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Belgian American Club Hopes to Save Historic Belgian Hall

By Victoria Johnson | September 10, 2013 7:06am
 Members of Chicago's Belgian American community hope to save a Logan Square building once used for Belgian American Club functions.
Belgian Hall
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LOGAN SQUARE — A closer look at an unassuming building at Fullerton and Talman avenues reveals an interesting message — "All Belgians Are Equal."

The message is carved into a stone plaque on the corner of the building at 2625 W. Fullerton Ave., along with the year it was built, 1921. At the top of the facade are the initials "ABE," which stand for the same phrase.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Logan Square was important to the Belgian-American community, thanks to both St. John Berchman's Church — built in 1905 to serve Belgian immigrants — and later the Belgian Hall.

The hall would become a gathering place for Belgian immigrants in Chicago as well as an important piece of Chicago labor history. What is now called the Belgian American Club of Chicago was originally known as the Belgian-American Janitors Club.

Many Belgian immigrants became janitors and helped others get janitorial jobs. They created the Janitors' Union Local 1, which in turn was a founding component of the Service Employees International Union, now the second-largest union in the United States.

But now, the Belgian Hall building may be in trouble. It's in the process of being sold, and Chicago's Belgian-Americans fear it may be torn down.

The club sold it in 1979 because at the time Logan Square had become a rough neighborhood, and members have had no luck working out a deal with the current owner to buy it back.

"In '79 when we had a meeting, our tires were slashed, windows were broken, so we had no alternative but to find another place — more north — for our meetings," said onetime club president Arnold Van Puymbroeck, adding, "But now it's changed to such a good neighborhood now."

As the neighborhood began to improve, club members discussed pooling their money to buy the building back.

"We've had a dialogue back and forth" about buying it, said David Baeckelandt, another member of Chicago's Belgian-American community, "but it's kind of a moot exercise if we can't get access to the seller."

Difficulties communicating with the building's owner have been the root of the problem for club members. Baeckelandt said that members have met with the owner over the years to talk about buying the building, but the conversations went nowhere.

Last week. Baeckelandt said he met with several former club members and other Belgian-Americans and put together a committee to discuss plans to raise money to buy the building. But it's useless if the building's already been sold, he said.

Now they're just hoping whoever buys the building doesn't tear it down.

The building's owner could not be reached for comment, but the real estate agent handling the property, Victor Almodovar of Tempo Real Estate, said a deal for a sale is in place. The sale had not closed as of Monday afternoon, but he said he believed the buyer intends to preserve the property.

"That's what I was told," Almodovar said. "I'm not dealing with the buyer, other than I am representing the seller on the property."

For Baeckelandt and other Belgian-Americans in Chicago, preserving the property would be enough.

"I think most of us in Chicago that have a history with it would be happy if they just kept the facade and the building up," he said. "If they did that we'd be happy as clams."