ROGERS PARK — Behind the box of one-inch flat washers and under the old single-pane windows in the back of Clark-Devon Hardware, lingers hints of the building's surprising past.
The longtime hardware emporium was once a movie theater where liquor was distilled in the basement. It even survived a bombing campaign.
Ken Walchak, part owner of the store, will put that past — and that of other buildings in the neighborhood — on display by converting an empty storefront in the building into a history exhibit.
It was before Walchak's time, but his father, Bernie — who opened Clark-Devon Hardware in 1924 and moved the store to its current location in the 1980s — used to watch movies there, and delivered food for a Chinese restaurant on the second floor before both shuttered.
To the right of a retro soda machine and to the left of a coffee maker, just behind a door, an ornate carving protrudes from the wall — a wall that once was part of the Ellantee Theater. The movie house opened in 1919 and was later renamed the Ridge Theater before finally closing down.
"We sort of grew up in this building," Walchak said. Five family members work there now, and the business has survived three generations. His dad, now 88 years old, still comes in a couple of days a week.
Walchak has partnered with the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society to create other displays of the neighborhoods' history in empty storefronts in the area.
Larry Schure, a member of the society's board and a blogger at Ultra Local Geography, came up with the storefront exhibit idea.
Schure said he hopes the exhibit at the hardware store will showcase some old photos of the building in the 1930s, as well as some of its more peculiar history, including during Prohibition when liquor was distilled in the basement.
"While several hundred patrons in the Ellantee theater at 1546 Devon avenue were watching a movie thriller yesterday afternoon, they missed an equally intense scene enacted in the basement directly below them," a Chicago Daily Tribune news story from Feb. 23, 1920 states.
The scene they missed? A janitor arrested for operating a moonshine still.
Schure also said the building survived a bombing campaign from the former gangster-dominated Motion Picture Operators Union.
"There's plenty to draw upon," he said.
Schure and Walchak said the exhibit, which will face Devon Avenue, won't be ready until at least next year, and funding will have to be secured before expanding the exhibits to other storefronts around the neighborhood.