For the first time in at least half a century, a legendary Jazz Age mural in the onetime Sunset Cafe building is on full-time public display to anyone who walks into the building at 315 E. 35th Street. The mural is now hanging directly in sight at a Bronzeville store as a proud remnant of an era when it was the backdrop for performances by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie.
Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin shares the history of the building where the mural has been kept for decades.
A jazz-filled history
While we don't know much about the mural, the building it's in has been well documented. It was built as a one-story garage in 1909, designed by Alfred Schartz and owned by George Furst.
Between 1910 and 1920, the Douglas neighborhood, where the building stands, was one of the areas where African-Americans, who came up to Chicago from the South as part of the Great Migration, were permitted to live in a narrow band known at the time as the Black Belt, which is now known as Bronzeville.
In 1919, the building was being used as the Calumet Billiards Hall. It was remodeled and got a second floor in 1921 to become a nightclub, originally called the Sunset Cafe, which was owned by real estate developer Samuel Rifas and tavern owner Edward Fox. It was one of several jazz spots in the neighborhood in the 1920s, including the Plantation, which was across the street, and Dreamland, the Deluxe, and the Elite, which were on State Street. The Sunset Cafe attracted both black and white patrons.
In 1923, Rifas and Fox leased the building to Joe Glaser, according to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds’ history of the property's ownership, and Glaser later became the owner. Glaser managed Louis Armstrong and became a big player in the music scene in Chicago — and eventually nationwide. But before, the South Sider started out managing prize fighters and moved into managing nightclubs and brothels connected to Al Capone's South Side mob.
Archival photos of the space, known as "Chicago's Brightest Dance Spot," show tall columns and decorated beams in the main room, with a proscenium arch carved over the stage. And in 1926, Louis Armstrong recorded the “Sunset Cafe Stomp,” which is about the nightclub.
After the nightclub scene
The club closed in 1950, and for a while, the building housed the Second Ward Regular Democratic Organization. In 1962, the Meyers family bought the building and moved its 40-year-old hardware store in. Meyer's Ace Hardware, which occupied the building from 1962 until 2017, had preserved and protected the mural and was generous about letting people see it. The store closed in 2017, and David Meyers, who was the third-generation owner of the store, sold the roughly 12,000-square-foot building for $405,000 to Langlee Properties.
John Ahn, the head of Maywood-based Langlee, said he’s looking into restoring the mural. He bought the building “mainly for the square footage," he said, but is proud of saving the mural he calls "the only historical artifact of that building's past.”