t exist! And of course, my brothers and I saw many movies at the Harlem-Cermak Cinema.

    I remember those concerts in the early 1980’s (“bring your favorite lawn chair” –those were the days!), but never did attend one personally. Of course, now I wish I had. I know that Frankie Valli, not too far removed from his career-reviving theme song from “Grease” performed there, but I know there were other well-known acts who played it as well. Thanks again!

    Kathy – I really appreciate that, thanks! Sounds like your Dad took a bad situation and turned it into a good memory – that’s a wonderful thing.

    I’ll bet you avoided that food combination the next time you went to Murphy’s, though! ;)

  17. Looks like Cermak Plaza is getting an Face-lift!


  18. Anonymous - Yes, and it’s about time, let’s hope they do it right! I was up there on business a couple of weeks ago and was really encouraged by something I saw –They have poured brand new concrete curbing around the base of the two classic 1957 signs. Hopefully, that means they’re going to stay!

  19. Another one of David W. Bermant's strip malls is being renovated/redeveloped. It's Northgate Plaza in Greece, NY (a suburb of Rochester). Oddly enough, this place never had any artwork on display. An indoor shopping mall that Mr. Bermant also developed in Greece had tons of art sculptures on display both indoors and outdoors! It was called Long Ridge Mall. Sadly, Long Ridge was completely remodeled in 1993-94 and was connected to Greece Towne Mall to form what is today's Mall at Greece Ridge. Most of the art sculptures were destroyed and thrown away! I have in my possession the Electric Ball Circus by George Rhoads. That was a kinetic ball sculpture, similar to a Rue Goldberg machine. Anyway, sorry for being off topic lol.

  20. You didn't mention the cleaners next to Sears that had the live monkeys in their window. As a kid, I always stopped to look at the two monkeys on my way to the Burny Brothers bakery. Plus, Murphy's had the greatest comic book rack, and the Walgreen's restaurant had the best ice cream sundaes.

  21. Oh, and one more thing. Every year, the JC Penny's store would celebrate their anniversary with a huge birthday cake. Everyone who came in would get a free piece of cake and some pieces contained prizes.

  22. Tony - That's all news to me. Great stuff - Thanks!!

  23. Thanks for your history of Cermak Plaza. I remember being in that Peter Pan and hearing Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman" on the jukebox for the first time. I'll be adding a link to here when I post my video of the new wind turbines.

  24. Mike - Thanks very much, and please do send us a link when you post your video of the new wind turbines. I checked them out a few months back when I was most recently in the area. Good to see Cermak Plaza continuing to innovate! I imagine with the new upgrades and the addition of Meijer it will see more prosperity than it has in decades.

    What a cool story about your first hearing of the Dylan song at the Peter Pan! If you're like me, I'll bet the place comes back to mind every time you hear it. I'm hoping Santa (i.e. my wife) brings me the Dylan CD box set (his first eight albums in mono) for Christmas. I'm a huge fan!

  25. in dec.of 1956 as a 13 year old boy me and my girlfriend anita along with my cousin sonny and his girlfriend madonna on a cold dark dreary snowy day took the bus from cermak and central in cicero to the newly formed cermak plaza.i had a $ 5 bill in my pocket to spend on my girlfreind anita.
    when we arrived i was in awe,i never seen so many stores in all my life.the girls went their way and me and my cousin went ours ( to buy wonderful expensive gifts for our main squeeze's )if i remember right i bought anita a evening in paris perfume set and my cousin bought madonna a cool sweater.we saved enuf to take the bus back into cicero and to stop by the villas sweet shop on cermak & central and have a cherry coke ( 2 straws ).
    yup,those were the days !( wonder what ever happen to those girls ? )

  26. I bought my first bike at Sears in 1962.
    Cost $79, not much more at Wal-Mart today.
    My mom would take me to J.C.Penney for shoes,
    about $12 in the 60's.
    I moved to Florida in 1973, haven't been back
    since. I bet the change in the area is incredible.

  27. I worked at GC Murphy deli in 1971-72 while in high school. The corner restaurant was still a Peter Pan Snack Shop even then. I remember they had individual juke boxes in each booth and at the lunch counter (!). I used to play Rolling Stones songs while I ate my burger and got nasty looks from the older folks at the counter.