Between two Randolph Street highrises is a distinct three-story building with a fanciful façade that’s steeped in Chicago history.
The Argo Tea building at 16 W. Randolph St. features three ached-doorways, a giant clock, a decorative parapet and a slender spindle. Despite signs of age — like the discolored streaks that mar the stucco — the building remains one of the most adorable in the city.
Built in 1934, the building was initially home to the elegant Old Heidelberg restaurant. From 1963 to 1999, Ronny’s Steak Palace served its famous T-bones inside those arched-doorways. And in 2000, the storefront was incorporated into a new 17-story dorm for the School of the Art Institute.
Argo Tea moved in after the space was briefly converted to a small theater in the early 2000s.
Here’s a closer look at the architects, builders and culinary history of the building where Jim Belushi’s character hung out in John Hughes’ 1991 movie Curly Sue.
Four entrepreneuring brothers from Germany
The charming little building was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the architecture firm also responsible for the Merchandise Mart, the Old Main Post Office and the Civic Opera Building.
But the building was built by two brothers from Germany, who used it to serve classic German food during a time when about one in five Chicagoans were of German descent.
The Eitel brothers (Emil, Karl, Max and Robert) came to Chicago from Stuttgart, Germany, near the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and quickly opened the luxurious Bismarck Hotel at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.
The brothers opened a second Bismarck Hotel, which they later expanded to include a theater at Randolph and Wells streets. The complex is now the Cadillac Palace Theater and Allegro Hotel — and the Eitel name remains carved in a cornerstone.
In the 1920s, Max and Robert Eitel broke off to start a restaurant firm. And in 1932, they got a contract to build and operate one of the biggest restaurants at the next World’s Fair on Chicago’s lakefront. That restaurant, the Old Heidelberg, inspired them to open the permanent eatery the following year at 16 W. Randolph St. — and it gave them the nod to sell their cuisine again at the New York World's Fair in 1939.
From brussels sprouts to steak and eggs
In 1963, Herman Munic converted the Old Heidelberg building to Ronny’s Steak Palace. He later divided the restaurant in half to also serve pizza by the slice.
The building’s sweet little façade became obscured by signs touting Ronny’s steaks and pizza by the slice.
That’s the glorious, greasy, rundown Ronny’s that I discovered in 1984 as a journalism student at Northwestern’s downtown newsroom. I’d order my pizza, move to the back and watch old movies on a big screen overhead. I had no idea I was sitting in the middle of so much Chicago history.
Saved from demolition
In the 2000s, the building was on a demolition list along with the Roosevelt, the Oriental and other theaters in a plan to redevelop the North Loop.
But city officials were eager to revive the theater district along Randolph Street, including the Goodman, the Joffrey Ballet and the Oriental (now Nederlander). So the city encouraged the School of the Art Institute to turn the building into a small theater. And with $1 million in city funds, the former Ronny’s became a home for the Noble Fool Theater company.
Today, the the façade is no longer obstructed, the small theater is gone and Argo Tea runs its nine stores in Chicago and New York out of the the colorful building.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain's Chicago Business and Reset's "What's That Building?" contributor.