Main-Dempster Mile History

Today I am taking over the Main-Dempster Mile Instagram account and some of the stories warrant a bit more background that Instagram has space for. I’ve been a Main-Dempster Mile resident since 2000, and document many of the block parties and wine walks since they’re the perfect way to bump into friends! I also wrote love letters to some of my favorite businesses during this February’s Valentine’s Day poster initiative.

Downtown Evanston Looking South toward Chicago

My instagram is full of Main-Dempster Highlights, so I opted to go to the Evanston History Center and see what I could find out about my neighborhood’s past. I found some aerial views that skirt the MDM boundary, but I love seeing this for context in how dense Evanston has become since whenever these photos were taken.

“Dempster Street looking West taken in 1921 from ‘Aeroplane’ by W.B. Bapter from drainage canal.”

Chicago Avenue, looking North from above Madison Street, from Fire Station #2, undated

Dempster Street

Janet G. Messenger writes in Encountering Evanston History that Maria Murray Robertson, the first Black resident of Evanston the 1840s, lived on 325 Dempster street, with the first co-owner of Henry Butler Livery living next door. I bet we can uncover more Main and Dempster history at Shorefront Legacy Center.

This is “Dempster Street looking West c.a. 1900”

This isn’t quite in our boundary, but is one of the earliest photographs the archivists at the Evanston History Center pulld for Dempster Street. And as you can see, there is guesswork in dating and placing historic photographs.

Becker’s Auto Radio Headquarters was at 601 Dempster in 1936, and I love this undated and uncredited group photo.

I am curious about all the other tenants that were here before Dozika, Secret Treasures, Shaker Traditions, and Bagel Art. Frio Gelato was an ice cream store when I moved here in 2000, but hosted a pizzeria between those eras.Both buildings intrigue me architecturally too-more to learn and research!

Chicago Avenue

1311 Chicago Avenue by C.K. Anderson in 1950 and its neighbor still stands.
919 Chicago Avenue was an ACE hardware before it became now Avenue Hair (taken by the undated and uncredited sign enforcer)

Chicago Avenue became “Automobile Alley” in the 1940s when Joe Levy opened Carole Buick (named after his wife) on 1036 Chicago Avenue. In Encountering Evanston History, Mary Helt Gavin wrote that “from the 1940s onward, Chicago Avenue south of Dempster street was the place to buy a car.” Greenleaf to Lee streets upheld that tradition until recently. Oscar Isberian Rugs has been here since the 1960s. Interestingly, these photos were taken by someone looking for sign violations, or this historic record of car dealerships wouldn’t exist. The first reference to the 1201 Chicago Shell Service Station in the online Evanston Newspaper archives is 1946, but this photo is undated. Warren’s Auto Service is highly recommended on local facebook pages.

Main Street

Main looking West by Alfred Kamin 1951

Main looking West by Alfred Kamin 1951

Neither the bank nor the building across the intersection exist anymore in this undated Main & Chicago Avenue photo by the Chamber of Commerce. What was ‘saved’ is the Main-Chicago Newsstand, with its vintage sign intact, but there was a lot of community activism around keeping it here. Neither the owners nor the archives have a photo of the original building. The original newsstand posted ads about having the Sunday New York Times available in 1959.

Main Street boasts a few older businesses, with the even (south) side of the street staying intact until 2 years ago when Vogue Fabrics vacated. Making Main a “Shopper’s Mecca” has been a discussion throughout the decades.

Encountering Evanston History mentions that Good’s started as a paint store in 1903 before it became a framing shop (and art supply store until Blick’s moved to town). I see a sign that is dated 1933 but then there is a vacant sign in the photo labeled as 1935, so clearly there is some fact-checking to be done on when Good’s actually moved in this building and where the original store was. Happily, Masterpiece framing continues the legacy of a frame shop at this address and reprise took on the other half of the building. 718-724 Main — taken in in 1933 by Chas E. Barker — used to be Crawford’s Department Store. I frequented Vogue Fabrics when it owned the building. Now it is the newly constructed Tapestry Station Apartments.

Virag is the oldest existing jeweler in Evanston and opened in 1936 on 910 Chicago Avenue. It is still family owned, and moved to Main street in the 1960s. Another historic business on this block is Dave’s Down To Earth Rock Shop. lt started out in 1970 on 1312 Chicago avenue but moved to 704 Main Street in 1887 to build the David and Sandra Douglass Prehistoric Life Museum. The store and museum moved across the street in 2015 and Cultivate now hosts an oasis of plants and the occasional dinosaur sculpture at 704 Main.

708 Main Street in 1933  had a cleaners and a creamery – now Trattoria D.O.C. by Chas E. Barker

Davis Furniture at 721-723 Main had a “sheltered elevated train entrance” and the local newspaper ran ads from 1924 until a liquidation sale in 1959. This building is now a parking lot.

Main & Sherman Looking East, undated & uncredited but with cute awnings! Quite the change here.

Our candy cane streetlights will be replaced this year.


Not all Hotels were tourist hotels

Evanston is sprinkled with buildings engraved with ‘hotel’ but not all were for travelers. Margery Blair Perkins wrote that: “The Georgian, Homestead, Ridgeview and Evanshire hotels brought the convenience of apartment life to many Evanstonians. Located on the edges of the business districts, they offered convenience and elegance to those who no longer wished to maintain single-family residences” (page 106-Evanston, a Tour through the city’s history a.k.a Evanstoniana). The terracotta banquets on the Evanshire were pressed and baked in molds by Northwest Terracotta Company in Elgin.

Evanshire Hotel built in 1923

I found some old ads of the Ridgeview in a a periodical in the Library’s Evanstoniana Room. I love the way it was advertised with light, gas, electric, refrigeration and maid service, plus optional kitchenette. Now it is the much ‘umstritten’ Albany Care, a residence for those with addiction and mental illness.

Madeline Crispell hosted a walking tour in September and in discussing the Colonade mentioned that Evanston wanted to attract the upper middle class from other suburban areas, with prosperous developers and architect enthusiasts building luxury apartment buildings with varying architectural elements, since the town was less dense than New York City. Colonade Court was built in 1929 at corner of Main and Hinman. Colonade Court was built in 1929 at the corner of Main and Hinman Built in Italian renaissance Revival style, it used to have a fountain and the wood ceilings were painted both in the common areas and in the units. An ad listed “3 and 4 rooms close to shopping and transportation. Ultra modern appointments with old world atmosphere.”

Next to Colonade Court is where Chocolatier Piron had its beginning in 1986. My go-to drycleaners when I still wore suits is 507 Cleaners, which opened its doors in 2000. Kuni’s and Oceanique have been here for decades as well.

There are so many gaps in the archival records, but I think with magazine photos and crowdsourcing we can help preserve more of our local history. I want to know more about the buildings across the Main Street station, and am working on another history project as well.

Wanna find out more?

Many thanks to the Evanston History Center at Dawes House for their permission to use these photos. The Evanston History Center provides exhibits, talks, walking tours and historical archives to Evanston’s residents and the public. The research room “provides access to a significant archive of historical materials and records, including biographical files, city directories and phone books, building permits, and local newspapers, among other sources.” To learn more about researching YOUR Evanston past, click here. 

As you can tell, there are gaps in the photo archives, so if you have more to add, I bet it would be something we could crowdsource. Check out upcoming events and exhibits here. The Dawes House is closed until April 2 for a film shoot (it’s rumored to be spooky-I am very curious).

I checked out the library books I don’t own yet from the Evanston Public Library to learn more about my town, and your independent bookstore is happy to order any of these, many by local authors.

I only stepped into the Evanstoniana room last week but I fell in love. It has numerous vintage editions of local authors like Frances Willard and Lucy Fitch Perkins, a bunch of directories from various organizations, Historic Real Estate Maps, old magazines, City Annual Reports, ETHS Yearbooks, Evanstonian, and a lovely sculpture. You cannot check anything out since everything in there is fragile, but you will be charmed if you love history. This Kiwanis Club gem is actually archived online. Evanstoniana Room is located on the 2nd floor of the Main Library. I also learned this month that a huge number of Evanston newspapers were digitized and are online since last Fall. If you have a library card number, you can access it all from your home.

*For non-locals: the Main-Dempster Mile is a special service association that promotes the merchants in our neighborhood and hosts fun events to activate the local economy.

All historic photos are posted by permission of the Evanston History Center, which owns the copyrights to these. Present-day pictures are taken by me, and copyright law applies to those as well.

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