“A Recreational Masterpiece” on Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue

4 Feb
A 1929 advertisement for the Congres Arcade. Credit Billiards Magazine

A 1929 advertisement for the Congress Arcade. Credit Billiards Magazine

1920s Chicago was the unrivaled capital of early twentieth century bowling culture and was home to dozens of recreation centers, or “recs,” multi-story urban bowling and billiard halls that took indoor sports out of the saloon and installed them in settings more akin to movie palaces.  These early “palaces of pleasure” set the standard for recreation architecture across the country and were another few brilliant feathers in the cap of a city already known for its trailblazing architects and builders.  The Congress Arcade at 2047 N. Milwaukee Avenue, completed in 1925, is one of many great examples of Chicago’s recreation center building heritage that survive today.

The Congress Arcade (then-called Mill Bowl) c. 1975. Photo credit - Dr. Jake's Bowling History Blog

The Congress Arcade (then-called Mill Bowl) c. 1975. Photo credit – Dr. Jake’s Bowling History Blog

With an eight-bay four-story steel frame housing nearly 50,000 square feet of sports and entertainment space, the Congress Arcade was one of Chicago’s largest 1920s recreation centers.  Located just northwest of the Western and Milwaukee station of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railway Line’s Logan Square Branch (later the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line), this large structure was among many new 1920s commercial developments facing the busy thoroughfare of Milwaukee Avenue. (The image of the Congress Arcade at right is from J.R. Schmidt’s fantastic bowling history blog, found at http://bowlinghistory.wordpress.com/ )

Chicago's Congress Theater (1926). Photo by author

Chicago’s Congress Theater (1926). Photo by author

The Congress Arcade was the creation of proprietor Frank E. Spengler who in advertising for his new venture declared that “in all the world there is no recreational building like this.”  The Congress Arcade went up  nearly simultaneously with the Congress Theater (2135 N. Milwaukee Ave.), the Byzantine Revival style Fridstein & Co.-designed movie palace that opened in 1926 one block northwest along Milwaukee Avenue.  Though we don’t know the names of the architects who designed Congress Arcade, there is no doubt that they attempted to translate the scale and opulence of their movie palace neighbor, facing the Arcade with the same kind of ornate terra cotta skin.

An Adamesque window surround at Chicago's Congress Arcade (1925). Photo by author

An Adamesque window surround at Chicago’s Congress Arcade (1925). Photo by author

The terra cotta façade of the Congress Arcade was crafted to resemble ashlar masonry and nearly matched the cream-colored terra cotta of the nearby theater.  The Arcade’s second floor windows and the spandrel panels below them were decorated with terra cotta medallions, urns, and swag reminiscent of the work of eighteenth-century English brother designers Robert and James Adam.

The Congress Arcade originally displayed a large marquee sign that stretched the height of the three top floors over the Arcade’s main entrance.  Collecting under the metal canopy beneath the great marquee, visitors stepped inside the main lobby and checked their coats.  Further in they found a counter for soda and lunch, and a café for finer dining.  Upstairs there were women’s parlors and restrooms, and a ladies’ beauty shop.  There were also men’s dressing and locker rooms and a barber shop.

After enjoying a trim or a bite, visitors were summoned by a state-of-the-art public announcing system to a reserved alley or pool table upstairs.  In all, there were twenty-four bowling alleys and twenty-four billiard tables distributed on two upper floors.  Boxing matches were also common events at the Congress Arcade; though documentation is unclear, these large public events were probably held on the top floor where spectator galleries could more easily be accommodated.

Chicago's Congress Arcade today. Photo by author

Chicago’s Congress Arcade today. Photo by author

Taking out full-page advertisements in Bowlers Journal and Billiards Magazine, Congress Arcade proprietor Frank Spengler announced to sportsmen across the country that “there are many larger recreation establishments but none combine the beauty of design, harmony of color and modern detail of class found in this building.”   Rarely had words like “beauty” and “class,” and been used to describe a bowling or pool hall, but at the Congress Arcade, Spengler raised the stakes for recreation centers on the West Side and across Chicago.

Its original bowling and billiards halls may be gone along with its marquee and its ornate top story, but most evenings, night owls still come out in droves to the Congress’ resident clubs and restaurants.  After nearly ninety years, the Congress Arcade still draws in the crowds.


Billiards Magazine

Chicago “L”.org (www.chicago-l.org)

Chicago Daily Tribune

The Chicago L (Greg Borzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2007)

Chicago Building Permit No.114075 (July 31, 1925)

Dr. Jake’s Bowling History Blog (bowlinghistory.wordpress.com)

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map


2 Responses to ““A Recreational Masterpiece” on Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue”

  1. Macotta February 4, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    Might the architects be listed in the Terra Cotta Index?

    • johndcramer February 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      Thanks for your comment! My review of the American Terra Cotta Index hasn’t yielded an architect’s name unfortunately. Lincoln Square Bowl (formerly Lincoln Square Rec) is another Chicago recreation center from the 1920s that is big and beautiful but whose architect is sadly still a mystery.

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