Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Old Town neighborhood in Chicago was 'hip' in the 1960s and 'cool' in the 70s. The history includes over 50 photos and a full 2 hour Miles Davis 1965 concert at the Plugged Nickel.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area was known as "Cabbage Patch" from the German immigrants that grew potatoes, celery, and cabbages on the marshy land. The area was then called "North Town" (Not Nortown) as it straddled North Avenue, which at that time, was the northern boundary of Chicago.

Old Town didn’t officially become "Old Town" until the 1940s and is a neighborhood in the Near North Side community. During World War II, the triangular area bordered by North Avenue, Clark Street, and Ogden Avenue, which ran up to Lincoln Park until the 1960s, was designated a “neighborhood defense unit” by the Chicago Civil Defense Corps.
NOTE: According to a 2008 Tribune article, Old Town is bounded by Division Street (south) to Armitage Avenue (north), and Clark Street (west) to Halsted Street (east).
The “Old Town” name was used again in 1948 when the same area residents formed the Old Town Triangle Association.

After the war was over, the neighbors maintained the spirit of their community by sponsoring popular annual art fairs they called the “Old Town Holiday," which later became the Old Town Art Fair.

Wells Street is Old Town's main street. In an age when people were fleeing the city for the suburbs and then urban renewal was leveling nearby areas, local small business owners dug in and Old Town became a medley of bohemian artists, trendy shops, flashy tourist spots, bars and taverns, and lots of restaurants. In the late-60s, Old Town became Chicago's hippie haven.
Maiden Lane at 1525 N. Wells Street, a shopping center that fits almost none of the conventional ideas of what a shopping center should look like opened May of 1966 with space for 20 shops. Maiden Lane was once a garage owned by Henry Susk of Susk Pontiac. Susk found the garage was being surrounded by the gift shops, antique stores, restaurants, and bistros that have changed the character of North Wells. He decided the building could be remodeled to create the atmosphere of the Old Maiden Lane section of London. A "lane" now runs thru the center of the building, lined with small shops reminiscent of London. Old English gaslights add to the illusion. Near the rear of the building the lane widens into a square with a fountain.

Frank C. Wells, senior vice president of L.J. Sheridan & Company, Maiden Lane's leasing agent, said this may be one of the smallest shopping centers the firm has ever assisted in developing and leasing, but it is also one of the most interesting. Actually, Wells pointed out, Maiden Lane follows the latest concepts of shopping center design, including a heated covered mall, outstanding shopper circulation, and distinctive architecture. There are no giant department stores there, but you will find Granny's Toy shop, the Tye shop, the Smugglers Gift shop, Wiggery, and other interesting shops.

Piper’s Alley was opened in November of 1965 by Rudolph Schwartz and Jack Solomon, owners of the five buildings making up the 15 shops that once made up Piper’s Bakery and stables.
A giant Tiffany lamp hung outside the entrance to the maze of unusual retail shops.
The businesses (during different periods of time) in Piper's Alley had names like the Bratskellar, Bustopher Jones Boutique, the Peace Pipe, "In" Sanity party goods store, the Glass Unicorne, Jack B. Nimble Candle Shop; Off the Hook decorator items, the Hair Shoppe, Aardvark Cinematheque movie theatre, the Caravan handcrafts store, Personal Posters instant immortality - photos to poster in 15 minutes, Charlie's General Store, Volume 1 Book Shop, the Jewelry Shop, Arts international Gallery, the Flypped Disc record store, the Sweet Tooth old fashioned candy, La Piazza Restaurant, Peace Pipe, Design India, Poor Richards, Male M1 Men's Shop, the Hungry Eye, Two Brothers, and Ye Olde Farm House restaurant. That Steak Joynt was said to be haunted as customers and staff members reported bizarre, supernatural experiences there for years. Customers walked down a brick alley lined with antique lamps.
Charlies General Store
La Piazza in Pipers Alley, 1967
La Strada Restaurant in Piper's Alley, 1965
Besides the restaurants in Piper's Alley, other Old Town choices included the Chances R restaurant, famous for their burgers and allowing you to throw the peanut shells on the floor. The restaurant's name reflected the uncertainty of this first location in Old Town. "Chances are we could go broke," the owners reportedly said among themselves.
Chances R Interior
The Pickle Barrel restaurant offered a small barrel of pickles and a bowl of popcorn at every table and a balloon artist wandering around the restaurant. The Fireplace Inn restaurant and bar featuring charcoal broiled ribs, steaks, seafood.


There was the Paul Bunyan restaurant, bakery (home of the 12" cookie) and Buzz Saw Bar, the Golden Dragon Cantonese restaurant, the Stage Coach Restaurant and Snack Shop, The Pup Room - Red Hots and Hamburgers restaurant, Beef & Bourbon restaurant, La Strada restaurant, Old Town Rib Shack, and least we forget Lum's Restaurant which was on the southwest corner of North Avenue and Wells Street.
It was home to the famed Second City Theater, Uno's Bizzare Bazzar head shop, The Fudge Pot, the Town Shop, Madge women's clothing store, Parlor Jewelry, a penny candy shop, the Wick-ed Shoppe - a candle store, and the Man at Ease - men's clothing store, Old Town Gate, the Old Town Auction House, the Oriental Gift Shop, Toptown clothing, Old Town Shop, The What Not Shop, and the Old Town Aquarium.
The Fig Leaf and Paper Dress Store.

The original Crate and Barrel store was on Wells Street where they displayed the glasses and dishware in wooden barrels and crates filled with straw.
The House of Horror was a spooky, creepy place for a kid to see. I had nightmares.
House of Horrors was close to Lum's, across the street from the Emporium.
The Royal London Wax Museum (figures by Josephine Tussaud) was at 1419 N. Wells Street and included lifelike figures of Chicagoans Ernie Banks, Hugh Hefner, Al Capone and the St. Valetines Day Massacre, and figures from the Civil War. The Chamber of Horrors featured replicas of Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein while the fantasy room contained Pinocchio, Cinderella, Rip Van Winkle and Alice in Wonderland.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum at 1500 N. Wells Street opened with a party on the evening of November 21, 1968. Reportedly, more than 500 people showed up. Visitors were greeted with an optical illusion in the lobby. A giant floating faucet seemingly suspended in mid-air, the faucet spilled out a thick and endless flow of water into a pebbly pond. It was a simple illusion. A tall, transparent pipe held the faucet in place at the nozzle, blasting water upwards that immediately gushed back down the sides covering the pipe.
Photo not from the Chicago Ripley's Believe it or Not!
The Chicago branch contained 13 galleries. It included a circus room with its various freaks and mutations as well as replicas of Cleopatra's barge, a man who lived to be 160 years old and a mummified monk. The museum closed in 1987 and auctioned off its exhibits.
The Earl of Old Town Cafe & Pub at 1615 N. Wells Street was the fabled club that came to epitomize the Chicago folk scene and honed such home-grown talent as Steve Goodman, John Prine and Bonnie Koloc opened in 1962. Owner Earl Pionke didn't introduce music, however, until 1966. Several years later, Pionke opened a larger club, the Earl of Old Town on Harlem in Norridge. It closed four years later when the folk boom petered out. In late 1983 Pionke switched to a blues format and changed the name of the club to Blues at the Earl. And there was the Old Town School of Folk Music. Mother Blues, the Purple Cow, the Crystal Pistol, Quiet Knight and the Plugged Nickel were other very popular music venues.
LIVE - Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel Club, Old Town, Chicago, Illinois.
December 22, 1965
1st Set [1:20]

2nd Set [1:08]

Steve Goodman Live at the Earl of Old Town, Chicago, Illinois. (date unknown)
Lincoln Park Pirates

Old Town also catered to the under 21 crowd with dance clubs; Judy's Juniors, Like Young and My Sister's Place.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


The Fire at Piper's Alley, March 1, 1971.
On Wednesday, August 26, a fire ignited inside of a grease chute above the kitchen in Adobo Grill on Wells Street in Old Town. The fire spread to the building housing The Second City, a comedy club and school of improvisation, destroying offices and memorabilia from alumni. Months after the accident, the community is still cleaning up the mess.
Firemen said all the shops on the first floor suffered smoke and water damage. The buildings were estimated to be worth $1½ to $2 million dollars.
On top of repairing fire damage, Second City is enduring construction in part of an expansion. Building onto what used to be the movie theaters in Piper's Alley, they have gutted all that and put in new stages. The expansion of Second City will be huge. 


Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Holy Name of Mary grammar school went to the Wax Museum and Ripley's every year. When I got to high school, I ventured into places such as Bizarre Bazaar and The Smuggler for t-shirts, black light posters, and strawberry rolling papers. I had some of the best times of my younger life in Old Town including many a late night at the Golden Dragon after Dingbat's on McClurg Court closed at 2:00am. The Dragon was open until 5:00. Sweet memories.

  2. Great photos. I used to work at a store called The Man At Ease, 1701 N. Wells in the late 60's and early 70's and my brothers ex-father-in-law had a paper dress store in Pipers Alley.

    1. Man At Ease is mentioned in this article. Do you remember the Paper Dress Store's name Steve Bell?

    2. Yes, I thought it would catch on and would have paper everything.

    3. Our first date was at the Fire Place Inn. That would be January 1968

    4. Hello Steve. You probably don't remember me, but I worked at The Man at Ease with you briefly in 1969, along with George Azelickis and Jerry Botham and various others. Now I teach English in Austin.
      John Robey

  3. Again a great article Neil. Brought back so many memories.

  4. I was so surprised and excited to read your blog. Moved to Chicago from California and happy to be here.I want to see "old town " thanks for the memories.

  5. Replies
    1. My family lived in Chicago 1965 to 1968 and I remember loving going to Paul Bunyan for their big chocolate chip cookies I was 5 at the time. Lol

  6. I loved going to Old Town and Piper's Alley in the late 60's. I bought a paper dress there and also huge paper flowers. And I loved watching the glass blower through the window as he made all his creations. I purchased a pair of green glass elephant earrings in Piper's Alley. In Old Town I purchased a suede fringed vest. I was in high school at the time and wore my suede choker and peace love beads. Good times for sure.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful memories. I used to go to a small store on the south end of Old Town called "The What Not Shop" . A wonderful place to wander. You never knew what you might discover there.

  8. Wow. Memories! I first worked at Bizarre Bazaar in about 1974. Then at the Hair Place and also a jewelry store also owned by Sherman across from the restaurant on the south side of Piper's Alley, before the swinging doors. Robin was a waiter there and I'd eat a baked potato every day for lunch. I still have a red glass tulip candleholder from the candle shop inside and ran into Sinclair a couple of years ago at an O'BAnion's reuniion on the west side.

  9. My dad used to love to sing at Punchinillos (sp?) don't see any photos of it ? I thought it was in Old Town / Piper's Alley area ????

    1. Punchinilos I believe was on Rush st near Oak st

  10. any more pictures of 'OLD TOWN GATE" Earls 1st pub & his main stay was Earl of Old Town, interested in any more photos of old town gate......not many were around.

  11. Does anyone remember a clothing boutique on the west side of wells st just north of schiller? I can't remember the name.

    1. House of Lewis? sold the latest in fashions back in the 60's & 70's

  12. I remember nearby hangouts like the Store and the Spirit of 76 (later Mother's Love); I'm sure they've been replaced by other hangouts now...

    1. I believe the chocolate chip cookies were humongous at 12 inches in diameter.

  13. The "mod" fashions of the Man at Ease store made me a hit back in my suburban high school.

  14. The late great jazz guitarist Be Bop Sam Thomas told me he played at the Plugged Nickel with John Klemmer saxophone back then 1960s


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is rated PG-13. Please comment accordingly.
Comments not on the articles topic will be deleted as well as advertisements.