Mondelli's Lounge and the condofication of Chicago
I haven’t always been “anti-condo”. We adored living in the old building on 14th and Michigan, which was once the first private hospital in Chicago, even though it sometimes felt like living in a museum. The condo board protected the original marble floors and 16' tall windows to annoying excess. Moving furniture in and out required a permit, a lecture on conservation, and hefty fee. We’d often have to maneuver, with arms full of groceries, around groups of architectural tourists to get into the building. But doing these things felt right. It was the price we paid for the privilege of living in a bit of history.
Unfortunately though, less than six months after we moved to 14th and Michigan, the earth-shaking rumble of pile drivers started waking us up every morning. In 2005, the city of Chicago limited the number of allowed condo conversions in existing buildings, so developers started leveling entire blocks of the South Loop. Glorious, old buildings on all sides of us were being destroyed, and it felt like a personal attack. When you live in a city, your neighborhood is as much a part of your home as the furniture inside your four walls.
Sadly, it turns out that Chicago has a long history of destroying its architectural history. In 1972, Richard Nickel, an architectural photographer, died while hurrying to photograph historic Chicago buildings before they were demolished. He was in Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange building when the ceiling came crashing down on him and his camera. An article published in the New York Times a few years ago called Chicago a “battleground” in the “preservation-versus-development debate,” and unfortunately the stalled economy isn’t slowing the destruction down. This past year, the eleven downtown blocks of Michigan Avenue were placed on The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2008 List of Most Endangered Historic Places.
This is all very sad, but I can honestly, and perhaps embarrassingly, say that it didn’t hit home to me until one afternoon when I needed a drink. I headed straight for Mondelli’s, my favorite bar, only to find a crane swinging a wrecking ball into the building. I cried right there on the corner of Oak and State. It truly broke my heart.
Mondelli’s was rumored to be the smallest bar in Chicago, but what it lacked in size it made up for in character. Old Chicago gangster photos lined the walls and busboys shuttled hot and delicious pastas in from the old-school Italian restaurant next door. The raspy-voiced bartenders ditched the typical mini-skirt and boob-revealing uniform and wore sweatpants, 80’s mom jeans, or whatever they felt like wearing. They made a killer drink called the “espresso martini,” and playing the widest variety of good music you could imagine.
Because it was such a small bar, you would eventually end up talking with the folks around you. My favorite regular parked his Harley on the sidewalk right next to the front door and always wore a black leather vest that read “National Hair Piece Designing Champion” across the back, and he wasn’t some poser hipster. He actually was a Harley-riding National Hair Piece Designing Champion.
I’m not quite sure how such colorful individuals managed to find this place in a neighborhood filled with uppity boutiques and trendy night-clubs. It was our own little misfit island, and that’s why I adored it. This place was my Cheers, so it seemed only fitting that it was the last place I visited when our family left Chicago for a new life in California. My husband waited in the loaded-down Honda while I placed a small commemorative plaque and a bouquet of flowers along the fence around the construction site.
The guys on the demolition crew were surprisingly open to my memorial. Several of them asked me about the bar and even told me about their favorite watering holes. I had previously found perverse pleasure in vilifying the workers, but after ten minutes of talking with them, I realized that they were just doing their job. The foreman promised me that my plaque would hang on the fence for the rest of the day, and I got a little sense of comfort knowing that those men knew that the building they demolished was special and that the land they cleared for condos was loved.
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