Bryn Mawr, the Main Street of my youth

Posted on Mon, 07/01/2019 - 12:30pm

Edgewater: A mid-century reminiscence

By Ron Cohn

Fourth in a series.

The name looked funny on the “L” platform sign as we stopped there on the way downtown from Rogers Park – when I was a little kid. The live conductor had announced the stop as we slowed down, so I knew it should be spelled: Brinmore. The mystery deepened at the next stops: What was the story with those y’s in Berwin and Argile?

Very perplexing to a new speller when the other stations sounded out properly: Thorndale, Lawrence, Wilson. Loyola looked like how it sounded too, but it was a strange word. I asked my mother and she said it was a Catholic place. That was good enough for me, but she had no explanation on the others except to say she thought they were British and Argyle was a pair of socks.

Bryn Mawr Avenue looked exciting from the “L.” The buildings were big and exuded qualities I would have described as “charm” and “sophistication,” had the words been in my vocabulary. I just knew it looked special. Remarkably, thanks to responsible owners and a strong preservation movement, it still does.

Most of the structures that captured my imagination 70 years ago stand virtually unchanged today: the great, pink presence of the Edgewater Beach Apartments and the posh piece of 19th century England, the landmarked “Manor House,” in its shadow, at the corner of Bryn Mawr and Kenmore. The tallest buildings in the two-block commercial area running west to Broadway, the finely detailed, richly decorated Bryn Mawr Apartments and The Belle Shore – both also designated Chicago landmarks – stand as they have for over 90 years in the block to the west. Shorter in stature but no less handsome, Tudor Manor is a third architectural gem surviving splendidly on the block between Kenmore and Winthrop. More subtly detailed than its imposing neighbors, it has a high-pitched red tile roof perched on walls of substantial brick, with four half-timbered gables spaced along its Bryn Mawr frontage.

In what I think is remarkable for any Chicago neighborhood commercial district, the four 1920s era buildings enclosing the corner of Kenmore and Bryn Mawr, including the gray eminence of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, look almost exactly as I first saw them when I was dispatched by my father to get a newspaper at Deny’s Drugs in 1948. Standing there today, as I often do, the only changes are that Deny’s is now Francesca’s, and Goldberg’s Delicatessen is now Zanzibar Café.

Bryn Mawr became my local “downtown” when I landed at Hollywood and Kenmore at the age of 12. It was big step up from the neighborhood shopping I was accustomed to on Chase and Morse avenues, and it was almost the equal of Howard Street, with more grocery stores but only one dinky movie theater instead of two big ones. It also had a bowling alley. Not a 30-lane pleasure palace like the Howard Bowl, but a place called Melody Lanes with a dozen or so lanes strangely enough located up a flight of stairs at the corner of Winthrop. The upstairs recreation theme was carried out at the billiard parlor across the street, which we called Pop’s. On the alley with a worm’s eye view of the “L” platform, the place vibrated like a depth-charged submarine when the Evanston Express bypassed our stop at over 60 mph.

Although most of the buildings remain, all the stores have changed – most multiple times since the ’50s. Gone are the Bryn Mawr Theater (which, despite being “dinky” by comparison to the ornate Rapp & Rapp movie palaces, was actually designed by that same iconic team) and the Peter Pan Sandwich Shop next door. That combination was the one-two punch for dining and entertainment in my high school years of 1949 to 1953. Of historical note is that the Bryn Mawr Peter Pan was the first of a chain that grew to five or six locations and was the initial restaurant venture for Chris Carson, the rib joint tycoon-to-be.

Across the street from Peter Pan, in the half block west of the L, were a Jewel, a Woolworth’s and our go-to Chinese restaurant, The Good Earth. East of the “L” on that (north) side of the street there was a large store for women’s clothing, whose name was a punchline for us – Nuenuebel’s, which we loudly announced as NOO-NOO-BELLS on our way to and from Pop’s. Never knew how it was actually pronounced. Virtually under the “L,” on the other side of the street, was a widely renowned jazz spot, the 1111 Club. I didn’t get to avail myself of its entertainment until my college years, but it featured top talent like the famous trombonist Georg Brunis and drummer Claude “Hey Hey” Humphrey.

Our urban archaeology tour comes to an end back at the corner of Winthrop and Bryn Mawr. There were liquor stores where Starbucks and Subway are now located and an A&P grocery store occupied the building that was replaced by Nookies’ new construction. Walgreens was on the corner that is now the Edgewater Mexican Restaurant. That building, extending east to the alley, looks new, but it was reclad with ceramic tiles sometime in the ’70s or ’80s (I’m guessing). In my day it housed two important neighborhood institutions along with the drugstore. Isbell’s was a relatively upscale white-tablecloth restaurant with a piano bar, part of a small chain that had a location on Rush Street and another on Diversey. Next to it was the third major grocery in the two blocks, and the most innovative. Shop and Save catered to the well-to-do in the vicinity, of which there was no shortage in the Edgewater Beach Apartments, in the Sheridan Road mansions and the better homes and fancy buildings on Kenmore. It was part of a small chain owned by the Kamberos family that morphed into Treasure Island in the ’60s. Shop and Save was not part of that next phase, however. It changed to Sure-Save in the mid-’50s and ultimately became a National grocery store.

The final vivid personal memory of my Bryn Mawr boyhood was of afternoons and evenings spent looking at roller derby and wrestling in the window of the radio and TV store just west of Deny’s through the fall and winter of 1948, until my father got us a round-screen Zenith.

Coming irregularly in future Dialogue issues, the shady kings of Swift Playground; and the invasion of the four-plus-ones.