… it was said that all who lived within hearing distance of the church’s bells were Old Towners.Donna Gill, Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1967
Old Town is not, somewhat to my surprise, the old heart of Chicago, but rather one of its neighbourhoods. It takes its name from art fairs held in this area in the 1940s, ‘Old Town Holidays’. However, it is certainly home to many buildings older than most in the city. There are Victorian era houses and even one of just seven buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
With my Virtual Tourist friends I joined a walking tour of the neighbourhood one morning to learn more. We started at Sedgwick station on the Brown line of the L. Come along with me to see what Old Town has to offer …
Mural near Sedgewick St station
Almost immediately we were on quiet streets that contrasted significantly with the bustle of the River North area where we were staying, just one stop away on the L. They were lined with lovely old houses, some wooden despite a ban on using that material following the fire. I got the impression that Old Towners like to defy the rules and conventions. The streets here don’t always follow the grid pattern of the rest of the city. And the area has often attracted those who seek an alternative lifestyle: hippies, gays and lesbians, sex workers, artists and performers.
One of the first buildings pointed out by our guide Giovina was a bar, the Twin Anchors, which Frank Sinatra used to frequent.
St. Michael’s RC church
This area was once home to many Native American nations, including the Potawatomi, Miami, and Illinois. It was an important trading centre for them due to its proximity to Lake Michigan. After their forcible removal from the land it was settled mainly by German-Catholic immigrants. They were responsible for building one of the neighbourhood’s gems, and certainly a highlight of our walk, St. Michael’s church.
A leaflet I picked up in the church starts thus:
On October 9, 1871, mid-morning, the great bells in St. Michael’s tower began to toll a warning, slowly, sonorously. It was a bright and dry day, a little more than two years since the dedication of the imposing new church.
The leaflet goes on to describe how, as the fire jumped the Chicago river and started to devour the buildings of the North Side:
‘the German parishioners filled the wood-cobbled streets and planked sidewalks, hoping the massive walls of St. Michael’s would resist the fire.’
Miraculously they did, although the other buildings on the site (convent, school) were destroyed and the bell tower had crumbled.
Two years after the fire, in October 1873, the church had been restored. Today it stands as one of those seven buildings in the city to have (more or less) survived the fire. We spent some time exploring the inside, where I loved the stained glass which I read later was imported from Germany at the start of the 20th century.
Old Town streets
From here Giovina led along some of the neighbourhood’s prettiest streets. We saw several studios of local artists which from photos she showed us looked lovely inside but which aren’t, unfortunately, open to the public. However there were some lovely ‘arty’ details to enjoy on the exteriors.
Indeed, everywhere we went there were lovely details to photograph, and a few that made us smile, including one house with a duck pond in its tiny front garden! Rich pointed out a couple of the tiny houses built soon after the fire to house those made homeless. My feature photo is of one of these.
Around Lincoln Park
We emerged from these picturesque streets on to a busy junction by Lincoln Park and the Chicago History Museum. Here Giovina showed us a large fragment of a building that had been destroyed by the fire. This ‘hunk of molten iron, stone, and brick’, as the Chicago Park District website describes it, has been mounted and displayed here as a symbol for the resilience of the city.
A short distance from here we came to the rather appealing Children’s Fountain, dating from 1982.
Turning back from the park again we came to one of Old Town’s most famous institutions, Second City. The list of comedians who have started their careers in its improvisation shows contains many of the biggest names in that business: Alan Alda Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, John Candy, John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Joan Rivers and many more.
At this point our tour ended and our group broke up. I had lunch with a few of my friends in one of the many appealing restaurants along N Wells Street.
After our meal we browsed some of its equally appealing shops. And we finished our outing in Old Town with ice creams at a great place, Jeni’s, with unusual flavours such as sweet potato and marshmallow. Jo needs cheering up at the moment so I hope finishing this Monday Walk with ice cream will give her nearly as much pleasure as cake!