Mysteries Solved on Our Wicker Park Neighborhood Tour

We’re going to answer some questions and solve some mysteries from our Old Polonia and Wicker Park Neighborhood Tour. Sometimes our tour guides get questions from curious tour guests which stump us, despite all the research we do! Being responsible and honest folks, we never fib. Instead, we take the time to do research and discover more about Chicago history. This neighborhood tour explores the half-century of transformations which changed the old “Polish Downtown” on the Northwest Side into the hippest neighborhood around. It’s a walking tour featuring food stops, the interior of a stunning Polish cathedral and an excursion down Beer Baron Row.

On to the questions!

Where does the name Podhalanka come from?

This question arose at the lovably old-fashioned Polish restaurant named Podhalanka which we visit for some home-cooked Polish food on the tour. Our tour guide, Marie, had a moment to ask Greg, one of the family members who runs the joint with the owner Halina, about the name. He said it’s the region of Poland the family is from. He says it’s beautiful and that we should all visit it! While that sounds very nice, searches of that term didn’t bring up any Polish regions–just our local restaurant.

podhale poland region
Turns out the family who runs Podhalanka hails from the stunningly beautiful region of Podhale. Photo via Wikimedia.

I did a bit more digging and found an answer in Whet Moser’s recent book (one of our beach reading suggestions). Moser clarifies that “Podhalanka” translates as “Girl from Podhale.” Podhale is the name of the region we’re looking for! Turns out this southern highland region, in the Carpathian Mountains, is indeed quite beautiful. Some confusion, but no lies detected! “The girl from Podhale” might therefore be Halina herself. If you haven’t met her and tried her delicious hand-made pierogies, come on our Old Polonia and Wicker Park Walking Tour (or just drop by Podhalanka, tell them we said hello!)

Wicker Park Food Tour Podhalanka Chicago Detours
Is Halina the namesake for Podhalanka? Photo by Pawel Skrabacz

Were Wicker Park mansions, like Beer Baron Row, raised to street level?

This question arose from the below-grade workers’ cottages which tour guests see early on in the tour. Seemingly-sunken homes abound in Noble Square, which was home to working-class immigrants in the 19th century. You can spot the same thing in South Side neighborhoods like Pilsen and Bridgeport, both of which we visit on our Chicago Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity Tour.

Chicago raised its street grade several feet during sewer construction in the late 1800s. The city built sewers at the existing ground level and then built streets atop the new embankments. The sunken buildings were typically built before the sewer construction and never raised to the new street level. Wealthier families or property owners who could afford to raise their buildings often did so, to sometimes spectacular effect.

All that being said, it does not seem that the mansions of Beer Baron Row were ever raised up. Noble Square and Wicker Park were within Chicago’s city limits all the way back in 1837. It’s a little hard to find definitive answers, but the new sewers almost certainly would have extended there by the early 1870s, when the local population boomed. The mansions were built later – the Raap House is 1879, for example. Considering the timing, and the fact that the bigwigs who built the mansions were not likely to construct them without modern sewage connections, the mansions were more likely built on landfill, not raised up.

moat overlooked beautiful buildings in Chicago beer baron row Rapp House
The mansions of Beer Baron Row, like the Raap House, lead to lots of questions on the Wicker Park Neighborhood Tour. Photo by Pawel Skrabacz.

 

Speaking of the Raap House, its builder was murdered?! When? Where? Was it in this house? DOES HE HAUNT THIS HOUSE?!

On our Wicker Park neighborhood tour we visit and admire the Raap House. While there, guides may mention that John Henry Raap, the man who built it, was murdered. Naturally, this leads to the sort of tour questions we see above.

Raap was one of those great immigrant success stories of Chicago’s early days. He arrived here from Germany as a young man and served briefly in the Union Army. Then he became a leading retailer, especially in alcohol. By the middle of the 1870s, he had become a liquor wholesaler, saloonkeeper, and importer of fine wines. Raap was one of the most successful German businessmen in Gilded Age Chicago and held some sway over the local Republican Party.

That all came to an end on April 23, 1897. Raap accused his employee George H. Braunschweig of embezzlement and fraud. The accusation was to the tune of $2300. That’s over $70k in today’s money! In an effort to settle the case, Braunschweig offered Raap undeveloped properties in suburban Park Ridge and Kensington. Raap, perhaps overplaying his hand, insisted on either cash or Braunschweig’s own plush home. Braunschweig responded by going to Raap’s business and asking for a meeting with his accuser. He then shot Raap in the head before turning the revolver on himself. Holy Scheisse!

So we knew about the murder, but the scene of the crime isn’t featured on the tour. That structure, the Raap Block, is long gone. It stood at what’s now 906 North Milwaukee Avenue in the Noble Square neighborhood. Today, that’s the middle of the Milwaukee Avenue bridge over the Kennedy Expressway. The ghost of John Raap is more likely wandering the highway than his Wicker Park mansion.

Wicker Park Neighborhood Tour Beer Baron Row John Rapp murder
The drawing which accompanied the story John Raap’s murder in an 1897 copy of the Tribune.

Only a Few Weeks Left for the Old Polonia and Wicker Park Neighborhood Tour!

Your chances to tour the old Polish Downtown with us in 2019 are getting pretty slim. The final Old Polonia and Wicker Park Tour with Food will be on Halloween, which is Thursday, October 31st. Much of the tour is outdoors as we explore the area around Noble Square and circle Wicker Park (the park itself, that is.) With the winds of winter starting to bite, we wrap up this and our other warm-weather tours by October’s end. So time is of the essence!

Of course, you can always sign up for our three year-round downtown walking tours (Loop Interior Architecture, Historic Chicago Walking Bar, and 1893 World’s Fair Walking Tour). We’re also bringing back our Holiday Tour of Drinks, Daleys, and Dead Guys in November and December. Make sure to think up your best questions for those tours–it’ll lead to more fun posts like this one!

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
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Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
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Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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