The Daley Question
January 28, 2014
Q: Can you tell me anything about the Villa Moderne Nite Club from back in the 1940s and 1950s? We are trying to remember where it was located in the Chicagoland area and some of its history.
--Doris Ruchalski, Chicago
A: I was able to find some information about the Villa Moderne from the Tribune archives and online sources, but I'm sure there's a lot more to the story.
This is what can be found on the Highland Park Public Library Facebook page, alongside a beautifully atmospheric black-and-white photograph of the art deco club at night -- and its signature 25-foot-high Miller High Life beer bottle sign: "Once located on the southwest corner of Skokie Blvd. & County Line Rd., the Villa Moderne cafe-restaurant opened sometime around 1934 or 1935. The Art Deco hot spot featured Spanish Big Band leader Carlos Molina as well as Winnie Hoveler's unusual dance troupe, whose girls performed famous ballet numbers on swinging ladders. The second floor of the Villa Moderne was sometimes known for its closed door gambling via games of roulette and chuck-a-luck. The Villa Moderne was destroyed by a fire in 1956."
References in the Tribune to anniversary parties point to an opening on Halloween in 1934. Described in June 1939 as a "suburban café on the Skokie highway," the Villa Moderne was offering a "Tuesday South American Fiesta Night" with party favors, a "South American atmosphere" and free lessons in a new dance called "La Congra." In August 1941, Winnie Hoveler and her "dancing darlings," the troupe mentioned in the Highland Park library item, were featured in a Chicago Tribune story about the goings on at area clubs.
"This is not just a chorus line that is starring at Villa Moderne,'' wrote Will Davidson. 'It is an act -- a very versatile one. Every girl in this sextet is beautiful. Each one dances well, and is able to do a specialty when the production calls for it. As a unit, the girls can interpret a wide variety of native dance techniques -- for example, watch their beautifully costumed 'Gaucho Serenade' and the lively 'Viennese medley' -- or they can go into precision routines that are gems of technical perfection."
The Villa Moderne also turned up in hard news stories, too. "Gambling Raids Sweep N. Shore Pleasure Spots" was the headline to a Sept. 4, 1937, Tribune story. Among the places raided was the Villa Moderne, which, along with neighboring spots, were found "virtually deserted. No gambling was in progress." In an Aug. 22, 1939 story on lax enforcement of a ban on slot machines, the Tribune reported that the machines were "whirring merrily" across Cook County; "four were counted in the Villa Moderne."
Fire destroyed the Villa Moderne on April 24, 1956. "175 patrons escape; $225,000 loss" read the headline on the page 1 Tribune story.
"The blaze broke out about 9 p.m. in a charcoal grill adjacent to the dining room. Employees sought to put it out with fire extinguishers but the flames spread quickly thruout the building,'' the Tribune reported (using its own unique spelling for "throughout") "At the height of the fire, flames rose 100 feet in the air."
"Extensive" remodeling work was reportedly in progress on the exterior of the building at the time of the blaze. The Villa Modern was described as containing "four dining rooms, one of them upstairs, a lounge, a bar and the kitchens."
The Villa Moderne was rebuilt as a motor hotel just a few years later. A July 1958 story on the project described it as a 100-room, $2.5 million facility to be outfitted with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a 250-seat restaurant, meeting rooms and a winter ice skating rink. Nearly a year later, the Tribune ran a photograph of the first guests, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Wolfson, checking in.
Nancy Webster, archivist with the Highland Park Historical Society, sent me a photograph of a wonderful color postcard of a Villa Moderne room in all its mid-century glory. The back offers this caption: "A New Concept in Luxury Living. Award winning Rooms, each fully Air-conditioned with T.V. and Hi-Fi Suites & Kitchenettes also available. AAA Approved." And, at the bottom of the card, a promise: "Located only 21 Minutes from Chicago's Loop." Online, there's a 1960 advertisement for Libbey glassware features an illustration of the hotel. The headline reads: "At the Villa Moderne Motor Hotel…We want our guests to carry away a 'let's-come-back' impression."
Gustav Allgauer, the famed Chicago area restaurateur, opened a restaurant at the Villa Moderne in 1961, according to his 1972 newspaper obituary. Will Leonard visited for the Tribune and, in a Feb. 26, 1961 column titled "The Changing Scene: Cabarets for Commutersville," he wrote that the emphasis was on food rather than fun in Allgauer's "expansive café." In an October 1963 "Tower Ticker" column by Herb Lyon, Allgauer was credited with assisting in the success of Northwestern University's football team by having the players stay over Friday night and feeding them "jumbo breakfast steaks before kick-off time." Four years later, in May 1967, the Villa Moderne was the site of the Lake Forest woman's club annual spring luncheon. "A Wide World of Song" was the theme, with folk songs from around the world performed.
There the story fades, at least for me. Webster says the Villa Moderne became a Holiday Inn. I'd like to know more about the Villa Moderne and what happened in it and to it over the years. If you have any information, let me know.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.
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