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Monday, September 22

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Detour

My hometown of Berwyn has changed rather dramatically over my lifetime. When I was young, the suburb was home to mostly Czechoslovakians and Bohemians who had moved west from Pilsen and Cicero. The town's downtown featured some architectural delights, such as the Berwyn Theatre and the Berwyn Bank Building. Restaurants? Plenty, so long as you wanted something Czech (meat!) with a pint of beer. Culture? Only in Berwyn can one find an annual parade devoted to a mushroom -- the Houby Day Parade -- and get the finest hoska and kolachy around.

However, as I said, Berwyn has changed. Most of those Czech and Bohemian families are gone, either passed away or moved to the greener pastures of the far suburbs. Berwyn's location just 10 miles from the city made it a solid draw for young Hispanic families; today, Berwyn is largely Hispanic. The remaining Czech and Bohemians are dealing with change as a new wave of businesses catering to Berwyn's new demographics have prospered.

To build on the momentum of this change, the city has created numerous TIF districts, including one on Cermak Road. Cermak Road earned its nickname "The Bohemian Wall Street" through its sheer quantity of banks in the '50s and '60s. Now many of those banks are gone, and most of the solid, trust-inspiring buildings that housed them have been razed to make way for some decidedly uninspiring strip malls. But one building, the Berwyn Bank Building, has survived.

10082004_bank.jpg

The Berwyn National Bank Building is located at Cermak Road and Oak Park Avenue, a very busy intersection. The bank is what you'd expect from a historic bank building: large columns, sweeping glass block windows and an imposing stature. For all of my lifetime, though, the Bank hasn't been a bank at all. It was used for bingo in the '80s and left for dead in the '90s, when it became the largest pigeon sanctuary in the western suburbs.

As part of the TIF district, the southwest corner of the intersection on which the building sits was deemed the "Superblock." As part of a grand redevelopment plan, the entire half-block from Grove Avenue to Oak Park would become new retail and housing -- another stab at revitalizing Berwyn. But the Bank Building was a bone of contention. Should it remain part of the Superblock or be torn down?

Structurally, the Bank was a mess. It would need a total restoration (not to mention fumigation) just to bring it up to modern code. The odds certainly weren't in the building's favor. Whereas suburbs such as Oak Park, Downers Grove and Elmhurst have preserved and restored their older buildings, Berwyn has tended to demolish them. The Berwyn Theatre fell into a state of disuse and was torn down (ironically, a LaSalle Bank with a painting depicting an old theater stands in its place.) The Seneca Restaurant anchored a huge apartment building on the northeast corner of Oak Park and Cermak; it was burned down in an arson fire and replaced by a sad, small Burger King.

10082004_arch.jpg

An effort to deem the Berwyn Bank a historic landmark failed. While the battle over the Bank carried on, the rest of the Superblock was bought by the city piece by piece and torn down. My first job was at Maha Computers, located in the Superblock. Next door was Danny's Gyros, a great little hot dog shop. That's all gone now. There was a three-story apartment building of a deep red brick that stood in contrast to the grey limestone Bank Building next door, complete with a travel store on its first floor. That too is gone. The Bank now stands next to a few heavy cranes, ready to dig foundations. It seemed to be the end of the line.

In a rather surprising move, though, Berwyn has chosen to restore the Bank Building. I was stunned at the decision, but applaud it. The Bank serves as the only anchor to an important intersection; in addition the Burger King, the other corners only feature one-story, low-end retail. The Bank defines the intersection, and it is perhaps the last great building Berwyn's stretch of Cermak has to offer.

What will become of the Berwyn National Bank Building is anyone's guess. But if Berwyn can pull the Superblock off -- and there's absolutely no guarantee it will -- it could easily spark a revitalization and interest in this suburb and its diverse community. Should Berwyn squander this opportunity, it could end up with the most ornate payday loan store in the western suburbs.

 

About the Author(s)

Paul McAleer is a budding architecture geek who uses architectural terms correctly 50 percent of the time. See his photography at phonezilla.net.

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