A Palace of Pleasure for 1920s Chicago: The Pioneer Arcade (1925)

25 Mar

It was pretty fun up there - hope it was fun for the audience too. Photo by Nate Lielasus.

Thanks to everybody who stopped by the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater last week for my talk on 1920s Chicago commercial recreation centers.   Many of us today may not be aware of these buildings but Chicagoans of the 1910s and 1920s saw recreation centers (or “recs”) at nearly every major commercial intersection and players flocked to recs for games, food, or sometimes just to see and be seen.  Bowling and billiards played a critical role in the invention of modern American leisure culture and the commercial rec, like the movie palace, was an immensely important fixture in Chicago’s entertainment landscape.

None of Chicago’s surviving recs have been landmarked by the City of Chicago, and though one of them is a contributing property in an historic district (Uptown Recreation, 1101 W. Bryn Mawr, built 1927), none have been individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The futures of some of Chicago’s surviving recs are pretty murky, so I was happy to arm some preservation-minded Chicagoans with some important context in my talk.

Chicago’s whole 1920s entertainment climate — the public’s enthusiasm for sports and sports celebrity, the development of a youth-oriented popular culture, the burgeoning movie palace type with all its exuberance and exoticism — is captured in Chicago’s  most ornate surviving recreation center:  the Pioneer Arcade at 1535-1541 N. Pulaski Road, completed in 1925.

The Pioneer Arcade in 1936. Photo from the Archive of the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.

The Pioneer Arcade was designed by Danish-born Chicago architect Jens J. Jensen (1891-1969) for Greek-born entrepreneur Constantinos “Gust” Regas (1894-1986).  This Spanish Colonial Revival style structure, conceived as an elaborate social and entertainment center for Chicago’s growing West Side, is one of the last remaining large public buildings that  once made up a once-diverse business and entertainment center at the intersection of North Avenue and Pulaski Road (formerly Crawford Avenue).  As one of Chicago’s grandest urban sports halls surviving from the 1920s, the Pioneer Arcade stands as an important illustration of  the development of America’s twentieth century cult of leisure and civic-mindedness that was  newly-embodied in the games of bowling and billiards.  With its ornate yellow- and cream-colored terra-cotta façade and its intact lobby, billiards, and bowling spaces, the Pioneer Arcade is the most exuberant and intact extant example of the Chicago commercial recreation center type.

Construction on the Pioneer Arcade began in June of 1924.  After final installation of the exterior terra-cotta ornament at the end of the year, the building was completed and opened to entertainment-seekers in early 1925.[1]  The Regas brothers and chose the name “Pioneer Arcade” for their auspicious new venture.  It as an instant destination for locals looking for strikes and spares and trick shots; its architecture also announced it as a social center and as a stage for excitement.  The  Chicago Tribune called the $350,000 facility “one of the city’s finest” and said that it was “claimed [that it] will be one of the most elaborate recreation buildings in the city.”   The venue was an immediate success, with league tournament play there beginning in the fall of 1925.[2]

The Pioneer Arcade today. Photo by author.

At street level, the building housed four storefront tenant spaces facing Crawford Avenue sidewalk traffic.  Crawford and North Avenues were lined with dozens of small shops that provided eateries and amenities for locals within walking distance of the railroad yards to the south and residential areas to the north, east, and west.  The Pioneer Arcade’s shopfronts offered similar services: in 1928, number 1535 housed Thomas Pappas’s hat cleaning shop; 1537, a barber named Peter Rousos; 1539, the “Arcade Lunch Room” (also owned and operated by Gust Regas); and 1541, a Singer Sewing Machine sales and repair company. Later, Regas combined the two south tenant spaces and provided the space access leading directly into the Pioneer Arcade’s lobby; this space was converted into a new lunch room and cigar vendor. [3]

First floor layout of the Pioneer Arcade as described in a 1924 Chicago Tribune article. Image by author.

The first floor lobby of the Pioneer Arcade was designed to impress and excite (and to draw more visitors in).  Approximately twenty feet square, the entrance was dressed by Jensen as a salon in a seventeenth-century Spanish palace.  The triple arches above the west entrance doors were repeated on the north and south walls; triple archways along the north and south walls – the composition matched the triple arches of the west entrance doors – were adorned with intricate plaster work (it is unclear whether the arches contained doorways or windows or were walled in).  The ceiling was lined with intricately detailed beams.  And the room was all but filled by a wide Baroque-inspired double flight stair that became the primary conveyor of players throughout the building; indeed, besides the fire escapes affixed to side and rear exits, the front stair was the only means of vertical circulation in the building.

Pleasure-seekers venturing into the Pioneer found a downstairs billiard hall with enough space for thirty-five tables.  Large north facing windows would have filled the hall with light.  Sometime before 1936, a plaster partition cordoned off the north portion of the billiard hall for a “recreation room,” possibly for miniature golf, an increasingly popular new sport.

Second floor layout of the Pioneer Arcade as described in a 1924 Chicago Tribune article. Image by author.

Up the grand staircase, the visitors could rest in the lounge or inquire about lane availability at a long service counter positioned before the west façade’s three soaring arched windows.  Adjoining the lounge was a huge bowling alley with twenty lanes which could be viewed from a mezzanine level spectator’s gallery that could comfortably seat six-hundred.  Upstairs in a smaller third floor level were locker rooms, showers, and spaces for storage.[4]

In addition to sports, Jensen’s design also gave Humboldt Parkers unexpected encounters with grandeur and luxury. The Crawford Avenue façade resembled an exotic Spanish palace, complete with balustered balconies in front of the upper windows.  Middle-class Chicagoans, hardened by the cold winters, had only recently begun earning expendable income to take family vacations to milder locations like Florida and California, and the Pioneer’s Spanish influence recalled the flowery vernacular of these warmer climates.  The Pioneer’s outside marquee and its first floor lobby with its chandeliers and tiled grand stairway up to the bowling hall recalled the glittering movie palaces downtown, so much so in fact that on arriving, some believed in fact it was a theater.  And the mechanical ventilating systems installed throughout the building meant that when Chicago’s brief summers did arrive, visitors could escape the heat with a few rounds of bowling under the cool breeze of the air vents.[5]

The Pioneer Arcade entrance. Photo by author.

From its opening, the Pioneer Arcade thrived as a bowling alley, regularly holding league bowling tournaments and even city-wide competitions, and becoming a long-term fixture in the social life of Humboldt Park.  The much-beloved manager of the Pioneer, Carl Jorgensen (called “Jorgy”), oversaw the facility from its opening until 1945.  And though the Regas brothers and Peter Danigeles sold the Pioneer Arcade to Paul Kreuger for $250,000 in 1928, Regas stayed on as operator at the renamed “Pioneer Bowl.”  Having become a successful retail developer, Regas left the Pioneer in 1969.  He opened Riviera Lanes in Melrose Park, Illinois.  Gust Regas died in 1986 at the age of 92.[6]

After 1969, the Pioneer Arcade building went through several owners, but remained a bowling alley.  The last owner who operated a bowling alley in the building, entrepreneur and champion bowler Luis Gonzalez, sold the renamed Pioneer Lanes in the mid-2000s. The Pioneer Arcade is now owned by a local affordable housing developer who plans to use portions of the building for their new senior living facility proposed for the empty adjacent lot.   [7]

Today though, the building remains vacant.  Though portions of the building are in pretty rough shape (the roof above the second floor lounge is leaking badly and water infiltration issues abound upstairs and down), some of the structure’s most historically significant elements survive  — the Pulaski facade’s terra cotta is probably just as breathtaking today as it was in 1925 — and show great potential for restoration.


[1] Chicago Building Permit No. 76637, dated June 16, 1924.

[2] “Start work on $350,000 bldg. for recreation.”

[3] Polk’s Chicago Numerical Street & Avenue Directory 1928-1929 (1535-41 N. Crawford Listing).

Appraisal of the Pioneer Arcade by Schmit & Watt, dated May 28, 1936.  From the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Archives.

[4] “Start work on $350,000 bldg. for recreation.”

Appraisal of the Pioneer Arcade by Schmit & Watt, dated May 28, 1936.  From the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Archives.

[5] Marcus Whiffen, American Architecture since 1780: A Guide to the Styles (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 225.

Gary S. Cross, ed., The Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America, Vol.1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 128.

“Start work on $350,000 bldg. for recreation.”

[6] Maurice Shelvin, “The 11th Frame,” Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1964.

“Pioneer Arcade changes hands for $250,000,” Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1928.

“Gust Regas (Obituary).”

[7] William Duff (President of Bowling Proprietors Association), Interview by author, October 30, 2009.

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3 Responses to “A Palace of Pleasure for 1920s Chicago: The Pioneer Arcade (1925)”

  1. Jeff Scheetz May 3, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    I live in a studio apartment at 1101 W Bryn Mawr. My place is on the second floor, likely where the billiards were. My best friend lives on the 3rd floor. The hallways and kitchens are bowling alley. It’s nice that they left a least a little bit intact. Then entry stairwell may be original, though it’s hard to tell with multiple coats of paint.

    • johndcramer May 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Thanks so much for writing, Jeff! Uptown Recreation is really the last remnant of Chicago’s great 1920s North Side bowling halls. What a fantastic building, and tt’s fantastic to hear that some of the original elements are still intact too. I’d love to stop by some time soon and take a look if possible – email me at johndcramer(a)gmail.com.

      Anything left in the basement? There was once a billiard hall down there with columns topped with palm fronds. I have a great photo I can share. Thanks so much Jeff!

  2. Dennis Monk May 29, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    Being a west sider from 1953 (I was born in 1946) until I got drafted into the Army in 1966, thanks to all my wonderful neighbors, I spent way too many hours under the lights of those pool, snooker, billiard tables. A good pool player is the sure sign of a lost childhood. Starting when I was maybe 16, I use to sneak in to the hall until Mel or Bill (part owners spotted me) and would kick my ass, literally, out of this shrine.

    When the 17th birthday came, I walked in like I owned the place, cause they thought I was 17 when they were kicking me out. 18 was the legal age to shoot pool.

    The friends I met in this establishment would fill an entire novel. The years have some what clouded my memory, but the age range was 16 to mid 90’s. I was taught the intracasies of the most fascinating games on the planet. Pool, Snooker, and the mind game that puts Chess to shame, Billiards.

    Friends of my group soon became easy marks to earn a few extra bucks before the weekend. As the “Joint” closed at 1:00 AM it was the consumate meeting place on Friday and Saturday night after we got rid of our dates, and started the week-end, no sleep, period. Bowling started at 8:00 AM on Sunday morning. I’ve seen some of the older crew show up on that Sunday morning still in a tuxedo from the wedding the night before.

    Upon returning to the place after my tour of duty in Viet Nam as a helicopter pilot, the building was the same, but the feeling was different.

    Have passed by the old place, not sure what year it was…… all boarded up, but the facade is still there, so are the spirits of an Old Duck that says “Thanx for the best part of my life.”

    Captain (RET) Dennis Montgomery
    United States Army

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