What's That Building? The Site Of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre
After seven Chicago mobsters were killed at a North Side garage on Feb. 14, 1929, the shootings quickly became known around the world as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
The shootings at 2122 N. Clark St. were an especially bloody episode in the warfare between two Prohibition-era gangs for control of bootleg liquor in Chicago. Al Capone ran the gang that controlled liquor deliveries on the South Side, and George "Bugs" Moran ran a rival gang on the North Side.
But the building where the massacre took place no longer exists, and the site has no commemorations to mark what happened there. This Valentine’s Day, Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin answers the question: What happened to that building?
On Valentine’s Day, 89 years ago
On Feb. 14, 1929, four men carrying guns walked into the SMC Cartage Company building. The shooters lined up seven men from Moran’s gang against a brick wall and gunned them down with submachine guns and shotguns, firing at least 70 rounds. Witnesses said two of the men were dressed as cops and held the other two at gunpoint (as if arresting them) as they left the scene, driving away in a black Cadillac with a siren.
Almost overnight, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre became a worldwide symbol of the gangs that were terrorizing Chicago — and other cities — during Prohibition. Just three years later, it was depicted in the gangster movie Scarface, with a voice-over saying, as seven silhouettes line up against a wall, "Don't you know it's Valentine's Day?"
The building’s infamy
SMC Cartage was housed in a flat-fronted 1 ½ -story brick storefront with very little architecture detail, just one slight peak in its parapet and two ornamental lanterns near the top. In 1949, the storefront was rented to a family who operated it as an antique-storage facility.
Hollywood brought a new surge in attention to the notorious St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1958 and 1959. In 1958, a CBS anthology series called Playhouse 90 aired a re-enactment of the shootings called “Seven Against the Wall,” and in 1959, the Billy Wilder gender-swapping comedy Some Like it Hot opened with a scene that inserts two musicians into the massacre as unwitting witnesses who have to flee from the mobsters after being spotted in the garage.
By 1967, 2122 N. Clark St. was empty and a target of the urban renewal movement that was sweeping through much of Lincoln Park. Along with 10 other buildings on the west side of Clark Street south of Webster Avenue, it was designated for demolition with the intention of being replaced by public housing.
"Generally we try to preserve buildings that are of historical significance to the city,” George Stone, a leader of the urban renewal program told the Chicago Tribune, “but this is something we'd rather not remember."
Built on the site of the 11 buildings was an eight-story brick building now housing seniors and called the Margaret Day Blake Apartments, named for a wealthy social reformer who was one of the leaders of the Illinois suffrage movement. She also worked on behalf of the rights of laborers, women, and immigrants, and she was a big donor to the Art Institute of Chicago. She died in 1971.
The site is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, and there's no marker commemorating what happened there 89 years ago.
From Chicago to Vancouver
The brick wall on the indoor north side of SMC Cartage, where those seven men lined up to be gunned down, has lived on after the building’s demolition.
When the SMC Cartage building was slated for demolition in the summer of 1967, it was the subject of national news again after the release of another movie about the shootings, this one called the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Canadian entrepreneur George Patey heard about it and had the wall’s 417 bricks dismantled, numbered, and shipped to Vancouver.
In 1971, Patey opened the Banjo Palace, a Vancouver nightclub with a Roaring ’20s theme, and installed the brick wall behind a row of urinals with painted targets on some of the remaining bullet holes. The bricks were behind glass, but signs encouraged men to "Piss on it! It's History Down the Drain!" Patey told the Tribune that the wall was such a popular attraction that he had to schedule times when women could come into that men's room and see. The place closed in 1976.
History on display
Patey kept the bricks in storage and sold them to the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Officially called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, it is located in an early 1930s courthouse building in downtown Las Vegas.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre wall is one of the first exhibits visitors see after taking an elevator to the third floor. Also on display are several boxes of the bullets that police officers collected as evidence.