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Chicago British Pub Red Lion Prepares to Reopen in Lincoln Park

By Paul Biasco | April 14, 2014 6:39am
 Colin Cordwell hopes to open the new Red Lion in late May or early June.
Colin Cordwell hopes to open the new Red Lion in late May or early June.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — Old regulars at the former Red Lion have pledged they will be back when the English pub reopens in late spring, but the real question is whether the ghosts will return.

The original pub at 2446 N. Lincoln Ave., now demolished, had long been a place where ideas and conversations between generations intersected in an area crowded with sports bars, loud music and college students.

In 1984, London-born John Cordwell bought an old Wild West saloon named Dirty Dan's and reopened it as the Red Lion, a British pub. In 2008, the building that was home to the Red Lion was knocked down.

Now, Cordwell's son, Colin, hopes to get a new Red Lion roaring again in a new building at the same location where his dad served up steak-and-kidney pie and British ales to "good chaps."

"When the Red Lion closed, it kind of left a void," Colin Cordwell said. "I just want to reopen the Red Lion pub as more of what it was and just update it — bring it up to the 21st century."

Paul Biasco chats with DNAinfo Radio about the return of Red Lion:

The old building, rumored to be haunted, was built in 1882, and as Colin Cordwell puts it, was being held up by termites holding hands when it was torn down. He said he never planned on the rebuilding taking seven years, but is relieved to have finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

"There's an old Jewish saying I live by, 'If you ever want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,'" Cordwell said. "That's been particularly true with this project."

The new Red Lion seeks to retain much of the old character, with a dark oak-planked bar, bookshelves throughout, minimal music and some of the English classics off the old menu. However, there will be tweaks to the menu, which will focus on a fusion of country French and country English fare.

The plan is to open at 2446 N. Lincoln Ave. by late May or early June.

Cordwell said he doesn't consider himself the owner of the Red Lion. He's more of a custodian and guardian of the pub, he said.

"It's an entity unto its own," he said.

Cordwell, who was a teacher at Francis Parker School and had helped his dad run the bar, hopes to pay homage to his father, mother and grandfather in the new establishment.

There will be a wall dedicated to John Cordwell's exploits during World War II, specifically his role as a forger helping coordinate the famed "Great Escape."

The new Red Lion won't have a full second floor, but will include a second-floor balcony area called the Africa Room, honoring his mother Justine Cordwell, who was an African studies scholar an expert on Yoruba art and culture. 

The African Room will seat 12 with a sofa, chairs and possibly include some of Justine Cordwell's rare artifacts brought back from her time in Africa.

The front room will be dedicated to his grandfather, Robert, who fought in World War I, surviving multiple gunshot wounds and an attempted bayoneting.

John Cordwell flew in the British Royal Air Force during World War II. His plane was shot down and he spent more than three years as a prisoner of war in German camp, Stalag Luft III, before taking part in "The Great Escape."

This year is the 70th anniversary of the escape, during which 76 soldiers made it out of the camp, some with forged papers crafted by John Cordwell.

John Cordwell eventually settled in Chicago in the '50s and became city planning commissioner under Mayor Martin Kennelly. He was one of the chief architects of Carl Sandberg Village, a North Side development built in the 1960s.

But opening a true English pub was one of his longtime life dreams, according to Colin Cordwell.

"My father was an architect, but he always wanted to be a publican," Colin Cordwell said.

From the day he opened the pub in 1984, he could be found sitting at the end of the bar wearing his ascot and Royal Air Force mustache. The History Channel once interviewed John Cordwell for a show on The Great Escape and filmed it inside the Red Lion. Cordwell was the inspiration for the chararcter played by David Pleasence.

 The interior of the new Red Lion remains under construction.
The interior of the new Red Lion remains under construction.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

"He had more stories than Carter had pills," Colin Cordwell said.

The old pub was rumored to be haunted by numerous spirits.

In 2003 an English woman showed Colin a photograph taken inside the pub, which he said clearly shows the face, hat and ascot of his father, who died in 1999.

The ghosts haven't left, according to Colin Cordwell.

A few weeks ago he was showing a friend a back room, and two heavy rolls of construction material fell off the wall in front of him.

The building's main ghost is thought to be of a woman who died on her 20th birthday in an upstairs apartment, according to Cordwell.

The old bar had a single television, lacked music and gave guests the experience of feeling what it was like to be inside a cello, according to Alton Miller, who was the press secretary of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

Miller, now a 70-year-old instructor at Columbia College, was a regular at the pub from the time it opened in '84. Washington could often be found at Red Lion having a late lunch.

The mayor loved the shepherd's pie, according to Miller.

"Marriages were destroyed there. Marriages were made there," Miller said.

The wake for Miller's first wife was held in the pub.

The bar's patrons were "super-intelligent, but super fun-loving and raconteur and history buffs," Miller said. "I'm really glad he's thinking of recapturing that."

Over the years, customers have included world leaders, actors and comic book heroes.

A 2004 edition of Marvel Comics' "The Ultimates" featuring Captain America included a scene at the Red Lion. The pub wound up in three editions of Marvel Comics.

Actor Brian Dennehy was known to enjoy the Red Lion. And author Christopher Hitchens once stopped by and spent 1½ hours discussing poetry with Colin Cordwell.

Cordwell said the discussion with Hitchens was one of his favorite nights in the history of the pub.

The Red Lion was a place to talk about ideas.

"It was really that kind of place," said Black Hawk Hancock, an associate professor of sociology at DePaul University. "It's a place kind of like right out of San Francisco or Berkley. You never know who you are going to run into."

Hancock used to hold classes up on the old second floor of the Red Lion and would later find his graduate students in the pub.

"Things were always kind of loose and fast. [Colin Cordwell] is in a sense an intellectual promoter of sorts," Hancock said.

In the seven years since the bar closed, nothing has filled the void in the neighborhood, according to Hancock and Miller.

They have little doubt the old regulars will be back.

"If he’s able to keep that feeling of being inside a cello and, especially in bad weather, being cozy against the elements, all of his old clientele are going to come flocking back," Miller said.

 The exterior of the Red Lion is under construction at 2446 N. Lincoln Ave.
The exterior of the Red Lion is under construction at 2446 N. Lincoln Ave.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco