The Odd Story of the Germania Club

I first became aware of the Germania Club because it was around the corner from the The Village Theater, a former burlesque house turned porno film venue – which was directly across the street from the Latin School’s new upper school – designed by prominent architect, Harry Weese.  Apparently he neglected to consider the position of the structure in relation to its surroundings because all of the administrative  offices overlooked the gardens in Lincoln Park, while the classrooms featured unobstructed views of  Clark Street on the west and and a service alley on the east.

My 8th grade English class scored the room with the best view of The Village’s x-rated marquee. Level and straight on, we were treated to new titles every Thursday before our teacher, Miss Mauer,  closed the blinds.

The new school looked out of place. It was built on the site of a decrepit hotel that had fit nicely into its surroundings..

The Village and the Germania Club were remnants of an earlier time. Although the population was transient, the area stubbornly remained a hotbed of sin, despite determined civic efforts to turn things around. Rough taverns, illegal gambling fronts, filthy dives, rooming houses, bootleggers, the mob, and petty criminals plied their trade – with help from police who were on the payroll.

A few respectable, longtime establishments survived in spite of their unsavory neighbors. A well-known and beloved German restaurant, the Red Star Inn, attracted generations of customers from the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park. And the Germania Club with its  formidable entrance seemed to keep the untouchables away. A surreptitious peek through the doors revealed faded Victorian splendor. But only members were allowed inside.

In the mid-70’s a connected developer razed acres of structures, including the Red Star Inn, and replaced them with new high rises and townhouses, plus a swimming pool and health club complex. This effectively erased the blight that had vexed the Brahmans living in restricted co-ops on Lake Shore Drive and in the stolid mansions on Dearborn Street – merely steps from the ugliness. There were two holdouts left standing when the dust cleared and the shiny new buildings filled with young professionals and divorced dads: The Village Theater and the Germania Club.

A couple of months ago, I found a “residential membership “ certificate to the Germania Club with my grandfathers name.  It was in yet another box of papers in the basement.

For a humongous variety of reasons the connection made absolutely no sense whatsoever. 1. He lived in Hyde Park 2. From what I do know about him, he was would not have supported a German organization. 3. My mother (who saved the certificate) never mentioned this so it was all quite strange.

I decided to do a little research to see if I could unravel this peculiar mystery.

It took only a few online searches to learn about the history of the Germania Club.

it turns out that the Germania Club’s destiny was influenced by major historical events: Abraham Lincolns assassination,  The Great Chicago fire, two depressions, both world wars and local migration.

The club was founded in 1865 as a singing club for the express purpose of performing at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral ( many ethnic clubs did this). Membership flourished for a time, and the club built the swanky building. But the Chicago fire followed by the stock market panic of 1873 had a significant impact on membership. The club rebounded but World War I dealt a severe blow to German businesses and the Great Depression devastated the economy.

By the early 1930’s the club only had 65 members. And this is when my grandfather’s membership was issued. Not sure how the place stayed afloat during and after WW2 – but I figured they must have changed their business model.

After a little digging, I found the answer: In the early ’60’s, Richard Daley ordered a raid on the Germania Club — several illegal slot machines were confiscated — which meant the club lost it’s liquor license.

I finally made it inside In the early 1980’s, when it was the home of Women’s Workout World exercise studio. It’s held several local businesses since then, including a daycare, and a small hardware store on its former basement. The property is now landmarked however the Village Theater is being demolished for a planned condo/retail complex.

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