Fond Memories Of 1649 N. Halsted Street Still Linger
“Where have all the flowers gone, long-time passing? Where have all the graveyards gone? Gone to flowers every one,” says the 1955 Pete Seeger folk song.
For this writer, the graveyard of flowers still exists in my mind under tons of concrete at the Royal George Theatre parking garage at 1649 N. Halsted Street. At that address once stood the DeBat family home—and a magical place that hosted one of the finest Southern gardens in Old Town.
In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, my father, Chester Louis DeBat—a Chicago cab driver—planted and nurtured an amazing perennial flower garden at the rear of his 25-by-140-foot lot at 1649 N. Halsted.
Recently, major Chicago real estate developers Draper and Kramer announced plans for an eight-story residential building to replace the closed Royal George Theatre at 1641 N. Halsted Street on the western edge of Old Town. The name of the project is “1649 N. Halsted.”
Plans call for construction of 133 rental apartments—including 20 affordable units—on the site following the demolition of the theatre. The new project could provide housing for performers and staff from Steppenwolf Theatre across the street. The plans also include ground-floor retail space and parking for 35 cars. The developer needs a zoning change before construction can start.
Since 1986, The Royal George served as a prime venue on Chicago’s theatre scene. Its four stages could host up to 450 theatre patrons. However, it never reopened after the pandemic closed it in 2020. Formerly owned by New York-based Liberty Theatres, the property was sold to Draper and Kramer last July for $7.08 million, records show.
Let’s take a trip like in the movie—“The Time Machine”—and see how the sands have trickled through the hourglass on the 1600 block of North Halsted Street.
Long before the Royal George was developed, this stretch of Halsted Street was pock-marked with vacant urban renewal lots that sold for as little as $6,000.
Here are this writer’s reminiscences of youthful ambition, and the harsh realities of inner-city life that collided on Halsted Street—a busy thoroughfare in Old Town in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.
The dingy grey clapboard sided three-flat at 1649 N. Halsted rose from noisy Halsted Street, looking more like a haunted house than a home.
It was a post-Chicago Fire 1880s apartment house with a balloon frame supported with wooden telephone poles. The building sat on a sunken lot with a dirt crawl space and no basement. In 1948, my father paid $4,800 for this humble property.
Rickety stairways led up to the tiny four-room, one-bedroom apartments. Inside, there were no bathtubs, just a tiny 4-by-4-foot “powder room” with a toilet and a tiny wash bowl. Kitchen walls and ceilings were black with soot from the burning of pot-belly coal stoves that renters relied on to keep warm in winter.
The backyard was filled with 3-foot-tall weeds and a plank fence make of charred wood that survived a fire when a rear coach house burned years earlier.
On hot summer nights, the aroma of animal processing from the Chicago Stock Yards would waft north from 43rd St. and hang over Halsted like a cloud.
In the late 1940s, only poor people lived in this section of Halsted Street in the blue-collar neighborhood that later would become posh Old Town and Lincoln Park. Rent on a one-bedroom apartment was $20 a month, not the $2,300-a-month landlords now charge.
Following World War II, the Cabrini Green public housing development was rising on Division Street, about a half mile south. The ethnic mix at North Avenue and Halsted was mostly white Italian and German working-class families.
When Alfred Louis DeBat, my 17-year-old brother—who later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism at Northwestern University—first saw 1649 N. Halsted in 1948, he cried.
“How could a kid who grew up in the 3900 block of North Pine Grove Ave. in Lakeview and befriended young schoolmates who resided on Lake Shore Drive live here?” asked Alfred, with great embarrassment.
But with the screech of Ravenswood elevated trains and the clanking “Red Devil’ streetcars in our ears, Halsted St. was to be our home for the next 15 years.
By the mid-1950s, my father’s Southern flower garden was taking shape. It was patterned after gardens in New Orleans, his hometown.
The old fence was removed and replaced with new white pickets, and urban renewal bricks edged organized flower beds. A variety of flowers were represented—Zinnias, Petunias, Marigolds, Peonies, giant Sun Flowers, Rose bushes and Morning Glory vines climbed up the back porches on trellises in this urban oasis. Mulberry trees produced fruit for my breakfast cereal.
In 1949, long before quiche and pinot grigio wine became gourmet delights in Lincoln Park, Sieben’s Brewery on Larrabee Street was selling what the neighborhood made best—cool steins of German beer.
A kid could hop on a clanking streetcar and rumble down Halsted Street to Fullerton Avenue and catch a movie at the Biograph Theatre, or stroll to the barbershop at North Avenue where you could sit in big, black leather barber chairs and ogle the sparkling nickel-plated pot-bellied stove. Nick, the Italian barber, gave old-fashioned, 75-cent haircuts, sans sideburns.
The bustling corner of North and Halsted supported such neighborhood business establishments as the United Cigar Store, Schneider’s Meat Market, Newman’s Shoes, Sam’s Cut-Rate Liquors, and the Greek’s Soda Fountain, where five-cent Coke and penny candy were sold.
Television still was a luxury, so most neighborhood kids saved pop bottle deposits to pay 12-cent movie-house admissions.
A German language movie house, the Kino Theater, was on North Avenue and Orchard. But most neighborhood kids flocked to the Plaza Theater at North and North Park avenues to view “shoot’em-up" Westerns like “Red River,” starring John Wayne. Later, The Plaza was razed to make way for new affordable high-rise apartments.
The factory neighborhood of Lincoln Park was launched on the long road to trendiness and affluence in 1956, when the Community Conservation Board designated virtually the entire area for urban renewal.
A proposed $36-million plan, which did not get underway until the 1960s, envisioned a 1,000-acre redevelopment of the area generally bounded by Lincoln Park on the east, the Milwaukee Road tracks and Clybourn Avenue on the west and southwest, North Avenue on the south and Wrightwood and Diversey on the north.
Between the early 1960s and 1977, the city’s Department of Urban Renewal demolished 606 buildings in the area. Ogden Avenue, a wide boulevard, was vacated and Oz Park was created. Hundreds of old German and Italian residents were displaced.
By 1977, some $270 million was spent by the government and private investors to revitalize eastern portions of the community, called Project I, and Lincoln Park was on its way to “revitalization.”
As part of the urban renewal plan, the Royal George Theatre was built and my father’s three-flat lot was the end-piece of the project to create a ramp for a future parking garage. As a result—following an appraisal by Mid-America Appraisal and Baird & Warner—the theatre developers paid $40,000 for that 25-by-140-foot lot.
So, this writer wishes Draper and Kramer well on its development plan. The only question I have is: Why only 35 parking spaces? The Royal George Theatre parking garage must have more spots than that.