Nobody remembers why the Heart O'Chicago Motel was built on Ridge instead of Lincoln like the rest of the north side's vintage 50s motels. But general manager Scott DeGraf is happy it worked out that way. "We're not on the strip," he says. "We don't want to be on the strip. There are too many drugs and prostitutes and all that."
The Heart O'Chicago has been in the DeGraf family since it opened, back in 1957. Scott's father's company, DeGraf Brothers, was originally the concrete contractor working on the motel, but when the developer went bankrupt, the brothers took over. Among travelers, particularly musicians, the motel's known as a clean, economical place to stay. ("That's basically our motto," says DeGraf.) Among Chicagoans, it's best known for its neon sign. DeGraf's wife frequently sees photos of it at art shows.
Because of the sign, DeGraf has received numerous requests—at least three or four a year—from production companies to use the motel as a location in movies and TV shows. He acquiesced just once, for 2003's Crime Spree. The shoot required that he shut the entire place down. After that, he vowed never again. "My wife says, 'It would be neat,'" he says, "and I say, 'No, no, no.'"
The sign has been standing as long as the motel. DeGraf takes great pains to keep it in good repair, to the point of flying to Las Vegas to buy replacement parts. He's afraid that if it ever falls down, the city won't let him put it back up again. "Signs aren't allowed to hang out over sidewalks anymore," he explains, "and there are height restrictions. I don't want to have to go stand in front of the City Council and say, 'I want my sign back.'"
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