By Dan Haley
Maybe you've driven by it so often that it's now invisible to you. Or maybe, like me, you've driven by it, ridden a bike by it as a 10-year-old with a newspaper route, and always been fascinated by its classic look gone to ruin through decades of inattentiveness.
This is the corner of Lake and Austin where the First National Bank was built to last back in the 1920s, but was brought low very fast by the Great Depression. Now almost 100 years old, this stone edifice on the southwest corner soldiered on.
For better than 20 years, it was the Williams Funeral Home, actually owned by the grandfather of one of our Journal colleagues. By the late 1950s, the funeral home had relocated to the north side of Lake Street and the bank building slid into anonymity, being used successively as medical offices, a credit card processing company and, I think, as the offices of trade magazine publishers.
Spent part of Friday afternoon inside the currently-being-gutted interior. My first time actually in the building. Gone are the crappy dropped ceilings, most of the two-story-tall glass block windows, gone even is a portion of the floor that was added to fill in the bank mezzanine and create two full, boring floors. And what is revealed is just the sort of lovely and ornate detail an early 20th century bank, built to last the ages, would have included.
The construction work is being done by Greg Sorg and his work crews, though normally they'd be at work repairing and maintaining the many apartment buildings Sorg's Pioneer Property Advisors have gathered into a portfolio on the West Side and South Side of Chicago. Eighty percent of what Sorg owns is in Austin, within a mile of Lake and Austin.
He bought the commercial building some five years ago and has been waiting for the right tenant to come along, someone who appreciated the bones of the building, someone who felt the vibe of an intersection mostly hurried through, someone who saw the potential in running a business welcoming both Oak Parkers and Austinites.
It was in the years that Sorg worked for Mike Kelly at the old and still profoundly missed Park National Bank that he "got the passion for Austin." For a long time now, he said, "people just write-off Austin. It is a vibrant community. People share the same hopes and dreams, but they just get dismissed."
With a small assist from Oak Park's village government — a $50,000 grant and a sales-tax-sharing pact — Sorg has now lined up two more Oak Parkers who will, once the construction is done, open a brewpub in the old bank. The bank's old vault, at least what is left of it, will become a cooler room for the brewery. That's more interesting than the many years its thick metal walls made it a perfect x-ray room for the docs. A rooftop deck with views to the Loop will be added.
All of this will be done by November, says Sorg, though he allows this is different than reclaiming an apartment building and the project could stretch out a bit.
"We need to get Oak Parkers' minds around this corner," he says. The arrival in recent years of the park district's gymnastics center, Pete's Fresh Market, School of Rock and now the Historical Society — all on East Lake Street — are encouraging signs that Oak Parkers are starting to look again at this wonderful part of town.
Drive by. The new and expansive windows go in soon. Before long the large beer bottle chandelier will be hanging proudly. This is ground-up Oak Park entrepreneurial pioneering. Don't fixate on 18-story buildings or the efficacy of a Taco Bell on Madison.
The brewpub at Lake and Austin. That's the Oak Park story.
Answer Book 2017
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