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Morning Shift

What's That Building? The Factory Where Ukuleles And Lincoln Logs Were Made

Built in 1904, the red brick factory building at 1750 N. Lawndale Avenue is where Lincoln Logs were made from the 1940s through the 1970s. Dennis Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business residential real estate reporter, joins Morning Shift to dig up its history.

Before 1904, this building was the home of Harmony Musical Instrument Co., which was a major manufacturer of stringed musical instruments including not only guitars and violins but ukuleles. The firm was purchased in the 1910s by Sears when that company wanted to corner the booming ukulele market. Apparently there was a ukulele craze starting in 1915, thanks to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that year in San Francisco, where Hawaii had its own building. You could get free samples of pineapple and listen to ukulele performers.

Back in Chicago, Harmony, founded in 1892, had been making ukuleles and other stringed instruments in its factory on Lawndale Avenue, built in 1904, where it employed 125 people. As the ukulele craze grew, Sears, also based in Chicago, wanted to dominate the business, so it bought out Harmony. 

In 1923, Sears sold a quarter of a million Harmony ukuleles, and in 1930, half a million. They also made violins and guitars. In the early 1940s, Sears got out of the ukulele business and sold the company, which moved to a new factory on the South Side.

Front of 1750 N. Lawndale Ave. in Humboldt Park. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

In 1943, the building became the Lincoln Log factory, operated by Playskool. John Lloyd Wright, a son of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the toy building system in 1916, when he came back to Chicago after working for his father in Japan on the Imperial Hotel project. He modeled them on the interlocking beams that made the hotel capable of withstanding earthquakes. In 1920, he patented the design and opened a company that was first called The Red Square Toy Company, named after his father's trademark red block, but because of anti-communist sentiment, he changed it to the JL Wright Toy Company. Early sets of Lincoln Logs came with instructions for how to build a model of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Th Water Tower from the rear of 1750 N. Lawndale Avenue in Humboldt Park. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

In 1943, Wright and his partners sold to Playskool, which set up the Lawndale factory. It was there until the mid-1970s, when a subsequent owner of Playskool moved production to China. From around that time until last year, a cabinet company occupied the building. Its surroundings changed dramatically two years ago, with the opening of the 606 trail. This building is at the western end of the trail.

A developer bought the somewhat rundown building in 2015 and announced plans to put 606-related businesses in it, such as a brewery, coffee roaster or bike shop. Two years later, in June of this year, the developer re-sold the building, to a buyer who's going to fill it with self-storage units, not quite the sexy use that had been intended.

Here's what Dan Glisovich told DNA Info in August 2015: 

"We'd like to put something here so people have a destination, some place to come and hang out at the end or beginning of the trail. It's like one big party now; the Wicker Park people meet the Humboldt Park people and vice versa. It's just going to keep going with more synergy." 

His plans for the site didn't pan out.

Martin Taradejna, a member of the limited-liability company that bought the site in June, said the building was perfect for storage unit rentals. When he and his partners met with 26th Ward Ald. Maldonado, "he and the community wanted something that was low traffic traffic, so for somebody to do apartments or a restaurant wasn't ideal for the community," he said.

This may be a sign that gentrification hasn't spread west along the trail enough to support a fancy, trendy use of a prominent building at that end. "I'd give it a few more years," Taradejna said. "West Humboldt Park and West Logan Square are getting there, and the 606 has probably helped."

Taradejna said fitting the building out for storage units will take eight to 12 months, and he expects rentals to start in late 2018. 

Will Chicago be talking about this building again in a few years, when the market can better support a retail business like a brewery? Maybe storage turns out to be a temporary use, a placeholder this owner is using until a higher-visibility use can get going? The layers of Chicago history in the building are thick. And now it's in the middle of the gentrification story of Humboldt Park.

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