The Story of Old Town
With a rich history as a neighborhood for artists, the gay and lesbian communities, and budding comedians, the history of Old Town is as colorful as the shutters on some of its row homes.
In the 1920s, Henry Gerber, a German-born Chicagoan, founded the first gay rights group in the country, the Society for Human Rights. His Old Town home at 1710 North Crilly Court, which was raided after he published a gay rights newsletter, is now a National Historic Landmark. In later decades, following in Gerber’s footsteps, the neighborhood had a large gay and lesbian community.
Watch: Old Town
In the mid-20th century, the neighborhood became a popular artist and hippie enclave. In 1950, a group of artists founded what was then called the “Old Town Holiday,” a fair where artists hung their work along fences. Along with the art, the “Old Town” name stuck. (It was previously called “North Town,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.) Today, the Old Town Art Fair is still a draw for visitors to the community. It’s one of two popular art fairs in Old Town, along with the Wells Street Art Festival.
Today, The Second City improvisational comedy theater is one of the best-known landmarks in the neighborhood. Founded in 1959 by a troupe of performers who invented the art of improvisation in Chicago, comedians including Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, and countless others have performed in its cabaret-style theater on Wells Street.
Old Town is now home to restored mansions and rowhouses, upscale shops, and restaurants. It has also been home to the Midwest Buddhist Temple since 1971. It is officially part of both the Lincoln Park and Near North Side community areas, with a stop at the Sedgwick Brown Line station.
Neighborhood Spotlight: St. Michael in Old Town
Tucked away on Eugenie Street, with a tower soaring over the quiet neighborhood streets below, is St. Michael in Old Town, a Catholic parish that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Before it was a source of neighborhood architectural pride, St. Michael in Old Town started as a small wooden church on a plot of land donated by a wealthy, local brewer named Michael Diversey. According to the church’s website, the Diocese of Chicago authorized the parish for the many German immigrants that lived in the surrounding community at the time. The parish, which opened in 1852, was named St. Michael, in honor of both the angel and the man who donated the church’s land.
A much larger, brick church was built on Eugenie Street in 1869, its 200-foot steeple surpassing the 140-foot Chicago Water Tower. But two years later, the Chicago Fire destroyed everything but the walls of the church. Even the church’s bells melted and collapsed into the building. Parishioners began rebuilding the next week, and the St. Michael that stands in Old Town today opened in 1873. The church’s new, 290-foot spire was dedicated 15 years later.
The church’s interior underwent a series of renovations throughout the twentieth century. It has 16 stained glass windows that are more than a century old and depict various religious scenes, including moments of the Virgin Mary’s life. In 1902, the parish installed five altars made of carved, painted wood. The ornate Romanesque main altar sits at the front of the church and contains a carving of the Last Supper. A large pipe organ was installed in 1925 and still sits with its 2,690 pipes in the balcony at the back of the church.
Things to Do
Catch a comedy show at The Second City and then head across the street to Old Town Ale House, a cash-only neighborhood bar.