LINCOLN PARK — In the 1920s, '30s and '40s the building at 1800 N. Halsted Street was a place where the impossible happened all the time and everyone was involved.
Schulien's Tavern was packed with politicians, actors, celebrities and out of town guests who were there to be a part of the spectacle that was Matt Schulien.
The Chicago style of magic was born in that building before it spread all over the world.
Now, the structure, built in the 1880s, is in danger of being demolished, replaced as part of a six-story apartment development — a proposal that has preservationists alarmed. Last week, Landmarks Illinois put it on its "Ten Most Endangered Places" in the state list, along with another structure at 1732 N. Halsted.
Together, they make up the Halsted and Willow Gateway, which the preservation group calls "irreplaceable."
The developer of the project and owner of the building say the new planned apartment complex will improve Lincoln Park, where there have been complaints about a lack of rental units.
"It's a great opportunity to do something meaningful and architecturally significant in the neighborhood," said project architect Michael Wilkinson.
'A VERY SPECIAL PLACE'
Matt Schulien held court at 1800 N. Halsted with his close, personal and boisterous style, with decks of cards and tricks that took the magician off the stages of Houdini and into the audience.
"It was a very special place, especially in the history of magic," said David Parr, a magician and author who still performs Schulien's tricks down the street at the Greenhouse Theater each week.
It was a place where "the impossible happened all the time and everyone was involved," Parr said.
Out-of-town guests would stop in to see tricks such as Schulien's famed "card on the wall" trick where he threw a deck of cards at the wall and left one sticking, the chosen card.
The family-owned and operated Schulien's opened their first bar in 1881 at Randolph and LaSalle Streets and later moved to to 1800 N. Halsted in 1914, according to Landmarks Illinois.
The bar was lined with fire helmets, according to Parr, which were gifts from fire chiefs across the country and the product of Schulien's pranks.
Schulien had an out-of-sight microphone attached to a radio in the bar. When he discovered where an out-of-town customer was from, he would deliver a "news report" of a fire destroying the visitor's hometown.
To humorous effect, the visitor would panic and jump up to rush home.
"There were rows and rows of fire helmets all along the wall from cities that Matt had supposedly burned down," Parr said.
The Schuliens closed the 1800 N. Halsted location in 1949 and moved to a location at 2100 W. Irving Park Road, which remained open until 1999.
BLACK DUCK TAKES OFF
In the 1970s, famed real estate developer John Baird, of Baird & Warner, and architect Aubrey Greenberg bought up land near the intersection of Willow and Halsted, and asked a young general manager of the Loop's ritzy Blackhawk restaurant to open J.P.'s Eating Place at the former Schulien's spot.
Baird frequented the Blackhawk and took notice of the young manager, Jorge Perez, who was making $100,000 annually.
"He told me, 'Jorge, would you like to participate in a great project?'" Perez said. "I didn't even know the neighborhood or this place."
Perez is now 65 and the former J.P.'s that he helped launch in the '70s is now called the Black Duck.
He still works there.
"All my love and all my passion is with the Black Duck," Perez said. "The name doesn't matter."
Perez had loyal customers who visited the Blackhawk from the Gold Coast and suburbs like Highland Park and Deerfield. They followed him to his new upscale restaurant.
"It's a great story about a little guy from Mexico," said Perez, who became a partner in the restaurant.
The lease on the Black Duck expired March 31, 2014.
Perez and his business partner Dan Allen do not own the building and don't have the option of renewing.
Perez said representatives of the apartment developer's people came through the restaurant about a year ago and were "nice people" but he hasn't seen them since. The only communication between the two parties was a letter indicating the lease was being terminated.
"A meeting, that's all we wanted," Perez said. "The neighborhood loves us because we help the neighborhood. We saw this neighborhood when it was nothing and now we see it's beautiful."
Although the lease at the Black Duck is up, the owners plan to stay open until they are forced out, according to Perez.
"We are going to operate. We have the power to defend ourselves," Perez said.
Representatives from the developer, Golub Real Estate and Investment, did not return requests for comment but company vice president Lee Golub attended a neighborhood meeting in October to lay out their plans.
The two neighborhood groups nearest the intersection, RANCH Triangle and Lincoln Central Association, have not heard an update from the developer since the October meeting.
The main plan was to demolish the Black Duck building as well the buildings to the north up to and including the King Crab building at 1816 N. Halsted and construct a six-story apartment building with about 150 units. A one-bedroom apartment would rent for $2,500 monthly.
During the October meeting, Michael Miller, a co-owner of the property, described the Black Duck building as "common brick" and "just old" and said he and the developer were trying to build something that improves the area and fits the character of the neighborhood.
Miller said retail space he owns along Halsted was "virtually unleaseable" and the new project would invigorate the street. The apartments would stretch the length of five addresses and include retail on the first floor.
While Landmarks Illinois included on its endangered list both the Black Duck and the building at 1732 N. Halsted St., where Vinci Restaurant is, the buildings are not official landmarks.
The developer said he had no plans to knock down the Vinci building, but Landmark Illinois president Bonnie McDonald and the neighborhood groups fear it could be part of future plans.
"Keeping those corners is important to the integrity of the district, to the neighborhood itself," said McDonald.
"Our solution is to find a way to build the buildings into the solution," McDonald said.
The buildings were both given an orange rating by the city in a Chicago Historic Resources Survey completed in 1995. That designation is the second-highest, but does little more than require a 90-day waiting period before a building can be torn down, according to Ald. Michelle Smith (43rd.)
At the October meeting, the developer did present an alternative proposal that involved saving the building and adding a seventh story to the apartment complex, but most of the discussion was about demolishing the building.
Since Landmarks Illinois started releasing their annual Top Ten list 19 years ago, 20 percent of the 195 properties the group has listed have been demolished, while the remainder have been either saved or are still works in progress.
Preservationists hope to use the Landmarks Illinois designation as the developer seeks some changes in the current zoning required to develop the apartment idea, said Randy Steinmeyer, president of RANCH Triangle.
Another possibility would be to extend the boundaries of the nearby Sheffield Historic District to include 1800 N. Halsted, according to McDonald, which could make the building eligible for federal historic tax incentives.
Whether the building is lost or not, Parr said he will continue to mention Matt Schulien and the magic of 1800 N. Halsted during his show every week, as he has been for the past eight years.
"It's a time that's gone now and we only have a few tokens of it left," Parr said. "I think we have to work to preserve those tokens that remain."