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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was a powerful magnet attracting Eastern European immigrants. One of the most colorful remnants of that era sits at 5734 W. Cermak Road in Cicero. Currently closed and moldering, an organized effort is trying to save it, and possibly transition it into a memorable place for immigrants from all parts of the world.
Klas Restaurant has been vacant since it closed about five years ago. From the street, an exuberant exterior of half timbers, carved stone, wooden shutters and metal spires is still an eye-catching presence.
Inside are vibrant murals, carved and painted wood details, chandeliers topped by groups of artisan-made human figures, cuckoo clocks and painted ceilings. All are frozen in time while the building awaits its next use.
While Klas Restaurant’s interior is a riot of colors, carvings and tchotchkes, the murals are especially fascinating. They depict, among other things, double headed eagles, firebirds, peacocks, archers, dancers and a sleigh ride. Most of the work is by Gennadi Gordeyev. (You can watch a video taken of the interior in 2017 here.) According to his granddaughter, Irene Hogstrom, Gordeyev fled Russia after supporting the Tsar in the 1917 Russian Revolution, eventually coming to Chicago.
“Immigrants helping immigrants”
Adolph and Ella Klas opened the restaurant in 1922 in one portion of the present building. Eleven years later, the couple began renovations that included Bohemian, Moravian and Russian themes. It was meant to be a sentimental salute to the Old Country in Cicero, a mostly Czech town at the time. There were other restaurants like it, including the still-operating Polish Highlander Alliance in Brighton Park and the long-closed Little Bohemia in Pilsen.
Adolph died in 1962, and Ella died in 1966. Their initials still appear in blue script on the façade.
The restaurant had several changes of ownership over the next half-century, during which the demographics of the surrounding area changed significantly. Once a largely Czech town, today Cicero is majority Hispanic or Latino.
Despite all its intricate detail inside and out — or perhaps because of it — Klas Restaurant building faced demolition in 2019, when a developer bought the property for $262,500. Soon after, the owner, whose name doesn’t appear in public records of the sale, applied for a demolition permit.
The town of Cicero issued the permit but “made it clear demolition is not going to be allowed,” said Marek Kutek, a Czech immigrant who’s now leading an effort to buy and preserve the building. “Nobody wants to see it become a CVS or Walgreens.” That was the fate of another old-world restaurant, Old Prague, a couple of blocks west on Cermak.
The permit ultimately expired, and the developer put Klas back on the market this year. In May 2021, the building was also added to a list of “Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.”
Kutek said the current owner has a deal with a coalition of Czech immigrants to buy the building for $397,000 by Oct. 2. The group is working to raise $3 million, which will also go to renovations and an endowment.
Maria Galindo, the ReMax 10 real estate agent representing the property, has not responded to phone calls requesting confirmation of the deal, but the online listing is marked “sale pending.”
Kutek has a personal attachment to the building. When he immigrated from Czechoslovakia in the late 1990s, the then-owners of Klas helped him find one of his first jobs at another Czech restaurant, the now-closed Little Europe Deli in Brookfield.
A general contractor, Kutek says he is “living the American Dream” — and wants to help pass that on to others. In addition to creating a museum, he wants to see the building become a vital space with banquet rooms and immigrant services, such as language lessons and legal counseling.
Hogstrom, the artist’s granddaughter, likes that idea: “It’s immigrants helping immigrants.”