GARFIELD RIDGE — For the last two decades, John Kapusciarz proudly ran The European Chalet as a place where you could get a taste of Europe close to home.
The 48-year-old general manager of the banquet hall even hired a local artist to paint frescoes of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Big Ben on the walls of the family business at 5445 S. Harlem Ave.
But he recently learned a startling bit of history that would change everything: His business was already sitting on a precious piece of Chicago lore — the former estate of John Wentworth, mayor of Chicago between 1857 and 1861.
On the same land where Kapusciarz has been working since 1993, Wentworth ran a farm and enjoyed summers away from the city in his rustic, 18-room mansion.
Now, after 21 years of doing business as European Chalet Banquets, Kapusciarz and his family have rebranded the hall "The Mayor's Mansion."
Kapusciarz said the change followed a growing movement in the wedding industry in which more and more couples-to-be are planning their ceremonies at mansions and historical sites stacked with rich stories.
“I’v got a great historical story," said Kapusciarz, who hopes engaged couples will soon order up wedding invitations that end like this: "with the reception following at The Mayor’s Mansion."
You might not know much about John Wentworth.
Kapusciarz didn't either. He learned all about him from guys like Robert Bitunjac, president of the Garfield Ridge Historical Society.
"Wentworth was a pretty influential person at the time," Bitunjac said.
He was Chicago’s 19th and 21st mayor, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln — and maybe one of the most influential figures in the city’s history.
“He actually had the deciding vote on drawing the border of Illinois,” Bitunjac said.
From 1865-1867, long after his last term as Chicago mayor, Wentworth served as a Republican congressman. While in office, there was a vote to decide the border between Wisconsin and Illinois.
Wisconsin leaders wanted the state’s border to stretch to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and Wentworth was allegedly promised a seat on the U.S. Senate — if he voted to give Wisconsin the slice of land that included Chicago.
He turned the offer down. If it hadn’t been for Wentworth's vote, Chicago would have been a city in Wisconsin. Imagine that.
Before his political prominence, Wentworth grew up in New Hampshire. He stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 300 pounds. His towering stature earned him a cheeky nickname: “Long John.”
Long John liked to eat.
A typical dinner at Wentworth’s table included soup, fish, pot roast, a mountain of vegetables and maybe some bread pudding for dessert, according to “Chicago Giant,” a biography by Don E. Fehrenbacher.
Wentworth loved whiskey but hated beer.
"It's nasty stuff," he said, according to the biography, “makes you soggy and fat and lazy and I don’t want to be either.”
He went to church twice on Sundays and once described himself as "a regular evangelical."
"I believe in a hell," he told a newspaper reporter, according to Fehrenbacher, "straight-out, and in future punishment. And I believe in rewards straight-out."
Long John graduated from Dartmouth College and traveled west. By 1830, he'd made it to Chicago, where he served as editor of the Chicago Democrat and studied law.
In 1857, he ran for mayor, won and built a reputation as one of the city's most vibrant and fiery politicians.
As mayor, Wentworth was known for his high energy and hardcore policing tactics against the city’s "immoral" circles.
On April 20, 1857, Long John led a raid on an area north of the Chicago River called the “Sands" — a place known for its rickety squathouses full of criminals. Wentworth and the cops reportedly used drag ropes to topple about 10 of the shacks, garnering praise from newspapers.
Wentworth’s crusade through the city’s trouble spots also included a crackdown on brothels.
Outside of politics and policing, Wentworth enjoyed quiet time far from the city.
He bought up more than 4,500 acres of land, according to the Clear Ridge Historical Society, and used some of that acreage to create his own countryside sanctuary.
Wentworth opened “The Summit Farm,” where you’d find cattle, horses and apple tree groves — a different world compared to the stretch of booming businesses you'll now find dotting Archer Avenue.
In 1868, he built the country estate at 5441 S. Harlem — on the same block where the banquet hall sits, down the street from Burger King and the Fleetwood Roller Rink
“He used it as his summer getaway,” Bitunjac said. “That area was not a part of the city until 1915.”
Kapusciarz plans to display a copy of Wentworth's will and a book of his speeches at The Mayor's Mansion. That way guests might learn more about the man who once called the land beneath their feet "the jewel of all his possessions."
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