Fading Memories of Germany | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Fading Memories of Germany

Lincoln Square artist Lothar Speer said he’d restore his prominent German heritage mural. But as the neighborhood has become less German and more gentrified, he wonders if anyone really cares anymore.

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A Touch of Europe: Memories of Germany first went up in Lincoln Square in 1991. It's now in need of repair. - COURTESY LOTHAR SPEER
  • courtesy Lothar Speer
  • A Touch of Europe: Memories of Germany first went up in Lincoln Square in 1991. It's now in need of repair.

Lincoln Square artist Lothar Speer recalled the time in 1991 he was called to O’Hare Airport to pick up a shipment of Keim paint. He’d ordered it directly from its German manufacturer for an outdoor mural he planned to create. Keim is an expensive, mineral silicate paint whose colors bind tightly to surfaces and can last decades, so Speer was horrified to see a customs inspector don rubber gloves and reach into the buckets to check for contraband, precious liquid pigment dripping from his arms.

“This stuff is like heroin, man—it’s like gold!” explained the bearish, gregarious Speer, sitting at a table in Cafe Selmarie last February, steps away from the prominent public artwork for which the classically trained painter is most well known. He was taking a break from organizing his new Damen Avenue studio, after years of working in a cramped space along the pedestrian-friendly Lincoln Avenue business strip. “I thought, ‘There goes a hundred dollars of paint!’”

But it all worked out—mostly. Speer, a native of the Stuttgart area in Germany, and his assistants used a couple thousand dollars worth of long-lasting paint to create Chicago’s perhaps most recognizable ethnic neighborhood mural. The whopping A Touch of Europe: Memories of Germany, or as it’s informally known, the “Lincoln Square Mural,” looms over parking lots off Western Avenue that throng with German festival goers in summer months. (As it turned out, Speer miscalculated the wall’s dimensions and had to order an extra thousand dollars worth of paint anyway.)

Sponsored by the German Day Association along with other German-American organizations, businesses, and individuals, the 3,000-square foot, ochre-hued mural on what’s now a Chicago Athletic Clubs building at Lincoln and Leland Avenues aimed to reflect the neighborhood’s German heritage. It depicts a composite of landmarks from the old country—from the Rhine River to the Black Forest to the Alps, from Bavarian villages to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, from castles to cathedrals—in one sweeping panoramic scene. Reflecting the community’s diversity, the muralists included an image of a multicultural group of children playing games together (in contrast to its scenes of adults working).

“The mural has never gotten defaced, even with certain groups of young [taggers] in the neighborhood,” declared Speer. But while the Keim paint has largely held up—buildings painted with it in Germany in the late 19th century are still in fine shape, with periodic touch ups—the wall has suffered some indignities in recent years that have damaged the mural, giving it a scruffy, neglected look. It was battered by CAC building renovations almost a decade ago, and bruised a couple years later by a festival tent. In both cases, he couldn’t raise the funds to repair the wall and repaint the mural.

Speer has been thinking about renewing the effort since last fall; he said he’s willing to go back up on the scaffolding (“even though I’m overweight”) but no longer wanted to lead a campaign himself, saying it had “caused headaches and stress” in the past. But recently Lincoln Square has become less of a German-American neighborhood. In December 2017 the 52-year-old icon Chicago Brauhaus on the main business strip closed, which Speer said felt “like stabbing a knife in the heart of the German community.” The neighborhood has seen an influx of young professionals, families, and more people of other races and ethnicities, making him wonder whether the community even cares about the mural anymore, and if it is worth trying to save.

Sure, the DANK Haus remains a vital arts, cultural, and community center. The private Niedersachsen Club still stages German-themed events. You can still get schnitzel at Laschet’s Inn, baumkuchen at Lutz Cafe and Pastry shop, and German products at Merz Apothecary, which has been owned by a family of Indian descent since the 1970s. You can still drink German imports with a few regulars and mixed crowds in the divey Hansa Clipper and the alpine-accented Huettenbar. The Maifest and Oktoberfest are still celebrated with brews, brats, and bands (though both were canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic).

“The only little German we have left on the north side is right there,” said longtime community leader Erich Himmel, the 30-year president of the United German-American Societies of Greater Chicago, which sponsors Oktoberfest and its Von Steuben Parade. (The German Day Association, which he also helms, is one of its 39 members.) “There are still a lot of German coffee shops and restaurants. We still have our German functions there.” (His daughters Diana and Carol own Himmel’s, on Lawrence, which serves German and Italian fare.)

But almost a decade ago, the CAC rejected Speer’s restoration proposal, claiming poverty, and the local German community didn’t extend a lifeline. A project that he estimates would cost more than $35,000 (up from $25,000 in 2011) could still be a tough sell in these economically challenged times. “There seems to be no neighborhood interest in preserving the mural, as far as I can tell—that’s just my impression,” he lamented. “Otherwise, somebody or a small group of people would stand up for it . . . We feel the German leadership has abandoned the mural.”

“I’d hate to lose it—it’s a big part of our community,” Dagmar Freiberger, president of the DANK Haus, told me in June. She had first approached Speer last fall with what each of them agreed were “last hurrah” ideas to help save the mural. But since the March shutdown, the 61-year-old organization, which occupies a hulking, six-story former men’s social club and hotel on Western near Lawrence, has plunged deep in the red due to the cancellation of classes, cultural events, room rentals, and festivals.

“It’s not going to happen now,” she continued. “We’re just barely keeping the doors open right now. I don’t want to be Debbie Downer . . .I knew even before COVID, it was going to be difficult—it wasn’t going to be an easy task.” Yet, she added, “I think the German community should come together and have it restored.”

I asked Himmel—who’s pictured in the mural wearing what Speer called a Bavarian hunting outfit—about that. “I’ll be honest with you. If he’s talking about [$35,000], he’s nuts,” he said. “Because to raise that from the [German] clubs now, it’s impossible,” particularly with the loss of festival revenue. Still, he added, “If you just say goodbye to everything and don’t keep it up you might as well pack it up. I think it should be taken care of . . . You have to keep plugging away.”

The city was non-committal. Bindu Poorori, the arts and events coordinator for 47th Ward alderman Matt Martin , wrote me in a statement: “Our understanding is that there is a passive interest from all stakeholders to participate in a new campaign to restore the mural, but we haven’t heard of any additional momentum or leadership around the project currently.” She added that since the work is on private property it’s “not under our direct jurisdiction.”

Speer, 58, is one of those happy few Chicago artists who’s managed to cobble together a decent living from many seemingly disparate parts. Born and raised in the medieval town of Weil der Stadt, (birthplace of astronomer Johannes Kepler) in southwest Germany, Speer was the son of an architect father and an artist mother, who’d lived in Chicago for a while before returning to Germany to get married. Speer said he knew he was destined to be an artist by age six, and learned to draw as a teen by copying the works of Albrecht Dürer. Drawn to technical mastery, he trained during the 1980s in the mold of the Old Masters at fine art academies in Vienna and Basel, where he studied Michelangelo and Rembrandt, along with figure drawing and portraiture. Moving to Chicago in 1987 at the invitation of another German family, Speer attended Mundelein College before earning degrees at Loyola University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

But you could hardly make a living in Chicago as a Renaissance-style artist who ground his own pigments with pestles. After seeing a flyer, Speer trained for and worked as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. “It’s one thing to be overqualified” for work most artists would consider “carny, low-brow,” he said. “It’s another thing to make money drawing—it didn’t matter what style.” In 1997 Speer founded Faces in Focus Event and Party Art, a crew of artists and illustrators who create caricatures and portraits of tourists at Navy Pier and other locations. (The business is closed indefinitely because of the pandemic.)

In winters, Speer teaches figure drawing and portrait workshops at the Studios of Key West in Florida, staying in a mobile home. He has worked as a church muralist, a courtroom sketch artist, a commissioned portrait painter, a fantasy illustrator, and restaurant muralist—he painted baroque scenes in Garcia’s on the Lincoln business strip that avoid the visual cliches of most Mexican restaurant art. For the past seven years, he has found a niche in “live event wedding paintings,” where couples hire him to paint a series of pictures of their weddings and receptions. “I’ve had to diversify my skills in order to thrive as an artist—it was necessary for survival,” he said. “I’d much rather have had a calm, peaceful, and boring artist’s life.”

Lothar Speer now makes a living with several artistic ventures, including live painting weddings. - COURTESY LOTHAR SPEER
  • courtesy Lothar Speer
  • Lothar Speer now makes a living with several artistic ventures, including live painting weddings.

The linchpin for the 1991 Lincoln Square mural wasn’t a German-American but a Mexican-American—Fred Montano, then 39, who’d recently started a mural arts nonprofit called City at Work. (Montano, perhaps best known as the codirector of the Hubbard Street mural restoration project beginning in 2000, died in 2004.) He approached Speer, then 28, whose work he knew, and asked if he wanted to help lead an outdoor project in the neighborhood. They could raise money together, get young artists involved, teach skills, brighten the neighborhood.

Montano, Speer said, had a scheme to create public walls in various communities in which working people were depicted. “Fred’s angle was, ‘We’re showing people at work, and we’re creating work in the neighborhoods!’” said Speer. “He was a very vivacious character—he had a classic American entrepreneurial spirit. He was looking for a partner, a wall, and financing. He found me in the phone book.”

Speer suggested that the prominent brick wall on the north side of a two-story European furniture store at 4662 N. Lincoln, which faced a city-owned parking lot, would be a perfect location for a German-themed mural. A mural had been painted there before—a now-deteriorating piece on the neighborhood’s history, sights, and architecture led by artist Beth Shadur and completed with dozens of local participants.

“As an immigrant, there’s always a part of you that’s homesick,” he said. “I wanted to paint from my heart my memories of Germany.” He knew the building’s owner, Helmut Bantle, who gave the team permission to paint the wall. “He was from Stuttgart, too,” Speer told me. “We could talk [the German dialect] Swabian together!” (Speer’s animated sentences frequently end with oral exclamation points.)

Originally, Bantle wanted the mural to be like a store advertisement that pictured an old European town, but the group came up with a different plan that featured German architecture and landmarks (while still including a small plug for the store). Speer said he created a “highly detailed” preliminary drawing, which was modified over the weeks as the artists conferred with German leaders, community groups, residents, and businesses. He said that then-alderman Eugene Schulter, whom he called “a Germanophile,” and Erich Himmel were particularly enthusiastic and supportive. They helped pull strings to raise about $10,000, to which the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce and businesses like the Chicago Brauhaus contributed, with the muralists raising about $5,000 more. “I think my commitment to the neighborhood helped unlock the project,” insisted Speer.

He and Montano visited three Chicago high schools, and recruited a diverse cast of 15 art students to help paint, with eight finishing the project. One of them was Saul Aguirre, now a multidisciplinary artist and educator who was a 16-year-old Clemente High School junior at the time. He said Montano’s Art at Work didn’t live up to its billing. “It was supposed to be a summer job, but each of us got fifty dollars,” he recalled. “But it was a good experience for us—we were young and having fun, and we were outside the house. It was a lot of hard work. It made us disciplined to be creative. We were excited to do something big.”

The muralists taught the students how to paint a huge composition to scale by laying a grid on the wall, consulting the gridded color drawing, and proceeding square foot by square foot. Volunteers included a woman who would become Speer’s longtime partner, Rita Walter, also an artist and frequent collaborator. (Speer figured he made $3 an hour.)

At the September 7 dedication festivities, according to Speer, local German-American dignitaries spoke, the Euro-Quintet entertained the throng with traditional German and country-and-western music, and the Brauhaus served complimentary champagne.

COURTESY LOTHAR SPEER
  • courtesy Lothar Speer

By 2011, the building became a gym. Chicago Athletic Clubs chain owner and Marc Realty principal Larry Weiner along with his brother Elliot, also a Marc principal, formed an LLC and bought the 10,000-square foot Northern Home Furnishings building for $2.45 million, according to the April 29, 2010 Crain’s Chicago Business (Marc Realty wasn’t involved in the venture). According to Crain’s and Speer, Weiner promised Schulter that the mural wouldn’t be changed or removed. Speer also maintained that Schulter had recommended to Weiner that Speerbe rehired to repaint the artwork after a zoning change enabled building renovation work.

Schulter confirmed. “There was a conversation whether or not [Weiner] was going to put in windows on that side, and I said that would not be something the community would support,” Schulter told me. “This came up in our community meetings.”

Regardless, Weiner did ask Speer permission to “alter the mural,” which the artist granted.

The Scottsdale, Arizona-based CAC added an extra floor inside the existing 1928 building, increasing its space by several thousand square feet but causing damage to the wall; brick mortar cracked, and parged cement and paint was knocked off, marring the mural. Around 2011, after what Speer said were many e-mails and meetings, the real estate executive invited him to submit a restoration proposal, which included wall repairs; CAC had even put up a poster in the window of a CAC office across the street announcing Speer’s pending work on the project. His budget came in at $25,000. Speer said, “[Weiner’s] response was, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a single cent.’ I still remember it—I was so shocked.” (CAC has an estimated annual revenue of $3.9 million, according to Owler.)

Weiner did not return repeated e-mails and calls to various phone numbers over a couple months. Calls and e-mails to Marc Realty’s media relations liaison Jorge Salamanca also went unanswered. Dan Krc, another Marc and Weiner spokesman, twice stated to me that the CAC owner would return my numerous calls and queries, but he didn’t.

After the rejection, Speer said, “I dropped it. He dropped it. We dropped it. I can’t work for free.” Schulter said that Weiner “should really negotiate with Lothar and get this done.”

A couple years later, according to Speer, a festival tent that had been set up in the mural-facing parking lot was being taken down by workers when it collided against the wall, scraping off large areas of paint. (He’d previously seen how the wall was used as a “catcher” or backstop when tents were dismantled.) Speer first noticed the scuff marks right after a Maifest, and tried contacting Mayfest Chicago to discuss damages and insurance. “We left multiple messages, to no avail,” he said. Speer then met with 47th Ward alderman Amaya Pawar, Schulter’s successor, to see if he could do something about the mural damage, but Pawar “dropped the ball.”

Speer continued, “I tried for quite some time, after the mural started to get damaged—after all the problems with the building and the tent—to approach [local German organizations] and ask for assistance and support, but they didn’t have the money or weren’t interested.”

“I just said, ‘I’m done with this. I can’t do this anymore,’” said Speer. Then last September DANK Haus president Dagmar Freiberger contacted him and they met at Cafe Selmarie. “I was delighted, and totally shocked. We talked, and she basically said, ‘I’m interested in saving the mural.’”

Lothar Speer in front of A Touch of Europe: Memories of Germany in February - JEFF HUEBNER
  • Jeff Huebner
  • Lothar Speer in front of A Touch of Europe: Memories of Germany in February

But in retrospect, that was a different time.

When I first contacted three leaders at the DANK Haus, in early March, they believed there was enough community interest to support a plan, perhaps financially, to restore the mural. By May, the DANK Haus had lost more than $140,000 in pandemic-induced event and rental cancelations; beer and food sales from its Maifest booth would’ve accounted for about half that amount, according to Freiberger. It began limited openings in July, but despite receiving some coronavirus relief, the nonprofit is asking for donations to stay afloat.

It’s also close to raising its goal of $50,000 in GoFundMe and other donations to recreate much of the interior of the Chicago Brauhaus in a second-floor meeting room, using the bar, stained glass windows, front doors, and other artifacts that the center acquired from owners and brothers Harry and Guenther Kempf. As DANK Haus executive director Monica Jirak (who’s Schulter’s daughter) wrote me: “Perhaps later down the road, we can revisit this mural project.”

But does a gentrifying Lincoln Square even need a German heritage mural anymore? Viewed in light of the summer’s extraordinary outpouring of Black Lives Matter-inspired street art against police violence and racial injustice on boarded-up storefronts, is A Touch of Europe a musty white-ethnic relic whose time has passed and whose neglect suggests something new should take its place?

“I am not the target market for the mural,” said Suzy Takacs, owner of the 16-year-old Book Cellar bookstore. “I appreciate the German community but I don’t really have a connection to the mural in any way. I do love public art and a mural in that location is fabulous, but I would appreciate an urban and diverse image with or without a German flair.”

In fact, beginning in 1980, there was such a mural there—or almost there. Reflections of Ravenswood was an ambitious CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) summer project directed by veteran muralist Shadur that featured the work of 60 people from the neighborhood—paid youths and volunteers. It included images of historical and contemporary neighborhood landmarks, including figures of different backgrounds, though there might’ve been more.

The original design showed workers in the Bach brickworks (which rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871) and building a house. “But when the community met they thought it made the mural look too ‘Puerto Rican,’ so I was asked to remove the figures,” Shadur, of Highland Park, wrote me. “The neighborhood was German with some Hispanics, and the middle class Germans didn’t want to acknowledge their working class roots.”

When the mural started to deteriorate, she said she was asked to restore it. “But I didn’t want to spend my summer on an old work, so I suggested updating it with a new mural.”

According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Community Data Snapshot estimates for 2018, Lincoln Square’s 42,000 residents are about 65 percent white, 19 percent Latino, 9 percent Asian, and less than 4 percent Black, with a median income of $74,000. Still, the area isn’t as diverse as surrounding communities like Albany Park, Edgewater, and Rogers Park, which are more heterogenous, less moneyed, and have lower home values.

And was Lincoln Square—the name of an official community area as well as the name of a neighborhood centered around the main Lincoln business strip—ever really that German? In fact, in the 1960s and 70s, it became known as the “new Greektown” after many old Greektown residents were displaced by the construction of the University of Illinois and the Eisenhower Expressway. (No Greek murals here, though Barba Yianni Taverna remains.)

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago—I’m conflating entries for “Lincoln Square” and “Germans”—the community traces its roots to the 1840s, when Swiss, German, and English immigrants turned the prairie into truck farms growing flowers, pickles, and celery. What’s now Lincoln Square (named by the City Council in 1923) was one of several working- and middle-class north and northwest side neighborhoods settled by newly arrived Germans, who became known for their small craft or trade businesses—bakers, butchers, brewers, coopers. North Avenue was once called the “German Broadway.” In Wicker Park, German burghers on “Beer Baron Row” lived blocks away from several of the six German-born Haymarket Eight martyrs.

By 1900, Germans made up the largest ethnic group in the city, numbering nearly a half million, one out of every four of which was either born in the homeland or had a parent born there. They founded their own clubs, institutions, newspapers, and events—even as they suppressed their ethnic identity during the First and Second World Wars. Yet they continued to easily assimilate. “Almost nowhere,” UIC historian Melvin Holli stated in 1981’s Ethnic Chicago, “are German Americans as a group visible as many smaller groups.”

By the postwar 1950s, as Lincoln Square’s main shopping district sat moribund, the newly formed chamber of commerce worked with local leaders and merchants to remake the neighborhood into a hub of traditional German or European culture and boost business. First proposed by an alderman, a state commission funded the creation of Avard Fairbanks’s statue of Abraham Lincoln in 1956 in a traffic circle at Lincoln, Lawrence, and Western. A couple decades later, the traffic circle was removed and the statue was moved to its current location near the same intersection in a small plaza where the city created the once-controversial semi-pedestrian mall in a bid to attract more European-style shops, cafes, and other venues as well as shoppers and tourists.

According to the Chicago Bar Project, Lincoln Square’s first Oktoberfest wasn’t until 1979, when the Brauhaus’s Harry and Guenter Kempf set up a big tent on the newly malled Lincoln Avenue (after street reconstruction rerouted traffic onto Leland), helping to raise the raise the neighborhood’s profile.

But as more third- and fourth-generation German-Americans have moved up or out or died, more of their businesses have been replaced by franchises, fitness clubs, boutiques, sushi bars, and contemporary American cuisine restaurants catering to younger, wealthier residents and families. (The 37-year-old Cafe Selmarie is no longer just a quaint European-style pastry shop but also a “contemporary American restaurant.”) Based on 2018 census data, only about 20 percent of the Lincoln Square community is of German ancestry—a proportionate amount that’s far down the list of other Chicago neighborhoods. (For example, West DePaul and Wicker Park have more.)

In effect, you’re left with a dwindling number of establishments and events, a handful of reliable standbys, in which you can have a German experience—but increasingly without Germans. (One could argue this is the case in some parts of Berlin.) You can have a German experience gazing at Lothar Speer’s mural, despite its somewhat run-down state. But how much longer those experiences can be sustained is debatable.

Take Logan Square: In the 1970s you would’ve found community murals that celebrated the neighborhood’s Eastern European heritage, and by the 1980s you would’ve found murals that celebrated Latino heritage. They are mostly all gone, replaced by street art pieces that celebrate celebrities like Robin Williams and Quincy Jones, who have no connection to the community’s sense of place. As California-based mural historian Tim Drescher told me, “Murals will become markers of what once was there, as they are removed farther and farther from the people they represent.”

In an interview, Rudy Flores, executive director of the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce (formerly LSCC), said he didn’t want Speer’s mural to become a lost landmark. He framed its possible restoration not only as part of a larger commitment to creating and maintaining diverse public art and murals in the community, but also to preserving the area’s heritage. He noted it’s important that there’s a balance of new and old street pieces.

“You want to keep historic ones, obviously, because that’s where you were, and then you want to create new ones, because that’s where we are,” he said. “But then those will become historic one day. So, if we have a sprinkling of all different types of murals, I think that will show how our community has been so diverse, and will continue to be diverse, in different ways. It’s all part of what we are as a community—remembering and going into the future as well.”

But, Flores added, the chamber didn’t really have a way to cover mural renovation costs: PaintWorks, an initiative of the Special Service Area’s Neighborhood Improvement Program, pays muralists no more than $5,000 for selected projects each year. Crowdfunding, he said, could pick up the rest.

Former alderman Eugene Schulter disagreed, “The SSA can easily take care of this. It’s whatever the board of commissioners vote on. I’m the one who created it.”

In 2003, Speer told Lerner News reporter Pat Butler that he once had the idea of creating a “living mural.” He’d include many faces of local residents and businesspeople, and change one or two of those faces every year or so as people moved or died. In that way, Germans would give way to “Balkan, Thai and Hispanic newcomers.” As Speer aged, his assistants would take over the project, who would eventually pass the job on to other artists. The mural would change with the neighborhood, until you had a large outdoor wall of faces—a multifaceted portrait of America.

While this project likely won’t come off, Speer said he’d planned to include more images of people of color in a revamped Lincoln Square mural. “I would be open to changing it to address other ethnicities, to show the changes in the neighborhood,” he told me. “It would be important to do that. It would be good to do that. And appropriate to do that.”

But if the restoration never happens, and something else is painted there, the mural would still live: photographs of it, or maybe even crumbling colored bricks, could very well end up in the DANK Haus’s permanent museum exhibit, “Lost German Chicago.”   v

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