“It is tough all over but Grant DePorter, the CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, oversees the operation of seven restaurants. On this day he was standing in Harry Caray’s, 33 W. Kinzie, in a small room on the building’s fourth and highest floor and showing me a fascinating item and talking about the past…”
“‘This,’ he says, picking up a thick book comprised of brittle pages filled with florid longhand writing (a bit faded by still quite legible), ‘is my Rosetta Stone.’
‘What he means is that this book charts the lengthy history of this piece of land, which was designated the city’s first block in 1830, seven years before it was incorporated as a city. The original owner was a man named Alexander Wolcott Jr., who had arrived here by canoe and became the area’s first doctor. He married Ellen Kinzie, the first non-Native American born here, daughter of settlers John and Eleanor Kinzie.
“More firsts? John Kinzie committed the first murder here in 1812 when he stabbed to death an unfortunate fellow named Jean La Lime. The Wolcott-Kinzie union was the first marriage in Chicago. The property was later purchased by William B. Ogden, the city’s first mayor and owner of the city’s first brewery. The building there later housed the law offices of lawyer Grant Goodrich, who practiced with Abraham Lincoln, co-founded Northwestern University and was an ardent advocate for the temperance movement
“The ‘modern’ history of the property begins in 1892 when the land was purchased by the Chicago Varnish Company, which hired architect H.I. Cobb to design the Dutch Renaissance building that was finished in 1895 and still stands
“Of course, the Kinzie-Dearborn building is filled with visual tributes to its namesake, that charming broadcasting legend who died in 1998. It also is liberally decorated with photos and other memorabilia of sports figures and celebrities. The place has long been a magnet for such folks, and for the tourists and locals who pile in for the food and drinks and star-studded ambiance.
“That’s all fine and admirable, but on a deeper level DePorter is also a passionate historian and the ancient building’s walls are filled with thousands of documents (newspaper clippings, photos and more) that make it — if you’re be wise enough to wander about and look and read — something of an artful and accessible history museum. Wildly entertaining too.
“Much of this material is from a checkered past, when the building was a speakeasy and was later owned by Frank Nitti and his wife. Nitti, often obscured by the scar-faced shadow of his associate Al Capone, is an under-appreciated gangster, who ran the Chicago Outfit from 1932 until his death in 1943. His third wife, Annette, was also a formidable presence and owned the building until 1969.”