The Old World meets the new at a legendary Cicero restaurant that’s long served as an anchor for Chicago’s expansive Czech community.
But now, its legacy is under threat.
Geoffrey Baer joins us with the story of the Klas Restaurant in this week’s Ask Geoffrey.
I recently attended a fundraising event being held by various Czech groups in Cicero. They are trying to purchase the old Klas Restaurant on Cermak Road and save it from demolition. What’s the story of this unique old building?
Unique is truly the right word for the now shuttered Klas Restaurant, which as our questioner notes still stands on Cermak Road in Cicero, just west of Chicago.
You can’t miss the building’s gabled roof and Old World character. Notice the coats of arms and flourishes like bells and statuettes on the façade – it feels like something you’d stumble upon in a little village in Eastern Europe.
A signature highlight of the restaurant are its expansive murals, which depicted different stories and themes in the various rooms.
Some have been lost – but others survive under several layers of varnish, like those in the Russian Room, painted by a local artist named Gennadi Gordejev during the Great Depression.
The restaurant’s origins date back to 1922 when a Czech immigrant named Adolf Klas opened a tiny operation on the site – just six tables and a lunch counter. Klas served Czech staples like chicken paprikash and dumplings and of course beer.
Over the next few decades, the business and building grew considerably –eventually holding as many as 350 people in its banquet rooms and bar.
After Mr. Klas died in 1962, various owners kept the business going. The restaurant was also a must visit for various Czech and Czech-American dignitaries and celebrities, like former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright and a wide range of musicians, who would sometimes perform.
Klas ultimately closed its doors in 2016 mostly for financial and operational reasons, although many hope not for the last time – more on that in a minute.
The Klas Restaurant is just one remnant of the larger history of Czech communities that settled in the Chicago region.
Chicago’s first wave of Czech or Bohemian immigrants settled in Pilsen on the city’s Lower West Side in the late 1800s. The neighborhood even gets its name from the Czech city of Plzen, where Pilsner beer originated.
You can still see the distinctive baroque architecture Czech residents built all over the neighborhood and in neighboring Lawndale.
Eventually, many who could afford to leave the city moved to Cicero and Berwyn.
A big draw to Cicero was the Hawthorne Works Western Electric plant, which employed many Czech immigrants and families making America’s telephones.
A connecting line – literally – for all these communities was 22nd Street, known today as Cermak Road.
The street is named for Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, himself a Czech immigrant who served only two years in office in the early 1930s.
That was because of his untimely death! Cermak was shot and killed in Miami, Florida while appearing with President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt – an assassin was aiming for FDR but missed.
After he was shot, Cermak supposedly told Roosevelt “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” The veracity of the quote has been questioned by scholars, but it’s inscribed on the wall of Cermak’s crypt in Bohemian National Cemetery.
As for the Klas Restaurant today, it’s currently unoccupied and not in great shape.
But a coalition of Czech groups and residents say they have a tentative deal to buy and restore the building. They have to raise half a million dollars by October, and then quite a bit more for the restoration.
Their goal is to turn the building into a museum of Czech history, as well as a bar and event space.
They also hope to use it as a resource center for the now largely Latino community in Cicero. One organizer we spoke with hopes they can help people navigate legal and immigration issues, and offer job training and language services, among other things.
Did you know that you can dig through our Ask Geoffrey archives? Revisit your favorite episodes, discover new secrets about the city’s past, and ask Geoffrey your own questions for possible exploration in upcoming episodes. Find it all right here.
Do you have a question for Geoffrey? Ask him.