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Tuesday, February 27

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This week's question was submitted by Leigh. Thanks!

Q: I've heard mixed rumors about the reason for all the motels put up north of Foster and south of the city border on Lincoln Avenue. Some say they are leftovers from the days before the expressway system when it would take about a day to get halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, but even at 12 miles an hour it seems they would have gotten farther than that. I understand their origins as rentals by the hour and what they are traditionally used for, but how did they get so concentrated and so far away from the city's center?

I'm going to be upfront and say I will not be able answer every aspect of this question. I love this question, but I simply do not have the time required to do the research needed. I can, however, point anyone who is interested to additional resources if anyone would like to explore this topic further on their own. That being said, I will provide some information about these motels and their evolution.

The Tip Top, the Diplomat, the Spa Motel. At one time, over a dozen motels lined North Lincoln Avenue near Peterson Avenue at the northwestern edge of the city, and many still remain. These motels are independent, family-owned businesses not affiliated with any lodging chains, and their kitchy neon signs and upbeat names recall a different era of Chicago and the country.

You are correct that most of these motels pre-date the construction of the Edens Expressway, which opened to traffic in 1951 and was one of the first expressways to be completed in Chicago. But, while technically it may not have taken half a day to travel by car from Milwaukee to Chicago, these motels were built during a time in which road trips and independent motel lodgings dominated American travel.

North Lincoln Avenue forms a part of U.S. Highway 41, and, before the construction of the Edens, U.S. 41 was known as the gateway of the city. The highway served as one of the primary thoroughfares for traveling between Chicago and Milwaukee. As a result, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, the motels along this strip were as popular as they were affordable, offering travelers convenient places to stay that were close to the city but didn't break the bank. The Spa Motel was one of the most well-known and became a legendary lodging place for musicians and bands passing trough Chicago while on tour. The Spa Motel stood at 5414 N. Lincoln and hosted everyone from The Ramones to Anthrax to Paul Revere and the Raiders.

But as budget chains such as Best Western and Days Inn grew in number, the independent motels began to fall on hard times. In recent years the motels along North Lincoln Avenue have garnered a reputation as havens for drug dealing and prostitution, earning the area the nickname of Sin Strip. Unfortunately, the reputation is not entirely undeserved. In 2002, statistics from the Chicago Police Department showed that police were called to the motels over 3,000 times in the period between 1995 and 2001, and those calls resulted in almost 1,000 arrests for a variety of offenses. As a result, Mayor Daley and 40th Ward Alderman Patrick J. O'Connor vowed to turn the neighborhood around.

In the late 1990s, the city used its eminent domain (condemnation) powers to acquire three of the motel properties. The properties included the Riverside Motel at the corner of Lincoln and Peterson, the Spa Motel and the Acres Motel at 5600 N Lincoln Avenue. Owners of the establishments tried to fight to save their businesses although one owner admitted it would likely cost about $500,000 just to renovate his motel to meet the standards of a Motel 6. Needless to say, they lost the fight. The Riverside Motel was demolished in 1999 and the land was converted into parkland, creating a new entrance to Legion Park at Lincoln and Peterson. The legendary Spa Motel was torn down in 2000 to make way for the new Lincoln District Police station. Finally, the Acres Motel was also demolished and is now the site of the Budlong Woods Branch of the Chicago Public Library.

Sadly, it seems inevitable that the remaining motels will face the same fate.

Additional Resources

Hooker Motels
This website features photographs of many of the motels along Sin Strip and documents the demolition of the Spa Motel. The site also includes basic information about each of the motels and a little history.

Lincoln Avenue Motels (2000): Audio Documentary
This audio documentary from Long Haul Productions is part of their Place Portraits series. The eleven minute documentary, produced by Dan Collison, consists of interviews with three long-term residents of the motels. Two live in the motels by necessity, one by choice, and their stories are as heartbreaking as they are honest.

Something you've been wondering about? Ask the Librarian. Email librarian@gapersblock and your question might be answered in an upcoming column.

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brian / February 26, 2004 9:31 AM

I suspect (but don't know) that many of the residents now live there rather than just pass through on their way to Milwaukee.

I've never been able to decide if my favorite one is the "Om Motel" or the Apache.

Oh, and while these places might not be 4-star, nothing, absolutely nothing, is as seedy as the Sybaris in my opinion.

Alice / February 26, 2004 9:43 AM

Yes, the motels today are home to many long-term, transitional residents. The audio documentary by Dan Collison linked up above interviews 3 of these residents. It is on my highly recommended listening list for the week.

Pete / February 26, 2004 12:23 PM

Years ago I saw Peter Case doing a solo acoustic show at Lounge Ax. He said that somebody asked him why he wasn't touring with a band. He replied that during his previous tour the band had stayed at the Spa Motel, and while they were there somebody got shot in the parking lot. Thus, he said, he couldn't convince anybody else to tour with him this time around, which necessitated solo shows.

He may have been joking, but anybody who ever saw the place (I used to drive past it every day, to and from my old job in Skokie) would agree that it wasn't necessarily untrue.

Wendy / February 27, 2004 1:01 PM

I've been commuting up Lincoln Avenue daily for the past six years and I've been watching the motels slowly disappear. I miss the great big Spa Motel sign the most.

A couple years ago a friend and I stopped in the Spa to see all the band photos in the lobby and have a drink in the bar shown here, in much better times.

Aldo Alvarez / February 27, 2004 3:21 PM

When I was teaching LOLITA at Wright College last spring, a student said she couldn't visualize the motel descriptions. I suggested she think of the motels on Lincoln, and she went "OHHH!!!"...

Pete / March 1, 2004 10:02 AM

Which reminds me...I always wondered if the one motel was called the "O-Mi" because it was the phrase most often heard through the paper-thin walls.

Kevin / April 20, 2004 8:36 PM

I spent my first decade of life near Catalpa and Campbell, and was blissfully unaware of the Lincoln Ave. hotel seediness. A Mayflower grocery store used to sit on the southeast corner of Catalpa & Lincoln (where the police station parking lot now sits). My mother would send me to a Lincoln-Bryn Mawr gas station to buy milk, past the Apache, past the Oh-Mi. No skulking johns or scowling pimps were visible back then, in the early 70's. THEN we moved six blocks northwest when I was nine, up near Lincoln-Peterson. We played fastpitch against the wall of the Riverside - a home run was a flyball into the river. In high school I waited for the Lincoln bus at Whipple, and constantly spotted hookers. Geekboy that I was, I stared transfixed, as fellatio was performed in the back of a Ryder rental truck in the parking lot of the Christian Science Reading Room. I could only see his shoes and her (?) sandals, but I could put it together; they were not trading baseball cards! Still, as crappy as the hotels were, I still have fond memories of the 'hood. I'm glad to see the Tip Top cleaners is still next to the Apache (across from Hubs gyros). We climbed that roof when I was a tyke.

Michele Walker / April 21, 2004 9:26 AM

These postings are so timely, I am in the middle of a big research project on these hotels at The Art Institute. It is a historical documentation of them (before they are all torn down) I am collecting stories, facts, artifacts, photos etc. I would appreciate it so much if anyone has any information, stories, or items to share- email me!

Michele Walker

Phyl / May 29, 2004 6:41 PM

These comments are interesting. There was a time when the relatives of the Felician Sisters whose motherhouse is west on Peterson Avenue used to stay at the Stars Motel since there was no room for them in the convent building. Later, when accommodations were made for these relatives, they no longer used the Stars. My mother was one of these occasional guests.

Phyl / May 29, 2004 6:42 PM

These comments are interesting. There was a time when the relatives of the Felician Sisters whose motherhouse is west on Peterson Avenue used to stay at the Stars Motel since there was no room for them in the convent building. Later, when accommodations were made for these relatives, they no longer used the Stars. My mother was one of these occasional guests.


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