Sunday, May 17, 2020

The History of the Relic House in Chicago.

At the rear of the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society), within a clearing in the bushes, lie unmarked chunks of molten masses of metal. The foliage is pruned just enough to allow the informed person the ability to see the objects hidden within the leaves if they know where to look. Knowing what these objects are is a different issue: no signage or other markers alert the viewer to their provenance. Many people learned of these mysterious artifacts by word of mouth. The reconstituted objects were created by the extreme heat from the 1871 Great Chicago Fire

The Chicago Historical Society acquired these pieces of fire-altered iron, brick, and stone in 1921 as part of a large donation by Chicago candy magnate Charles Frederick Gunther. Gunther, a former director of the Chicago Historical Society, made his fortune from his popular caramel candies and used them to purchase art and historic materials, especially those relating to the Civil War (1861-1865).
The remains from a hardware store, after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, fused into a metal bolder that used to sit outside the main entrance of the Chicago Historical Society.
Perhaps because his own business was destroyed in the Chicago Fire, Gunther also extended his collecting interests to fire materials. In 1890 the estimated twenty-ton chunk of fire debris, eventually owned and donated by Gunther, was uncovered during excavations fo the footings of the Masonic Temple at State and Randolph Streets, along with a melted pair of steel scissors and part of a silver watch. Why these fragments are so hard to visually locate today—buried in the shrubbery on the east side of the museum—is not made clear by the Chicago History Museum. Although currently hidden, the fragments were intentionally preserved for some time after the Fire.

The "Relic House" was created to display and preserve the remnants of the Chicago Fire, to remember, to fascinate, and, at a base level, to serve as a construction material that purposely maintains a material connection to the initial event. In 1872, a man only recorded as "Rettig" constructed a cottage-sized structure from a melted mixture of stone, iron, and other metals at the corner of North Park Avenue (Lincoln Park West) and Clark Street. 
Relic House at Clark and Lincoln Park West. Robinson Fire Map 1886.
Further accounts state that the structure had walls made from melted globules of metal, masonry, sewing machines, and china doll parts, with an interior decorated with pre-1871-style furnishings.
Original Relic House, 900 North Clark Street, before the Refreshment and Music Hall, was added. (1872)
An 1878 advertising card shows the Relic House surrounded by streetcars, pedestrians, and prancing horses, and it lists Hermann Klanowsky as proprietor, whose father supposedly took over the establishment in the early twentieth century.
The Relic House—At the Entrance of Lincoln Park.
A popular account from the Chicago Tribune claims that around 1882, Phillip Vinter (or Winter) took over the Relic House and moved it to North Park Avenue (Lincoln Park West) at 900 North Clark Street (2021 North Clark Street today). However, an Albert Rettig—likely the same Rettig who built the Relic House in 1872—is listed as a saloon keeper living at 900 North Clark Street in the 1880 Census, casting doubt on the Vinter attribution.

William Lindemann bought the Relic House sometime before 1890 and established a 'refreshment parlor' in the saloon. By 1890 its importance had risen to a point that a Chicago Tribune editorial called for the entire structure to be temporarily moved to Jackson Park to display the city's history, specifically the 'fantastic freaks of the flames' from the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, to tourists at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Such an exhibit was a fit medium to position the fair planners' narrative of Chicago's rebirth from the flame. Lindemann agreed: "It would make a good American curiosity," but only if he was paid enough for his efforts. This plan did not come to fruition, nor did Lindemann's proposed six-story revamp of the Relic House of 1896. Lindemann purportedly continued to add 'relics' to his establishment as new construction projects continued to unearth them. However, precisely what these items may have been have not been located in any documentation.

The Relic House served as a saloon into the twentieth century, and a speakeasy during Prohibition (1920-1933), and its ownership continued to change hands during this period. 

By 1906 John Weis had become the proprietor, spending time and money to improve his establishment. With 'the most tempting dishes... served in real German-style' in a setting newly decorated with stuffed moose and deer heads, stuffed sharks, engravings of German arts, and a large oil painting of the Chicago Fire, Weis encouraged visitors to his 'quaint monument and rustic resort.

In 1914 an advertisement shows it as one of the seven saloons in Chicago to have Munich's St. Benno Bier on tap. Its location, directly across from Lincoln Park, made it a prime spot for thirsty tourists traveling the Clark Street cable cars.
During Prohibition, the space continued to serve Alcohol as a speakeasy, as did other Chicago saloons. The Relic House continued to serve liquor until Mr. Volstead turned the place into a restaurant serving beer. However, it had served food from around 1900 as the "Familien Lokal," or family-style German restaurant, as well as during the Weis years.
The "Dil Pickle Club" (yes... only one 'L')  added a bohemian chapter to the Relic House story. The Club, started in 1914 as a cultural center by Archibald 'Jack' Jones, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, found a decrepit barn on Tooker Alley, off of 867½ North Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago.

In 1920, having been kicked out of their previous address, anarchist Dr. Ben L. Reitman arranged for the Club to meet at the Relic house for the first of many poetry nights. The Club members renamed their venue the 'House of Blazes,' reaffirming its link to the 1871 Fire. Considered an offshoot of the Dil Pickle Club proper, Reitman leased it for two years. Other artistic uses for the Relic House included as a home for Meyer Levin's experimental Marionette Theater in 1926.

The Relic House was razed in 1926, only 57 years after it was built, and replaced by a 210-unit apartment building at 2000 Lincoln Park West.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Chicago Trib May 23, 1928 pg 31 announced Relic House to be torn town, property having been sold to M.P. Morrissey. Your photos of original structure are wonderful.

  2. Never knew about this before.

  3. I remember checking out that huge metal boulder every time we visited the Historical Society back in the 60s.


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