F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped, “There are no second acts in American lives.” But if the City of Burbank gets its way, there may be a second act for the building, or at least a portion of it, that once housed The Old Barn Restaurant located at 8100 S. Parkside Avenue.
Mayor Harry Klein confirmed the City of Burbank has taken possession of The Old Barn building. “We have the deed,” Klein said.
The structure, which consists of several buildings, seemed destined for the wrecking ball after years of decay and neglect. Klein said that some of the outer buildings will most likely be demolished but he’s hopeful the newest addition, which was built about 30 years ago, can be saved.
Klein is hoping to lure another restaurateur or banquet operator to take over the facility if a portion of the building remains usable.
The storied restaurant first opened in 1921. The horse-racing themed eatery was renowned throughout Chicagoland and rumors that it operated as a speakeasy during the Roaring Twenties are likely true. The private club had an unlisted phone number and one-time owner Robert Smith told the Chicago Tribune, "We did serve liquor during Prohibition. And you needed a password to get in."
The Old Barn was a favorite of W.C. Fields and Al Capone. Charles Lindbergh was said to frequent the restaurant between airmail flights when Chicago’s first airport, Ashburn Field, was located near 83rd Street and Cicero Avenue.
The restaurant’s popularity peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The rustic building featured genteel interiors of dark wood paneled walls and red leather furniture. The Old Barn was often featured in the dining section of Chicago newspapers and won rave reviews for its steaks and prime rib.
Guests of the era who fancied a drink in the lounge were frequently served by the restaurant’s most famous employee, bartender Ernie Spence. Known as the Irishman from Galway, Ernie never failed to delight the crowd with mesmerizing magic tricks and an off-color story or two told in his distinctive Irish brogue.
The restaurant and banquet hall remained a thriving concern until 2008 when the economy slumped and the current owners could no longer make a go of it.
The building has remained vacant since the restaurant closed over seven years ago. Since then, the troubled property has been the subject of a bankruptcy proceeding and multiple lawsuits.
In 2010, Christian Assembly Rios de Agua Viva, a congregation from Chicago that had outgrown its space and was looking to expand, signed a real estate contract to purchase the building for $900,000. Although the land was not specifically zoned for a church, Rios de Agua Viva sought a special use permit from the City of Burbank to allow it to operate. Hoping to maintain the land as a commercially available and taxable property, Burbank rejected the tax exempt church’s rezoning request.
Rios de Agua Viva filed an emergency motion for an injunction in the Circuit Court of Cook County seeking a declaration that it may operate a church on the property. The court denied the injunction ruling that when the congregation first contracted to purchase the building, they “failed to establish that there was a ‘probability’ that the city would approve its request to use the property as a church.”
In 2013, Assembly Rios de Agua filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court seeking damages from the City, claiming that Burbank’s actions violated the Religious Land Use Act and the U.S. Constitution. The outcome of this suit remains unclear but according to Mayor Klein, “Only minor litigation is pending.”
Klein said the City of Burbank acquired the property for no money by way of a “no tax bid,” but added, “There were a lot of legal fees.”
Burbank Public Works employees began clearing the building and grounds of weeds and debris Monday. A source familiar with the condition of the building’s interior said squatters made a shambles of the inside and ripped out many of the copper wires to sell for scrap.
Klein said no timetable has been set for a demolition given the possibility that the buildings contain asbestos which would require special handling.
“This just happened. They’re [Public Works] out there removing clutter, cleaning it up.”
If the new addition can not be saved or if an owner can’t be found, Klein said the city will look for “viable users” for the property. Klein declined to speculate on what kind of businesses might be interested in the 4 acre parcel but said his priority is to get it back on the tax rolls.
Klein compared the project to the old Cezar’s Inn which the City recently purchased and razed. Klein said the City does not yet have a buyer for the Cezar’s property but he has been receiving a number of calls inquiring about the land. “We’re looking for the best bang for the buck,” Klein said.