Learning how to “read” architecture can tell you a lot about a building, a block, or a neighborhood. Architecture has the ability to capture a moment in history in concrete and glass, then tell the story of that moment to future generations.
An interesting story can be read in the building at 3325 North Southport Avenue. Southport Lanes looks like many of the thousands of neighborhood watering holes scattered around the city, but there’s more to it than most.
On the outside, you can see it’s one of Chicago’s five remaining “Schlitz taverns,” designed by architect Emil Frohmann. These were bars opened by the Schlitz Brewing Company around the turn of the 20th century because the Milwaukee brew had a hard time getting its beer sold in working class German neighborhoods. Since it couldn’t get into existing bars, it opened its own bars, complete with giant metal Schlitz globe logos on the facades. Federal law now prohibits breweries from operating bars.
But that’s only half the story. Or even just a third. The rest is inside, where the bar has its own four-lane bowling alley. And not the miniature kind you sometimes see in taverns in the northwoods of Wisconsin — this is real, full-sized bowling.
The bowling alley opened some time after 1920, as Prohibition was taking force, and bars looked for non-alcoholic methods of staying in business. According to building permits, the space where the bowling alley is now used to be a small theater, and it’s not hard to imagine dancing girls shaking their can-cans in that space during the Roaring 20’s in Chicago. When the city dried up, according to neighborhood legend, Southport Lanes operated as a speakeasy, and hosted weekly poker games in a secret room for Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.
While that piece of folklore may be impossible to prove, there is evidence pointing to the veracity of another tale: That the second floor of Southport Lanes was used as a brothel. A dumbwaiter connecting the bar area to the second floor still exists, and is thought to have been used to deliver libations to the clients upstairs. The mural of classical nude women over the bar may have been a subtle method of advertising the clandestine services. A similar painting, looking over the bowling alley, is a modern-day interpretation of the theme. The lack of nudity is a dead giveaway that the second one was created recently.
To make the switch from Vaudeville to bowling may seem strange by modern standards, but at the time it would have been a natural progression. Bowling was seen as a healthy, wholesome family activity, not the nicotine-stained netherworld of booze and sadness it would become in later years. Bowling was such an important means of social interaction that many churches installed bowling alleys in their basements. There are still a number of church bowling alleys remaining in Chicago today, though in many cases they have been planked over and made into day care or storage facilities.
In the 1940’s, Southport Lanes expanded with an addition at 1347 Henderson Street. Today, this portion of the bar is the billiards room, and has an impressive pressed tin ceiling and period-inspired chandeliers. This room, too, may have had a nefarious past. Some believe that its original purpose was to house a numbers running operation (read: “illegal horse betting operation” for you kids out there). During a renovation in the 1990’s, more than 100 phone lines were discovered running into the room. It is suspected that they once connected bookies directly to racetracks. Also note that this room appears to have originally been windowless, with the fenestration you see today added at a later date. In addition, a craps table was discovered built into the end of the bar. It has since been removed.
In terms of legal sports, it is believed that this is the last bowling alley in Chicago that still employs pin boys, and one of a scarce few sanctioned by the American Bowling Congress. There are ten other manually-set A.B.C. bowling alleys in other parts of the country, but this is the only one in the Midwest.
Instead of a complicated machine behind the scenes resetting the knocked-over pins, actual real live people are back there setting up the next frame. For some players, this adds to the historic appeal. For others, it adds to their score, because a dollar bill placed in a bowling ball’s thumb hole can sometimes mysteriously make extra pins tumble over.
According to a few articles published in the last 20 years, the building dates to 1922. However, Cook County records indicate it was actually built in 1881, which would put it more in line with the time frame when Schlitz was erecting these tap houses. Some of the confusion may be because the bar’s original name when it opened was The Nook, and it changed its name to Southport Lanes after the bowling alley was added.
According to a Chicago Sun-Times article, other regional beers also had their own bars around town, and tried hard to have interesting architecture in order to make them appear more respectable. We haven’t seen any of these other brand-owned taverns, so if you have one in your neighborhood leave information in the comment box below.