April 1, 2013

Place Setting: Cashing in on Chicago's History

Opting for a 1925 Bank Building Over Cookie Cutter Lounge Space was a Wise Transaction for Chicago's The Bedford

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

Cocktail lounges tend to strive for an air of exclusivity, but sipping dark-and-stormies between the armored walls of a steel-doored vault is about as elite as it gets. Of course, these days the vault door at The Bedford restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood remains open for its trendy patrons to drift through by way of the oak bar that stretches across the historic bank turned restaurant.

Constructed in 1925, the Classical Revival–style Home Bank and Trust Company building was designed by the noted Chicago firm Karl M. Vitzthum and Co. The six-story space operated as a bank (MB Financial Bank in later years) until 2010, when the business moved to a new building. While the structure’s façade, with intricately carved low-relief sculpture, was landmarked by the city in 2008, its interior was only partially protected. The ground floor that had served as the bank’s retail area was converted to house a CVS pharmacy. The bank’s cavernous basement, a 9,000-square-foot space, retained its historic vault, private banking booths, and other elements.

On the night I visited The Bedford, the hostess ushered my date and me to the main dining room past an ornate, gilded banking table with pens still dangling from chains, then beneath an original glass and brass entryway and into what was once the private banking area beside the vault. When property developers Salita Development acquired the abandoned subterranean rooms in 2010, they had no previous experience with historic properties. But the unusual space and mother lode of intact resources was inspiring. The developers reached out to the owners of the building, who gave them permission to reclaim materials from the CVS space during demolition. Gold-veined black marble that had served as teller counters on the main floor became a mosaic feature wall that now greets patrons as they descend the open staircase to the restaurant. Ivory marble salvaged during demolition filled in the space between two existing marble columns to create a striking 11-foot, double-sided fireplace separating the dining room from the bar area.

It was there, beside a flickering fire, that we settled into our table and studied the cocktail menu, casually affixed to a clipboard. My dining companion ordered the Cucumber Cooler, an invigorating concoction of gin, Aperol, lime, simple syrup, and fresh cucumber. I made mine the Bedford Bellini: peach-infused St. Germain, apricot liqueur, and ripe oranges. (The name of the cocktail, and the restaurant, pays homage to the historic building’s limestone exterior, quarried 260 miles south in Bedford, Ind. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, builders were looking to sturdier brick and stone materials, such as limestone.)

When our appetizers arrived—creamed kale and bacon crostini drizzled in caramelized onion vinaigrette, and “Grandma Ann’s” deviled eggs with hot sauce and bacon powder—we inquired about the building’s transformation from abandoned bank basement to stylish hot spot. Our server was happy to point out the original crown molding circling above our heads, the terrazzo floors throughout the restaurant, and a more-than-two-ton wall clad entirely in nickel-plated safe deposit boxes that once were freestanding in the vault. (The copper-faced boxes that lined the vault’s walls still gleam through the imposing steel doorway.)

“Be sure to check out the restrooms,” she told us with a grin.

The suggestion, albeit strange, was a good one. Pops of magenta furniture against an exposed-brick wall adorned with Chicago concert photos in the ladies room are offset by the building’s old-fashioned private banking booths and doors—with golden numbers painted on clouded-glass panes—repurposed as stalls. The men’s room, I’m told, features the same salvaged gold-swirled marble as the mosaic in the restaurant’s front entryway.

By the time our entrees appeared, we’d had a chance to imagine the Wicker Park residents who did their banking within these same rooms nearly 90 years ago. The neighborhood was incorporated as part of the city of Chicago in 1837 and from that point, through the first three decades of the 20th century, the area experienced a period of growth.

Today, Chef Mark Steuer occupies the kitchen in the old bank, striking it rich with an inventive menu. My scallops were nestled on a bed of creamy mushroom risotto with crispy leeks and a sherry glaze. My date’s entrée, an aromatic plate of potato-leek pierogies topped with caramelized apple, hazelnuts, and horseradish cream sauce, befit the neighborhood history; when Karl Vitzthum designed The Home Bank and Trust Company building, this area was the heart of Polish Downtown. History never tasted so good.

As we made our way out of the dining room, we passed through the vault lounge once more. Clusters of friends basked in the soft glow of chandelier light reflected on the copper-plated walls. Rather than squandering the value of this place, I thought to myself, the people behind the reinvented Bedford, and the neighborhood, invested instead. And it has certainly paid off.

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