The corner tavern is a dying species in Chicago. Many of those remaining are on borrowed time, licenses set to expire with their current proprietors. A creeping block-by-block rebirth of Prohibition has overtaken much of the city, leaving a once-ubiquitous Chicago institution on the brink.Even more rare is the tied house: a bar built by a particular brewer to serve a particular brand of beer. The efforts of early Temperance advocates led to escalating licensing fees, which advantaged well-financed brewers over small tavern keepers. Tied houses were an ingenious achievement in vertical integration, and boomed along with the brewing and beer-shipping industry of Chicago.
Tied houses used distinctive and high-quality architecture to carve out brand identity and convey an air of respectability. Their substantial buildings were nearly always sited on valuable real estate at prominent corners, where the side doors that could be kept open overnight and on Sundays just so happened to face a street too.Many were built in Chicago around the start of the 20th century, but their heyday was short. Prohibition took a harsh toll, and vertical integration in the alcohol business was made illegal when it was repealed.
Some tied houses have survived as ordinary bars in extraordinary buildings. Others were repurposed. In 2011, the City of Chicago officially recognized their significance as a category, granting several of them Chicago Landmark status – and the protections and tax benefits it confers. At that time, at least 41 tied houses were known to remain in Chicago, but only five were selected for landmarking – all built by Schlitz.
Schlitz was the third biggest brewer in America in that era, and while it was based in Milwaukee, it had substantial distribution and business operations in Chicago. Company Vice President Edward G. Uihlein oversaw the most ambitious program of tied house construction in the city, putting up 57 over the course of about a decade. They were widely distributed outside of downtown in neighborhoods with immigrant industrial workers. Schlitz tied houses were instantly recognizable thanks to the prominent use the “belted globe” insignia.The typical tied house featured a bar on the ground floor and apartments above. A narrow but elaborate facade fronted on the principal commercial street, with a much plainer facade on the side. The main entrance to the bar was often set dramatically into a chamfered corner, with a secondary entrance on the side street. The overall style of the buildings was some picturesque adaptation of the Queen Anne idiom popular at the time, with elaborate brickwork and accents in limestone and pressed metal.
The Bamboo Lounge
With more significant budgets than would have been available to independent proprietors, tied houses were often designed by relatively well-known architects. Charles Thisslew designed several for Schlitz. Most of his other extant buildings are greystones in Wicker Park and Logan Square, elegant residences for the immigrant elite at the turn of the last century.
Charles Thisslew designed the building at 9401 S. Ewing, which records date to 1907. At the time it would have been one of many taverns serving thousands of workers in one of Chicago’s largest industrial complexes. Employees of Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Great Lakes Dock & Dredge, US Steel’s massive South Works, and countless other concerns might have stopped by for a pint after a shift.Countless belching smokestacks left a patina of soot on the building’s tan bricks – but couldn’t dim its simple elegance. Its odd shape makes the most of an acutely-angled site. The limestone string course and arch above the corner door are echoed neatly in the pressed metal capping the parapet. The heavy terra cotta belted globe and a ghost sign facing south proclaim the Schlitz brand. And so did the stained glass window under the arch facing Ewing – until it was removed, sometime in January 2017. The interior is a time capsule, hardly changed over the decades. At some point a vague tiki theme was instituted, but little changed beyond the decor over the bar. Unlike many other tied houses, the upper floor consists of small sleeping rooms – not larger apartments. These would have been ideal for transient laborers, and one can even imagine sailors stopping over while ore ships unloaded at the mills. After years of very marginal operation, the Bamboo Lounge was advertised for sale in December 2016 for the princely sum of $65,000. It failed to garner even that amount when it sold in January 2017 for a mere $35,000. The listing emphasized the building’s historic charm, dwelling particularly on the stained glass window – which the buyer quickly removed. It remains to be seen what the buyer intends, but there is reason to be concerned. Perhaps the window was removed for safekeeping – but perhaps it has been sold, or now graces some suburban man-cave. It’s hard to imagine what a new owner might intend for the space – in such an odd location, there’s precious little demand for apartments or a commercial storefront. The building was not among the tied houses chosen for Chicago Landmark designation, so there is a risk of unsympathetic modifications, or even outright demolition. A different outcome is possible. The vintage charm and compelling – if remote – location could help make the Bamboo Lounge a destination bar, a “must-visit” for architecture buffs, fans of the old-fashioned Chicago tavern, and folks exploring the city’s vast southeast side. It should be landmarked and restored. Let’s raise a glass in hope of that possibility!
What can you do?
If you know anything about the history or current status of the bar, please leave a comment.
If you think this building deserves to be preserved, consider contacting your Chicago Alderman, particularly if you live in the 10th Ward.
References and Further Reading
- Schubas, Schlitz Brewery-Tied House at 3159 N. Southport
- Historical Landmark Designation of Five (former) Schlitz Brewery Tied-Houses [PDF]