Monday, August 9, 2010

Chicago's Germania Club Building Inches Closer to Landmark Status

I got an e-mail from Alderman Reilly's office  last week about the Germania Club.  I have to admit, I've walked past this building a number of times, but never really noticed it, other than to note that it has one of the nicest, friendliest Starbucks outlets in the area.  Fortunately, others have learned to appreciate the building's architectural merits, so now it's headed for landmark status.

You can read the Alderman's full e-mail below, and download the full landmark report from here: Germania Club PDF.

After almost two years of meetings and negotiations, Alderman Reilly was pleased to finally testify in support of designating the historic Germanic Club a city landmark at the Chicago Commission on Landmarks hearing last Thursday.  Alderman Reilly worked closely with the current owner of the Germania Club and the city Landmarks Division to present a final designation report to the Landmarks Commission.  The grandly-scaled Germania Club Building is located at the corner of Clark Street and Germania Place in the 42nd Ward's Gold Coast/Near North Neighborhood. The final designation was unanimously approved by the Landmarks Commission and their recommendation will be submitted to the full City Council for consideration at the September meeting.
germania club
Built in 1889 by prominent members of Chicago's German-American community, the Germania Club is a structure known today for its distinctive Victorian-era architecture and abundance of ornamental detail - in stark contrast to the immediate surroundings of the postwar high-rises  of Sandburg Village.

Germania Club is architecturally significant, combining Romanesque styling with elements of German Neoclassicism.  The massive walls combine two-stories of alternating smooth and rusticated Bedford limestone serving as the base with deep red brick, terra cotta, and round arches on the top story.  This design epitomized the Romanesque style of architecture particularly common to Chicago during the late 1880-1890's.  Neoclassical details include the pediments, bracketed cornice and portico.

The large third-story windows serve to exaggerate the building's volume, given that its exterior is decorated with rich materials and ornate, picturesque details.  These features made the Germania Club stand out - even during a period when embellished architecture was the norm.  Other prominent features include the pyramidal roof at the southeast corner, the long projecting window bay supported by limestone brackets on the Clark Street elevation, a terra-cotta sculptural panel with figures depicting musical allegory on the Germania Place elevation and a substantial stone porch with classical columns framing the main entrance to the club.
germania panel
In addition to its architectural significance, Germania Club is one of the best-remaining examples of a once-prevalent building type: the local neighborhood club.  The long-standing Chicago tradition of forming clubs and organizations meant that grand-scaled club buildings were a very distinctive part of the city's neighborhood landscape in the late-nineteenth century.  Several well established organizations built and maintained their own buildings, including clubs dedicated to boating, cycling, literature, fine arts and ethnic groups.  The Germania Club served as a focal point for Chicago's German-American community, acting as an important center for German-American cultural, charitable and civic activities.

Other examples of architecturally and historically significant club buildings which still stand today include the Chicago Club at Michigan and Van Buren and Union League Club at 65 W. Jackson Blvd.  However, these buildings were built in the twentieth century, out of the political and business social climate of Chicago's Central Business District.  Germania Club remains distinctive due to its age, neighborhood location and association with a particular ethnic group.

The origin of Germania Club dates back to 1869, when a group of German Civil War veterans, known for performing at various ceremonies, formally incorporated as the Germania Mannerchore (German men's chorus).  In 1886 the club purchased the parcel of land at Clark and Grant (now Germania Place) Streets from Chicago restaurateur Philip Henrici.  It was located in the heart of the oldest and largest settlement of German-Americans in Chicago at the time, and served as the prime location for a new club.  By 1888 the membership of the Germania Mannerchore had raised $100,000 through a private bond issue and hired the architectural firm of Addison and Fiedler to design the new club building.

W. August Fiedler (1843-1903) designed the Germania Club.  He was a partner of the firm Addison and Fiedler, and also a club member.  Fiedler was born in Eblin, Germany, and immigrated to the United States in 1886.  He moved to Chicago in 1874 to participate in the post-'1871 Chicago Fire' boom reconstruction.  Later in his career, Fiedler was appointed as the supervising architect for the Chicago Board of Education where he oversaw the construction of a number of schools, including: Goethe School, 2236 N. Rockwell, 1895; Komensky School, 1925 S. Throop, 1890; McCosh School (now Emmett Till School), 6543 S. Champlain, 1894; Bass School, 1140 W. 66th, 1895; Funston School, 3616 W. Armitage, 1895; and Pickard School, 2301 W. 21st, 1896.

The Germania Club was almost demolished in 1964 along with the Red Star Inn, another German-American landmark across the street from the club, to make way for the Carl Sandburg Development.  Edwin Eckert, Germania Club's president at the time, proclaimed "if we destroy our community landmarks, we will have a city without visible history, citizens without roots and leaders callous to our American heritage."  However, the club was suffering at the time due to rising maintenance costs, lack of parking and the far distance of the club from its mostly (now) suburban membership.

The demolition of the Red Star Inn in 1970 recommitted the Germania Club membership to preserve their building.  Attempts made in the mid-1970s to gain landmark designation for the club were unsuccessful.  The building was threatened again in 1985 with a proposal to build a 45-story residential high-rise on top of the existing structure.  It was eventually bought by commercial developer in 1986 following years of declining membership.  The men's chapter of Germania Club has since dissolved but the women's chapter is still active, although they no longer hold meetings in the building.

Currently, Germania Club's ground floor is home to several businesses and the large main rooms are still intact and are rented for special occasions.  This historic building remains one of the strongest links to Chicago's German-American cultural history.  Many other landmarks such as the Red Star Inn, German Building from the World's Columbian Exposition (demolished, 1925), and the German Opera House/Garrick Theater (demolished 1961), were all identified with Germans in Chicago, but the Germania Club remains - a rare and distinguished touchstone to German heritage.

As an official city landmark, the building would be protected from significant alternation or demolition and be eligible for a variety of tax and financial incentives.  The Commission on Chicago Landmarks' recommended designation involves all exterior elevations, including rooflines of the building and the major historic public interior spaces of the building.

1 comment:

  1. A most welcome development. It is interesting that the club was built in 1886, the same year as Haymarket, which marked a period of intense anti-German prejudice. That it survived the 20th century and its intense anti-Germanism (unlike the Garrick for example) is a wonder . . . or dumb luck.


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