Saturday, April 19, 2014

Morton Grove Before the Baby Boom: Club Rendezvous Goes Up In Smoke

Club Rendezvous before the fire.
While The Dells was the renowned crown jewel of the clubs in Morton Grove during the roadhouse era, Club Rendezvous was part of the supporting cast. Located east of The Dells, on the south side of Dempster, towards Marmora and Menard Avenues, Club Rendezvous was built in a converted, classic Chicago-style brick bungalow, with a frame addition slapped on to the front. 

It was an intimate setting, with limited ingress and egress, which offered drinking, dancing and dining, and held out for revelers the possibility of whatever else its name implied. The club was frequented by Northwestern University students who drove four miles west out Dempster to escape the dry environs of Evanston for raucous and celebratory nights out. There was one way in and one way out.

Our first post in this Morton Grove roadhouse series, about The Dells, involved a fire and arson and no lives lost. In this post, as will be the sadly be the case in other roadhouse stories, there were victims.  

During Prohibition, there developed north and northwest of Chicago an area known as the roadhouse district.
The center of this district is the small village of Morton Grove, population 1,974. Within its confines exist or existed most of the larger roadhouses, as well as innumerable small “neighborhood” drinking spots for the working man. The Club Rendezvous, on Dempster street east of Austin avenue, was one of the better known small dance and drink places. Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1935.
Mr. and Mrs. Elmer (Al and Rose) Cowdrey were the Club Rendezvous proprietors. On the surface it seemed that they lived a rather normal and mundane life. The Mrs. entertained her friends for tea or its substantial equivalent.
The Daily Herald, May 5, 1933.
Along the way, nevertheless, the couple's home had suffered serious fire damage. The home was repaired and the Cowdrey family moved back in to resume their tranquil domestic life.
The Daily Herald, November 10, 1933
But digging beneath the veneer of normality, the goings on at the Cowdrey residence raised more than a few questions.

A modern day neighbor and blogger reports,
The people who owned the [old Cowdrey] house until about the mid-90s used to have Halloween parties in their basement. Their basement walls were lined with booths which appeared to be carved out of the walls like grottos. It was pretty cool from what I remember, but I haven’t been down there in a long time.
Old Cowdrey bungalow, 8526 Mansfield Avenue,
Morton Grove, IL, current Google Maps Street View.
I know that the current owners still have it that way. I asked them if they think it was a speakeasy, and they said they were sure of it. They said that there’s a buzzer at the back door and a few other things. — I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe one was something like a tap and some old bottles.
As you probably know, Prohibition went into effect in January, 1920 and was repealed on December 5, 1933 (I just missed the 75th anniversary!) So I was anxious to find out a little more about these 1930 residents —— it would likely be a prime time to be running a speakeasy, wouldn’t it? 
Of course I didn’t expect their occupation to be listed as Speakeasy Proprietor, but I thought I might be able to find some interesting clues. 
The bungalow owners [according to the 1930 census] were Elmer Cowdrey, 34, and his wife Rose, 35. They had an 8-year-old daughter named Beatrice. Their house was valued at $10,000, they owned a radio, and they were all born in Illinois. Elmer had served in the World War. His occupation? Proprietor in gasoline service. Hmmm, could be a little suspect. 
It wasn’t until I started perusing the newspaper articles linked to Elmer that the story started to come together. Accessing the archives of the Chicago Tribune, this is the earliest article I’ve found so far, dated June 6, 1933: 
Mystery Blast in Roadhouse Owner’s Home
A mysterious explosion, followed by fire, partially destroyed the Morton Grove bungalow of Al Cowdrey, roadhouse owner, yesterday. The bungalow was at **** in the suburb. 
There is a bar in the basement of the bungalow, [emphasis mine] but Cowdrey was warned to cease operating it some time ago, according to Mayor Herbert Dilg of Morton Grove. After that Cowdrey opened up the Rendezvous roadhouse, on Dempster road.
Elmer and Rose Cowdrey.
Cowdrey and his wife were out of the house at the time of the explosion. It knocked out two walls of the brick bungalow, and the fire which followed damaged the furniture in the house severely. Mayor Dilg said that he believed a gas leak might have caused the blast, but there was no smell of gas about the place after the fire. 
Neighbors saw two men standing outside the bungalow shortly before the explosion, but did not see them enter.
Bingo! And WOW! 
I do remember the current owner telling me that there is some evidence of fire, but I don’t know where it occurred.
The Chicago Tribune would later report that Mr. Cowdrey actually had operated a filling station in the Rogers Park section of Chicago.

During Prohibition, by their own edict, the preferred suppliers of beer and spirits were the mob. Anyone who operated a bar and did not turn to gangsters for supply, or who attempted to bargain one gangland faction against another, invariably suffered sure and swift retribution. 
Altoona Tribune,
March 25, 1935
The Club Rendezvous was one of a group of nine resorts clustered in the little town of Morton Grove on Dempster Street several miles west of Evanston. The suburb was the scene of the sensational kidnapping two years ago of John "Jake the Barber" Factor, international speculator, who had been celebrating at "The Dells," another roadhouse which had been a target of bombers and finally burned down a year ago.
On March 24, 1935, tragedy struck the Club Rendezvous, which the Cowdreys had opened a few blocks north of their abode, when they were barred from further operation of a speakeasy in their basement. Elmer Cowdrey said he rented the Dempster Street building to house the club two years previous for $35 a month. Mr. Cowdrey built an addition on the front, setting him back $10,000 total for construction, furnishings and equipment.
Smoke started to curl up from the cloakroom of the Club Rendezvous at 2:30 a. m.
For a few moments the 80 revelers in the place showed little concern. Then, witness said, the flames suddenly burst out from the checkroom, lapping up the heavy silk and crepe paper draperies of the rebuilt residence and filling the room with stifling smoke.
Screams broke out from the dancers. The orchestra music stopped.
The dateline report was as follows:
The Rhinelander Daily News, March 25, 1935, Page 1.
CHICAGO, March 25 (AP) -- The sudden swift-spreading Club Rendezvous fire that killed six person, two from Wisconsin, and caused injuries to six others trapped in the Morton Grove night resort was under investigation today by the state's attorney's office. 
Fred Anderson 20, Northwestern University student and only son of a wealthy Eau Claire, Wis., manufacturer, and Miss Helen Johnson, 21, of Milwaukee, were among the six who died in the flames that grew from a small flicker in the cloakroom of the suburban cafe at 2:30 am yesterday. 
Festivities were at their height at the roadhouse, a remodeled bungalow in suburban Morton Grove, when the first tongue of flame licked out from the ceiling, near a suspended gas heater. 
Place Was Packed. 
Drapes and streamers stretched from the walls and ceiling of the dance hall and the dining room. The bar was packed. A mass of persons moved to the music of a three person orchestra on the dance floor. Every table in the dining room was filled. Many were Northwestern university students who had just come from a school musical comedy production. 
The girl who had sent the cry ringing through the building, snatched her wrap and made for the only exit -- except the kitchen door -- a narrow doorway on the east side of the dance hall. This doorway led into an anteroom which led to the street.
The Rhinelander Daily News, March 25, 1935, Page 3.
A frenzy of fear seized the merrymakers. Screaming, trampling, striking, they surged to the east exit -- only to discover, firemen said, it opened inward. The foremost were flattened against the door and wall by the desperate press of the panic-stricken. 
Push Investigation. 
Investigators direct their inquiry into whether escaping illuminating gas, a carelessly discarded cigarette or faulty wiring may have set off the flames. County and village officials were co-operating in the investigation. An inquest was to be held today 
A overcoat cost Anderson his life. He had succeeded in reaching safety through the frenzied human tide but re-entered to hunt for his coat and then perished. Miss Johnson, who moved from Duluth to Milwaukee two years ago, was among the victims whose bodies were found huddled in the area way blocked by a door that opened inward, serving as a trap when the force of the fleeing throng rammed against it and its lock caught. 
Caught securely behind the door, while the flames licked at his hair, and clothing, Wolfe screamed for help and died while friends, a few feet away, strove against the scorching heat to batter down the door. 
Many Are Rescued. 
Reaching safety through the windows or dragged out by rescueres who forced the door or groped in through flames and smoke by rear entry, 17 others were taken to hospitals for treatment. Dozens more of the 80 present suffered minor injuries.
A motorist smashed his car against the building, in an vain attempt to ram open another avenue of escape. The roof finally collapsed on the handful still trapped and buried them under a pyre of smoldering embers and debris.

The fifteen hundred square foot club was filled with Northwestern students celebrating the success of their Waa-Mu show "Good News" and young adults from other northern suburbs and Chicago. Elmer Cowdrey said the roadhouse was full to capacity. He had turned down reservations for the night. The fire made front page news nationwide.

Proprietess Rose Crowdrey, in a futile effort to control the fire, grabbed a seltzer bottle and sprayed its contents in vain towards the flames. Her husband ordered the chef to call the fire department and then yelled for patrons to exit through the rear. His cries went unheeded. Many of the survivors exited through windows and were badly cut in the process.

Club Rendezvous schematic.

The inward opening front exit door was identified as the primary culprit in the deaths.
The Edwardsville Intelligencer,
March 25, 1935
Chicago, Mar. 25 -- State police and county authorities today investigated a possibility that a fire which killed six person and burned a score of other yesterday in a Morton Grove night club may have been the result of arson.
Eighty persons, most of them college and high school students, were trapped in the tiny, one-room Club Rendezvous when flames leaped through its crepe paper decorations with explosive rapidity.
Most of the casualties were attribute to the fact that the room's sole exit was a door that opened inward, a construction forbidden by law since the historic Iroquois Theater fire in which 575 persons perished in 1903.
Investigators were unable immediately to learn the origin of yesterday's blaze and turned to the possibility of arson while a cornonor's jury began an inquest. Hysterical young merry-makers who escaped from the resort said all probably would have gained safety if a panic stricken man had not jammed against the exist door, holding it shut for fatal minutes.
George Fredericks, Morton Grove, policeman, was the tragedy's hero. He entered the club 12 times, carrying out victims until he himself succumbed and was in turn rescued. 
It may be recalled by readers of this blog, that my attorney great uncle, George S. Foster, represented ghouls who robbed victims of the Iroquois Theater fire.

Seven victims ultimately died. Cowdrey had no insurance. "This ruins me," he said, "I'm wiped out."

One of the victims, Norman Rettig, ironically a fire protection engineer, related the following.
"I wonder if Helen is safe," Rettig said, [referring to his girlfriend and] moving his burned hands. "They won't tell me. I had her in front of me as we neared the front door. Someone was trying to push the door, when it opened inward. I got there and knocked out a window. Then the crowed piled behind me, got panicky and shoved me through. I hope Helen got out." Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1935.
Mr. Rettig's sweetheart, Helen Johnson, was killed in the fire. Officials withheld the news due to the seriousness of his condition.

The Daily Herald, March 29, 1935
One of the saddest stories of the tragedy is that of the checkroom girl, Arlene Harvey, 22, of Niles Center (now Skokie). She was an only child, engaged to be married. As the conflagration grew, Arlene Harvey stayed at her station to hand out coats to departing patrons. "I never will forgive myself for
Arlene Harvey
stupidly standing there waiting for Miss Harvey to hand me my coat -- my automobile keys were in it -- and letting those other men do the same," said Arnold Anderson. Another patron said he yelled to the men around the stand to let her out, and told her to get out, but she smilingly continued to hand out coats.

Mason City Globe Gazette,
March 26, 1935
A longtime friend of one of the victims testified the front exit door was secured to control entry and could only be opened by operation of a checkroom buzzer.
The Daily Herald, March 29, 1935

Arnold Anderson, who earned his living as an experimental engineer employed by the International Harvester Company, blamed the fire on a faulty gas heating system. From his hospital bed, Anderson related "gas heaters were throwing an unusually hot blast," and "the fatal fire could have easily started in the ceiling over the burner and spread rapidly before being detected." Investigators gave his testimony credence. 

The Cook County Board responded by hiring four fire safety investigators and expanding licensing requirements. The police followed up with immediate inspections.

After the fire, Club Rendezvous appeared as thus.

May God allow all the unfortunate souls to rest in peace.

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