Thursday, November 10, 2016

Lost Communities of Chicago - Towertown

Towertown was a Chicago neighborhood on the near north side. It derives its name from the Chicago Avenue Water Tower, the now historic landmark at Chicago Avenue and upper Michigan Avenue, which was the district's center. Today's Gold Coast neighborhood.
Towertown, Chicago. (post-1871 fire)

Towertown's boundaries are hard to define and were established partly by the presence of the wealthy Gold Coast to the east (Streeterville neighborhood), and what was called Little Hell, Little Sicily (now Cabrini-Green neighborhood) to the west, Division Street on the north, and it ends abruptly at Grand Avenue on the south. 

State Street was the main north-south road, and Chicago Avenue bisects it from east to west. Its main drags included Wabash Avenue, Ohio, Erie, Huron, Superior, Pearson, Chestnut, and State Streets. 

An art colony took root in Towertown when Anna and Lambert Tree built "Tree Studios" to tempt artists to stay in Chicago after the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. The "Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts" at Dearborn and Oak Streets opened in 1895 and was a mecca for all kinds of artists, and it's still operating.
The Three Arts Club at 1300 N Dearborn Parkway, Chicago, in Towertown. Started in 1912, the Club was chartered to provide a home and a club for young women engaged in the practice or study of the arts in Chicago, keeping them safe from the bad influences of the Towertown neighborhood.
No one has ever identified Towertown's first pioneers, but the numbers of bohemians began reaching a critical mass before World War I. Their early ranks included quite a few painters of respectable, if not widely recognized, talent. 
Bohemians lived as far west as LaSalle Street or in fringy areas outside Towertown proper.

The genesis of Towertown was cheap housing. Walkup apartment houses, shabby old subdivided mansions, and former stables were carved into tiny studio flats. Nearby were cheap cafeterias and lunchrooms that provided the other sustaining essentials. 

As the area around the Water Tower became dense with bohemians, new businesses sprang up to serve them. Among the chief of these were bookstores, tea rooms, coffee houses, art suppliers, and used furniture dealers. There were saloons, too, although few attained any fame. 

The nightclubs in Towertown included the Chez Pierre, the Little Club, and the Tent, all catering to monied outsiders who sought entertainment in the chic and somewhat daring bohemia.

Those seeking something downright raunchy and often illegal headed west for Clark Street, frequented by gamblers, prostitutes, dime-a-dance devotees, and underworld dandies. Liquor, music, and lovemaking came cheaply on Clark Street. "Gin, din, and sin for a fin" were how habitues put it. Still, there was legitimate entertainment in the area. It included productions by such struggling dramatic groups as the Studio Players, the Impertinent Players, and the Jack and Jill Players.
Dill Pickle Club, Chicago, IL.

The most famous Bohemian nightspot was the "Dill Pickle Club" (or Dil Pickle Club) at 10 Tooker Place, Chicago, which was nearly hidden from the outside and was considered a "hole in the wall" in Tooker Alley. The entrance was marked by a "DANGER" sign pointing to the orange main door, lit by a green light. On the door, it read: "Step High, Stoop Low and Leave Your Dignity Outside." Once inside, another sign read "Elevate Your Mind to a Lower Level of Thinking" before entering the central part of the club. Immediately inside was a large main room with a stage. The room was decorated with brightly painted chairs and partially surrounded by counters where drinks and sandwiches were sold. The rest of the club was also decorated by its attendees and contained a tearoom and art exhibitions. Altogether, the club had reported a standing capacity of 700 people. 

Soapbox orators gathered in Bughouse Square (now known as "Washington Square - Google Map) to debate the day's issues. The Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and experimenters in free love took refuge among Towertown's radicals. By the mid-1920s, many of these artists had left Chicago. 

After their departure, according to sociologist Harvey W. Zorbaugh, Towertown became a popular destination for "egocentric poseurs, neurotics, rebels against the conventions of Main Street or the gossip of the foreign community, seekers of atmosphere, dabblers in the occult, dilettantes in the arts, or parties to drab lapses from a moral code which the city had not yet destroyed."

Wanda Stopa
Occasionally, Towertown broke into front-page headlines. One such case was when a brilliant young Polish woman named Wanda Stopa left her mother's house on Augusta Boulevard in 1922 and moved into Towertown. She was Chicago's youngest woman lawyer and an assistant U.S. district attorney whose success seemed assured.

Stopa revealed herself as an emotionally unstable loser after her move to the bohemia neighborhood. She married a man who turned out to be a scoundrel, then fell in love with a wealthy, married advertising executive who conned her, kept her, and eventually shipped her from Towertown to Greenwich Village, New York.

Stopa's short but fiery life ended at age 24 when she tried to shoot her lover's wife at her home in Palos Park but accidentally shot and killed their 65-year-old gardener, Henry Manning, then committed suicide by swallowing poison. The newspapers went crazy over the sensational story, and 10,000 Chicagoans turned out for the funeral. As late as 1947, reporters still turned out retrospectives on Stopa's tragic and tortuous involvements. Naughty Towertown always got its share of the blame too.

Because many artistic young women from small towns came to Chicago to study at the Art Institute and elsewhere, sheltered residential facilities were created to give them an alternative to Towertown's temptations. One of the best of these was the Three Arts Club at 1300 North Dearborn Parkway, founded in 1914 and still in business.

Knowing bohemia's tawdry side and its attractiveness to dilettantes and newly arrived. 
Small-towners, it is easy to forget that Chicago's literary renaissance and confidence in its other successes in the arts were nurtured in Towertown.

One of its most influential figures was Harriet Monroe, the poet who suddenly rose to prominence by writing the "Columbian Ode" to dedicate the Chicago world's fair of 1893. Monroe's greatest success was founding the world-famous "Poetry Magazine" in 1912. As its editor, she was credited with discovering Carl Sandburg when he was writing the "city of the big shoulders" lines that would certify his fame.

Monroe also published T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound, editing her monthly magazine from a Towertown office at 543 Cass Street  (now North Wabash Avenue). The publication still survives, headquartered at 61 West Superior Street, Chicago.

Rising property values driven by the luxury shopping district nearby Michigan Avenue became too pricey for many artists. Towertown became a tourist attraction, further alienating its bohemian denizens. By the Great Depression, the art colony had dispersed. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Enjoyed the article very much. Grew up in Evanston, lived and worked on the north side and in the loop of Chicago and had never heard anything about Towertown before this, very interesting. Sad tale about Wanda Stopa.

  2. I really enjoy hearing about founding women of Chicago that you write about. Both the infamous and the famous. Weird story about Wanda Stopa! Did she grab some poison from the gardener's equipment? What happened to the lover?! The curiosity of it all!
    I never heard about Towertown. Interesting article. Thank you.

  3. I was born and grew up on the near north side (Franklin St) close to where The Walter Peyton Academy is), of Chicago and l, never heard of Towertown before. I found this very fascinating to hear of all the various cultures and things that occurred. And the art school and the residential facilities for the young women. I wonder was Henrotin Hospital there then, too? I imagine that it was. And there was a very small Elementary School close by in that area. The name of it was Sexton, and l May have only been there for one semester. I can’t really remember now.


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