At North and Pulaski is Pioneer Arcade, a vacant Spanish Baroque building with a long history in Humboldt Park. This faded but magnificent structure designed by Jens J. Jensen served as an entertainment venue for more than 80 years.
Before learning about this architectural treasure, let’s look at the history of the area around North Avenue and Pulaski Road.
The Origins of “Pioneer” at North and Pulaski
Pioneer Arcade is one of several buildings whose name was taken from Pioneer Bank, located just a few feet on the
northwest southeast corner of North and Pulaski.
North and Pulaski Historical Society provides more detail on the etymology:
“Pioneer” refers to the name of Pioneer Trust and Savings Bank, at the northwest corner of North and Pulaski. That name was chosen because many of the original directors and stockholders were descendants of the pioneer families who settled the Hermosa, Cragin, Galewood, and Montclare communities of Jefferson Township, before it was annexed to Chicago in 1889.
Families like the Lovetts, Rutherfords, Sayres, Merrils, Keeneys, and the Van Nattas were part of those original group of stakeholders, directors, and early bank presidents. In fact, the Lovett family first settled in the Chicago area in 1835. They traveled from New York in a covered wagon train. The covered wagon became the Pioneer Bank logo.
Pioneer Bank, Anchor of North and Pulaski
Though it currently sits vacant, this imposing classical structure was the basis of growth for a bustling corridor, as the North and Pulaski Historical Society continues to explain:
The bank originally opened as Pioneer State Bank in 1913, but later became the Pioneer Trust and Savings Bank when the building you see today opened in 1924. The Pioneer financed the business and residential growth of the North and Pulaski community and its legacy is stamped onto many of the buildings and businesses you still see in our community.
Throughout our neighborhood’s history, more than twenty businesses or buildings have been named in respect to the financial security the Pioneer Trust and Savings Bank gave our little corner of this city.
Although the architectural styles of Pioneer Bank and Pioneer Arcade are quite different, they both share a similar design element: a cartouche with the letter P, for Pioneer.
Jens J. Jensen (Architect), Not Jens Jensen (Landscape Architect)
The architect of this West Side jewel is Jens J. Jensen, who also designed the now-vacant Guyon Hotel at Washington and Pulaski. Not surprisingly, he’s been mistaken for another Jensen: Jens Jensen, master landscape architect who created Columbus Park and other West Side parks:
Jens J. Jensen wasn’t the only Danish-born Jens Jensen working in Chicago during the first decades of the twentieth century. He is still often confused with the great landscape architect Jens Jensen though Jens J. was of no relation and was in fact thirty years younger. Even the definitive AIA Guide to Chicago incorrectly attributes the Hotel Guyon to the elder Jensen.
Churrigueresque Spanish Baroque
There are few Spanish Baroque-styled buildings in the city that are as lavishly designed as Pioneer Arcade. With heavily detailed geometry, terra cotta shells, twisted columns, and undulating cornices, it has many Churrigueresque details present in the Spanish Revival style that experienced a resurgence in the 1920s.
The Gold Dome Field House in Garfield Park is another example of a richly detailed and heavily ornamented 1920s Churrigueresque Spanish Revival design.
Rise of League Bowling
The 1940s era saw a rise in league bowling, as described by Priceonomics:
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, “Beer Leagues” dominated professional bowling. The best bowlers were recruited by beer companies — Miller, Stroh’s, Budweiser — and pitted against each other in tournaments. The era’s superstars — Buzz Fazio (Stroh’s), Dick Weber (Budweiser), and like — faced off on televised events that attracted millions of viewers.
Riding the Tide of Bowling’s Growing Popularity
Bowling’s popularity continued to rise in the 1960s, and Pioneer Bowl received new life in the form of resurfaced lanes around that time. This golden era continued until the 1970s:
With the rise in popularity of televised bowling and its superstars, recreational bowling also saw a boom in the 1960s: over 12,000 sanctioned alleys were constructed during the decade. The U.S. Bowling Congress peaked at 4.6 million recreational members. As one long-time “just for fun” bowler puts it: “Bowling was the thing to do back then. Every weekend, those places would be packed with kids, parents, grandparents. Everyone bowled.”
By the mid 1970s, bowling began to wane as a popular sport. And with it the luster of Pioneer Arcade and the neighborhood around it began to fade at the same time.
In 1975 a fire broke out in the basement of the Woolworths store on the southwest corner of North and Pulaski, leaving a gaping hole in a dense commercial district. Pioneer Arcade was not damaged by fire, but the disaster left the adjacent lot vacant for nearly 40 years.
North and Pulaski Today
Pioneer Bank is no longer in operation and many of the once glittering theaters and ballrooms around it were demolished. A few others sit vacant like the New Apollo Theatre pictured above.
Fortunately Pioneer Arcade isn’t at risk, but it is vacant–the root cause of so many demolitions.
Bringing Life to an Empty Lot: Hispanic Housing Development Corporation
Over the winter, a housing development arose from an empty lot on the southeast corner of North and Pulaski. This project which is not yet complete will provide housing to seniors and retirees.
The Future of Pioneer Arcade
This organization also owns the adjacent Pioneer Arcade. I had a chance to speak with the President of HHDC, and was relieved to discover that his organization has a real appreciation for the importance and history of the building and there are no plans to take it down:
The Pioneer Arcade has a long history as a place of playful camaraderie for many ethnic generations in the Humboldt Park community. We hope that our new adjacent senior building will provide the development catalyst, and built-in customer base, to attract a retail or service use which will breathe new life into this grand historic structure.
— Hipolito “Paul” Roldan, Hispanic Housing Development Corporation
They are currently in search of a tenant for this building. Are you or someone you know looking for space in a historic venue? If so, reach out to HHDC.
Humboldt Park is experiencing strong growth and with any luck, the right group or business can help revitalize this building and its surrounding neighborhood. It would make a great spot for a new bowling and entertainment venue.
References and Further Reading
- A Palace of Pleasure for 1920s Chicago: The Pioneer Arcade (John D. Cramer)
- Humboldt Park Senior Housing Sprouts Over The Winter (Curbed)
- North and Pulaski Historical Society (Facebook)
- The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling (Priceonomics)
- Landmark Nomination for Pioneer Bank (City of Chicago, PDF)
- Hispanic Housing Development Corporation