The period of time after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which tore through and destroyed more than three square miles of the burgeoning Midwest city, was a time of great and furious rebuilding. By 1874, upon the former ashes and debris, a large, heavily-ornamented building arrived on bustling Clark Avenue, just a touch north of the city’s center. Designed by prominent local architect Julius H. Huber, the building stood on the corner of Clark and Ontario (listed by the original Chicago street numbers as 160 to 170 N. Clark), and was called Brand’s Hall (history has made it difficult to determine who exactly “Brand” was). It advertised itself as a “Hall to Rent for All Occasions,” and it did just that, serving as a popular, conveniently located space for conventions, parties, meetings, and near-nightly dances.
Author H.W. Lytle describes Brand’s in detail: “The rental is extremely reasonable and the hall can be secured at a much lower cost than that attendant upon the engagement of much smaller halls of the city. The hall is situated on Clark street, the main thoroughfare of the north side, two doors south of Erie street and owes much of its popularity to its convenient location.” Its boozy, late-night dances, Lytle writes, earned the hall the nicknames “the Panic” and the “Madhouse.”
Over the next 50 years, every night would find something unique at Brand’s. In 1879, German newspaper publisher Charles Francis Pietsch began organizing regular performances there of some of the first chamber music concerts in Chicago, while in that same 1879, the Inter Ocean paper reports that the hall “An Important Event in the Jewish Society of the North Division,” a double marriage between Rosa Eisendrath and Emanuel Weil, and Rosa Weil and Levi Eisendrath - “an arrangement that united in marriage the brother and sister of one family to the sister and brother of another.” April 19th, 1882 found, under the auspices of the Ford Land League of the Seventeenth Ward, a party to celebrate Ireland’s Centennial, which the Chicago Tribune reports was “an exceedingly pleasant affair.” On the evening of October 29th, 1896, Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan endured a marathon sprint of stops throughout Illinois in a single day, ending on his 21st speech of the day at Brand’s Hall before heading on to Wisconsin and ultimately toward not winning the presidency. The Swedish Svithiod Singing Club performed there regularly throughout the late 1880s, the Luxembourger Independent Club held numerous banquets (“N. Gonner, the editor of the Luxemburger Gazette of Dubuque, Iowa spoke about Luxembourg’s independence. For his riveting speech he was rewarded with thunderous applause.”) and it was a popular venue for seeing both boxing and wrestling (the December 6, 1906 match between Charles Rogers and Charles Delivuk ended as Rogers “used half Nelsons to dispatch the 180-pound Delivuk in 17 and 24 minutes, respectively”).
Outside of its daily bread and butter as an event space, Brand’s Hall's fame, however, was largely rooted in politics, namely in its association with labor groups. By the early 1890s, the hall hosted events like the June 7, 1893 meeting of the United States Brewers’ Association, where 800 members arrived to hear updates, including news from the “Vigilance Committee” who “discussed how the prohibition laws in Iowa and Maine were being regularly evaded” and that “the dispensary law of South Carolina received great condemnation.” Writing about an event held at Brand’s for the April 1910 edition of The Mixer and Server: Official Journal of the Hotel & Restaurant Employes (sic) International Alliance and Bartenders International League of America, Local 336 Recording Secretary Jas. Gray writes: “As April 5th is election, we have no fear of Chicago going dry as the Prohibition Party has almost given up their fight. If Chicago ever went dry, I would feel sorry for Local N. 336, as all our members, more or less, serve drinks every day. We haven’t broke in to peddling pine apple sundaes, phosphates and sodas.” Jas. Gray would still have a full decade before things really took a turn on the alcohol front (though likely a bit less painful, seeing as he was in Chicago). In November of 1902, the famous anarchist Emma Goldman was scheduled to speak at Brand’s, which the police promptly threatened to break up if she appeared on stage. So far as we can tell, there’s no follow up on if they did or not.
Brand’s found its way into lasting history on May 1st, 1905, when a group of 183 delegates from 36 states assembled there as part of a meeting deemed the “Continental Congress of the Working Class.” In what was to serve as a direct challenge to the more cautious and more skilled-trade focused unionism of the American Federation of Labor (now more familiarly known as the AFL), the meeting, chaired by William “Big Bill” Haywood, led to the birth of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, focused on organizing “the forgotten unskilled workers.” Haywood, a towering “stoop-shouldered” figure with one working eye (he’d lost the other in a mining accident years before, which prompted his involvement in the cause), said at that meeting: “I do not care a snap of my fingers whether or not the skilled workers join the industrial movement at this time. We are going down into the gutter to get at the mass of workers and bring them up to a decent plane of living.”
Following the founding of the IWW (also still known in shorthand as the “Wobblies”), Brand’s Hall became a go-to home for labor events. Each week, one might find something like the meeting of August 27th, 1905, with every union printer member of Typographical Union No. 16, who worked in the 37 shops controlled by the Chicago Typothetae conglomerate, deciding to go on a week-long strike. Their demands were for an “eight-hour agreement and an agreement closing shops.” To do this, they “raised the stock assessment from 2 to 10 per cent.”
Sometime around 1909, Brand’s briefly became Roosevelt Hall, no doubt due to Teddy Roosevelt’s popularity, with 1909 serving as his final year in office. The chapter “The Tragedy of the Young Mother” from H.W. Lytle’s 1912 book From Dance Hall to White Slavery: The World's Greatest Tragedy describes the scene at the Roosevelt (and from that title, you’d be right to assume there are also descriptions of what went on there, too): “Among the ladies and gentlemen of the Roosevelt Hall persuasion, personal liberties and unwarranted familiarities are the accepted thing, a diversion and, if the vulgarity is acceptable, a ‘leading argument.’” That particular “Tragedy of the Young Mother” story ends with said unwed young mother leaving the Roosevelt after a long night of drinking and dancing, borrowing two dollars, using that money to buy a bottle of cyanide, drinking it on the street and immediately dying because she can’t deal with all of the terrible, immoral decisions she’s made. It isn’t the most subtle text.
Another Roosevelt Hall, this one on the corner of State and Lake, begins to appear in the archives in the early-1910s and then, heavily into the ’20s, so it’s somewhat unclear if the new-former-Brand’s location moved, or just couldn’t face competition from a hall of the same name down the street. Whatever the case, the hall at 160 to 170 Clark (later approximately somewhere in the 638 to 640 N. Clark range, once Chicago changed its street numbering system in 1909) could have possibly become, in its last gasp. Or perhaps it became, briefly, a Taxi-Dance hall whose name was lost to time (a number of which in the neighborhood, a few even just across the street, were shut down in the early-1930s). It may have also become The New Atlas Hotel, from the above scan of a matchbook, which lists its address as 608-665 N. Clark.
Between the 1920s and 1960s, the North Clark corridor remained, depending on your general moral feelings toward it, either a hotbed of entertainment and fun weekend/furlough activity, or an ever-increasing den of debauchery and vice that was raging out of control. Bawdy as they were, the dance halls gave way to even rowdier strip clubs, less-than-hidden brothels, prostitutes on every corner, and bars and liquor stores at every other step. Via Philip Wizenick’s amazing look at a Chicago that looks more like Las Vegas than the Midwest, Clark Street Chicago, Palaces and Dive Bars of the Past, the last photo of the former Brand’s location we’ve found is from likely the late ’40s or early-50s, where you find a bar called the Harp Club, and a liquor store called Hugh Rodgers.
By the ’60s, the neighborhood's heyday was certainly long over. In an effort to cut down on vice in the area, the Tribune reports that, in 1961, “at least 498 building and fire violations were found in five structures by city inspectors in the first day of a crackdown. The wrecking crews found fertile ground.” In a report in the paper from 1968, a store owner in the area says, in what we read as more nostalgia than relief, “Ninety per cent of the girls left the street, and when the girls left, the streets went.” A pair of terrific, they-don’t-write-them-like-that-anymore, long-form stories from the Trib about the area appear, a few years later, from the early 1970s: The Jackroller and The Sad Ballad of Jimmy Lee. The latter opens with the line: “The decayed neighborhood around Clark and Ontario is, at most, a stop light’ worth of Skid Row.”
At some point, likely the early ’60s, the original Brand’s Hall was torn town. The vacant lot became a Texaco service station, then a Union 76 in the ’70s. From there, it sat, its history no more. In 1994, after twenty-some odd years of bulldozing, refining, and new construction gentrification, it became Portillo’s, a popular hot beef and hot dog restaurant, across the street from the tourist trap Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s and just a half-block away from a Rainforest Cafe.
Amazingly, though Brand’s Hall has now been gone for more time than it existed, you can see its two immediate neighbors, built at the same time in the 1870s,which still stand today. Erie Furniture bought the buildings next door (and may have bought the whole block, including Brand’s) in the early 1920s (their phone number in 1922 was Sup9794). They transitioned into Erie Clothing and Erie Shoes, after finding clothes were apparently more lucrative than the furniture business. Following that, the shoe store became the German American Restaurant, where (”the most expensive thing on the menu was steak, at $2.50”) and next door became Morris Clothing (with its slogan, “60 Seconds from State”), which it remained until 1980, when it went out of business. Both buildings sat empty for some time, though today, in one of the more expensive pieces of real estate in Chicago, you’ll find a “rustic gastropub” called Stout and a boutique yoga and workout business called Studio Three (where you don’t need to “stress if you forgot your yoga mat”).
And that just about covers at least the first 142 or so years of this corner.