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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Main & Chicago Ave in Evanston IL - A Historic Piece of Real Estate; GONE

I am not sentimental about buildings. There are architechtural masterpieces that qualify as works of art, and then there are old buildings that are not especially beautiful. The two-story commercial building at the corner on Main Street and Chicago Avenue in Evanston was not a stunning architechtural gem. But the old structure had some serious history. It is now gone, torn down, a hole in the ground waiting to be filled by another nine-story, 71 unit generic condo building. The new building will be uglier and taller than the old building. Condo prices in the new "Main Street Station" development range from $299,000 to $540,000. With the decline in the real estate market, I am not sure these units will be absorbed quickly. Maybe the folks that really want to be close to the CTA elevated and METRA trains will shell out for these condos, but I doubt it.

So lets talk about The Main, as the old building was once known in my neighborhood.

Yes, it was a squat, unattractive structure, but it was old. I guess that it was built prior to 1900. It had a few decorative touches, but it was a pretty basic building that covered an entire block. In the early 1970's, a local real estate developer, Ed Noonan, decided to renovate the old girl and turn it into a shopping complex. This did not turn out to be a mall, however - the original structure was retained, the mechanical systems were updated, and the floor plan was altered to provide space for a variety of retail establishments on the first floor. Office space for various professionals (doctors, dentists, lawyers, massueses, etc.) was available on the second floor. Ed pulled off a rare real estate project, improved an old building and the neighborhood was better for it. He named the new shopping center "The Main." It was cool.

Shortly after the re-opening of The Main, a locally-famous and controversial tenant moved in. Amazingrace was a coffeehouse/collective that was born in 1970 on the Northwestern campus. It was awash in the hippie ethos of the time (leftist philosophy, organic food, folk music, communal living, etc.). Amazingrace and the university had a falling out, and the performance activities of the collective moved to The Main in 1974. Amazingrace became one of the best music venues in the Chicago area - and maybe the world - for three years. The collective expanded from folk into jazz, blues, soul and rock. In addition to Bonnie Koloc and Jim Post, Amazingrace hosted Luther Allison, The Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gary Burton, Jean Luc Ponty and the Grateful Dead. I saw Charlie Mingus there in late 1976, shortly after I arrived in Evanston from Berkeley CA. The Amazingrace space in The Main was unique - there were no food and drinks served (it didn't have a kitchen), and if I remember right, there were no seats. Patrons sat on a series of carpet-covered risers/steps that surrounded the stage. It was an awesome club, but it was run by anti-business/anti-profit hippies who were always bickering with each other. They fell behind on their rent, and the new owner of the building booted them out. A convenience store took over the Amazingrace space.....

Another wonderful business in The Main was the Main Cafe - a classic "breakfast all day" diner that is the mark of a quality neighborhood. The Main Cafe lasted quite a while - I think it was still operating in the early 1990's. The owners had the good fortune to receive the first license to operate a liquor store in Evanston (which is thriving on Davis Street); the diner business looked less exciting than selling hootch to thirsty college kids. I think there was a fire at the Main Cafe that precipitated its closing, but it has been gone for fifteen years now.

Travel agencies, carpet emporiums, optometrists, pizza joints, health clubs, and miscellaneous clothing retailers have all called The Main home through the years. And yes, the condo building will have first floor retail space, but it will probably charge higher rents, which means larger, higher volume venues (I am thinking that a Cosi's is coming to my neighborhood soon).

At one time, the intersection of Main and Chicago Avenue in Evanston was anchored by The Main, a nice old bank building, a convenient parking lot and the old Main Newstand. Now we have two butt-ugly condominium buildings and a construction site. Well, at least we still have the old newstand.

It is not an improvement to the area, that's for sure.

I understand that it makes sense to concentrate housing units around the mass transit spokes. I understand that folks like that "condo lifestyle" and they want to live in Evanston - close to Chicago but with suburban amenities. But the Chicago Avenue corridor from Dempster to South Boulevard is now choked with monstrous condo builidings that look like they were designed by the 1960's Soviet Union School of architecture. Why has this "progress" been so damned ugly?


Anonymous said...

Thanks Mr. G. I too live in the neighborhood, have seen you play at Bill's, and often see you catching the Metra at Main.

I've been meaning for a long time to send photos of this now-hideous corner to the Review, not that anyone would really care, just to ask, "have we reached our ugly condo quota yet?" How many will it take? Chicago Ave in Southeast Evanston is starting to look like a 50's suburb of Moscow.

Sadly, I never got to experience Amazing Grace, which friends remember fondly. I was an east coaster, seeking out similar vibes in coffee houses in Marblehead and Cambridge, Mass, so I can definitely imagine the scene and shared energy that must have filled the place.

That time will never be again, but the good folks over at SPACE at Chicago and Dempster are trying to recreate some of it at least. It's a great venue for music, though with seats, tables, and fancy named beers being poured. The millennial answer to Amazing Grace perhaps.

Mr. G said...

Hey, thanks for your comment. I am impressed that you are digging into the back pages of my blog!

Yup, that hole at Main & Chicago won't be filled for a while. Its ugly now, but it could be uglier later.

Poke me and say "hi" the next time you see me, and tell me your name. I like to chat with my neighbors.

Take Care.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I am sad. I spent my formative high school years working at the Slipped Disc! The fab record store right next to Grace. Remember we would stay open till after the club closed every night? If it wasn't for The Main I would never have met my husband... one of those radical Hippie "Gracers", Herbie. Sad to hear that old classic building is gone.
Thanks for the great blog and the great memories.

Anonymous said...

Do I have the correct building ... Main Street and Chicago Avenue in Evanston? I used to work at Well's Drug Stone on the corner for 60 cents an our in 1965. Mr. Wells used to send me to the Toddle House to get his dinner. A "new" bank, the news paper stand and an IRS office on the other three corners? I'll have to take a walk thru the area next time I'm in town.

Richard said...

i saw Pat Metheney, Alex Degrassi, Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, among others and still have the ticket stubs!!!...there were no seats...just carpet and a few risers...they did have juice and water. What a venue!!Thanks for remembering!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about The Main. I used to live in the apartment building that was within it, through the courtyard, and loved the atmosphere. It was quiet without seeming lifeless. And yes, the Main Cafe was indeed still there in the early 1990s.

Elizabeeth said...

Mr. G., I always loved the varieties of buildings in Evanston. Shortly before I left in 1986, a large estate was "developed" into "macmansions" supposedly in the style of the estate but it was so sad--and so not-Evanston. I came across your page while hunting for some of the old music venues (the Coliseum, places in Old Town, and Amazing Grace). Thanks for this piece on the Main.

Mr. G said...

Elizabeeth, thanks for digging in to the archives of my somewhat neglected blog. Evanston is a changing community; it is becoming more urban every year. The Main remains a vacant lot for now. The popping of the real estate bubble killed the project. At least we have a patch of green in the 'hood for a while...

Mr. G

Anonymous said...

The Wells Pharmacy on the corner had a soda fountain where you could get a cherry coke (or chocolate coke), and a little further North on Chicago avenue was Eddy's Bicycle Shop, where you could get bikes repaired along with parts to do it yourself. He was always in the back (a lot of rumors).
There was also a barber shop on Main east of the pharmacy, basic cuts with wax stick in front.
I used to live 3 doors down from the owners of the pharmacy.
We used to stop at the Toddle House on Chicago Ave walking on the way back from the movies (Varsity or Valencia) and get a burger and a coke.