BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
“In Edgewater There Are No Others!”
(Bob Remer, President of the Edgewater Historical Society)
On my many bike rides through and around the Edgewater Community, I discovered this delightful little museum located in a restored 1926 City of Chicago firehouse on Ashland and Balmoral Avenues. It is a veritable treasure trove of interesting artifacts, photographs, and documents chronicling the history of the Edgewater Community, inspiring me to further explore what John Lewis Cochran, the original developer of the area in 1885, called the “choicest spot in Chicago for residence or for investment.”
Before I set out, I met with Bob Remer, the current president of the EHS, an impressively knowledgeable and enthusiastic denizen of Edgewater. He is deeply involved in the community and was most generous and affable in sharing highlights, up-to-date information, and interesting trivia (including the tidbit that Hillary Clinton was born in Edgewater Hospital and spent her toddler years here).
His quote above about “no others” refers, of course, to the great cultural and ethnic diversity of this neighborhood that encompasses an area bounded by Foster Avenue on the south, Devon Avenue on the north, Ravenswood Avenue on the west, and Lake Michigan on the east. Among others, I learned about the famous Edgewater Beach Hotel. The museum is presently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the hotel’s opening in 1916 with amusing displays of vintage dinnerware and pictures of patron celebrities and entertainers, including a statue of Cleopatra, commemorating a theatrical performance of “Caesar and Cleopatra.”
The Edgewater Beach Hotel closed in 1967 to make way for a multi-storied glass and steel building. Actually, I remember watching the wrecking operation from the neighboring Saddle and Cycle Club. We were rubbernecking while sipping lethal rum drinks and nibbling tuna salad sandwiches.
We also spoke about Edgewater’s historic districts: the Bryn Mawr Historic District, the Andersonville Historic District, and the Lakewood Balmoral Historic District that has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999, boasting hundreds of landmarked buildings that contribute to the historic character of the area. Bob reminded me that the Annual Edgewater Home Tour on the third Sunday in September is not to be missed.
I then biked off to pay a visit to one of my most favorite places in the city, the Gethsemane Garden Center, and to chat with Regas Chefas, its founder and owner.
It is indeed one of the most precious jewels in the crown of Edgewater, appreciated well beyond the limits of this community, by city gardeners, landscape designers, plant lovers, browsers in beauty (such as myself), and, yes, by all of us who buy their Christmas trees there. Nothing like a Christmas tree from Gethsemane, the tree that never sheds, that smells and looks fresh even after 3 weeks in heated living rooms.
Regas and I walked around (he likes to walk around, rather than sit in his office) stopping now among the outdoor annuals—glowing in red, yellow, orange, and purple fall colors—and then in the greenhouse, where fabulous orchids bloom among a dazzling variety of green plants and small bushes.
Seated at the edge of a small pool, where goldfish flit and cajole, Regas told me a bit about his beginnings and the beginnings of Gethsemane Garden: “I started out selling Christmas trees—my brother raised Christmas trees in Michigan . . . I didn’t know a thing about flowers but liked gardening—my family had a Victory Garden in World War II.“ It was from a small lot his father owned here that Gethsemane “flowered” gradually into the successful garden center it now is. I told him that I, especially in the winter when Chicago’s grey palette gets to me, often come to the green house or to the outdoor tree and shrub area, to relax and smell the freshness of green. He smiled, saying that I was no exception, that some visitors to Chicago will tour his greenhouse instead of Lincoln Park or Garfield conservatories.
On a previous visit, I had the pleasure to meet Kathleen Chefas, Regas’s wife of many years, who runs the attractive Wild Pansy Gift Shop, an important aspect of the Garden Center. She pointed out that it is not just a garden gift shop, but that her offerings are manifold, from antique wooden cabinets to imported teas, jewelry, painted ceramics, and many other decorative items.
Both Kathleen and Regas impressed me with their unpretentious, warm, and friendly manner—clearly a major asset in their relationship with their many customers of long standing.
Thus, to paraphrase a line of the Edelweiss song of Sound of Music fame: may Gethsemane “bloom and grow forever!”
In the meantime, I had not forgotten about Bob Remer’s recommendation to participate in the 28th Annual Edgewater Home Tour, featuring the interior of homes in Lakewood/Balmoral. Friends and I met at the Unity Lutheran Church and then walked (it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon) to see some extraordinary houses. Built between 1895 and 1920, they represent a range of architectural styles: Queen Anne, American Foursquare, Arts and Crafts, and Prairie. I was particularly impressed, not only by the dedication, care, and commitment of each owner to maintain the architectural authenticity of their homes, but also by their abiding interest in and love of their community.
Not on this walk, but certainly on the list of “Notable Architecture,” are the elegant Prairie Style Walter Burley Griffin Twin Houses (John Gauler Houses) on Magnolia Street. Walter Burley Griffin worked with Frank Lloyd Wright before he started his own architectural firm.
I met Ryan Hennessy, the present owner of one of the houses, while biking on Magnolia. We struck up a conversation, and he kindly invited me to view the interior, mentioning that he and his girlfriend are in the process of bringing the house back to its original condition. Painstaking but most rewarding work that aims at balancing authenticity with contemporary amenities. No doubt they will succeed since, as he said, “The house brought us to the neighborhood, and we love the Edgewater neighborhood.”