Stories From the 600 S Clark Street Parking Garage
Those who might have read my past musings know how much I love to research and share the history of buildings in the Boardwalk Capital Holdings portfolio. For example, The Bauer Building at 230 W Huron started life as the corporate office for A. Bauer Distilling & Importing Company, a purveyor of “medicinal” remedies that had the company in court many times over its history. The BCH building at 343 W Erie was home to Empire Press, one of the country’s largest producer of punchcards used by early Twentieth Century taverns, bars and bookies to run their numbers games. Finally, the 2954-2958 North Sheffield building, now home to several restaurants, was the U.S. home of the Tengwall File and Ledger company, Swedish makers of a patented hole punch for accounting binders.
This brings me to the Boardwalk Capital property at 600 South Clark Street, a non-descript, three-story, 240-space parking garage just south of Printer’s Row. It’s obvious that the structure was designed in a utilitarian fashion to generate revenue while waiting for a moment when the property could be put to its highest and best economic use. (That’s commercial real estate and Arthur Holmer “speak” for finding a developer with a vision for the property.)
So, what history could this amateur historian find on 600 South Clark? It turns out, that while there has been no building of particular importance on that spot, there’s still a tremendous amount of history in that small corner of Clark and Harrison.
The Chicago Fire of 1871 and 600 S. Clark Street
There is no moment in Chicago history more widely known than the Great Fire of 1871. While there’s still some dispute as to whether the O’Leary’s cow started the fire, the “ground-zero” location of Jefferson and West De Koven, the location of the current CFPD training facility, is well-documented. From the O’Leary’s property, the fire spread quickly North and East consuming everything along its way.
The south west corner of Clark and Harrison, where the BCH property lies, was on the path of the conflagration. It was simply luck that the two-story building located at what is now 600 South Clark, survived the fire. Everything north of the corner was obliterated, and as the photo taken from the roof of the building shows, the devastation looking north and east was complete. The map below shows all of the buildings consumed in the immediate area and the red dot identifies the location of the BCH property.
The Original Chicago Chinatown on South Clark Street
After the Great Fire of 1871, the city quickly rebuilt with state-of-the-art architecture and engineering being applied from one new building to the next on Dearborn, State, Michigan and Madison. However, south of the primary business district and wealthy residential areas, the reconstruction was quick, cheaply done and well-suited to the saloons, brothels and gambling halls in this, the Levee district. Wooden two and three story structures, similar to those that burned down, were cobbled together and ready for business within weeks of the fire. As is often the case, it was in this, the least favorable neighborhoods, where immigrants laid their roots. This is how the two block stretch of South Clark between Van Buren and Harrison became Chicago’s first Chinatown.
In the later years of the 19th Century, a strong anti-Chinese movement pervaded the West Coast. Coupled with a declining economy, Chinese immigrants migrated in significant numbers eastward. Among those who journeyed east, according to local historian Huping Ling, was Mong Doy Chow and his two brothers. Chinatown lore has it that Mr. Moy (his Americanized name) arrived in Chicago in 1878 and, finding a bustling city whose citizens seemed less hostile than those on the West Coast, eagerly participated in the Great Rebuilding. He settled near Clark and Van Buren and is said to have encouraged friends and family to come to Chicago to take advantage of the city’s limitless opportunities. By 1890 it is said that over 500 Chinese lived along that South Clark Street block with nearly fifty of that number being part of the Moy clan.
These urban Chinese immigrants often employed themselves as grocers, restauranteurs, launderers and merchants. The first substantial restaurant in Chinatown was King Yen Lo at the corner of Clark and Van Buren. As the post card below suggests, it was a sumptuous spot that no doubt delighted their largely non-Chinese patrons. The restaurant was located above a saloon owned by the colorful “Hinky Dink” Michael Kenna, First Ward Alderman best known for throwing an annual fundraiser supported by the pimps, gamblers and prostitutes that were his constituents.
Harrison Street Police Station Across From What is Today 600 S Clark
A half block west of what is today the Boardwalk Capital Holdings parking facility was Chicago’s most notorious jail, the Harrison Street Police Station. A well-documented history by Chicagology.com suggests that from the very start the neighbors hated the police station sitting in their backyard. The Tribune wrote a scathing article on January 23, 1898 with the headline, “Harrison Street Station a Bar to Business Progress.” The assertion was that a police station filled with toughs was a natural magnet for more toughs to inhabit the neighborhood.
This might sound unusual until you consider that the corner of Harrison and Clark where the station was built in 1873 became ground zero for prostitution, saloons, gambling and a host of other vices as the graphic below suggests.
There’s no question that the police station was a hard place with its dozen or so cells housed below ground being dark and constantly damp. Period photos show why, if you could, you’d choose to be arrested somewhere else.
The Next Chapter for 600 South Clark Street
With the property now on the market, the next chapter in the history of the parking garage is likely to be residential development. Whatever might be built on the lot will, for all its glass and steel grandeur, share a remarkable part of Chicago history that I hope is not forgotten.
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