RIVER NORTH — The parking lot across from Holy Name Cathedral that church officials want to sell isn't just a hugely valuable development site.
It's also steeped in some serious Chicago gangland history.
The Archdiocese of Chicago made headlines this week when it hired a real estate agent to sell the big parking lot across the street from its highest-profile church at 735 N. State St.
The parking lot between State and Dearborn streets at Chicago Avenue can fit hundreds of cars, but church officials have decided the property is more valuable if it's sold — and some estimates say it's worth as much as $100 million.
David Matthews talks about the parking lot possibilities at Holy Name.
"Developers have been interested in the property west of State Street across from Holy Name Cathedral for decades," said Susan Burritt, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
"Given the strength of the current real estate market and the increased construction in and near Downtown Chicago, we decided the time was right to consider developing the property," Burritt said.
But it's not just a parking lot.
It's the site of a 1924 gangland murder that helped Al Capone beat a path to control of organized crime in Chicago — and become one of Chicago's most infamous characters.
The State Street site once held a flower shop owned by mobster Dean "Dion" O'Banion, a dapper Irishman who enjoyed fancy suits and making piles of cash selling booze in Prohibition-era Chicago.
The flower shop was his spot, and he did a good business selling arrangements for dead mobsters.
It was in that shop — once part of a row of multistory stone buildings across from Holy Name Cathedral — that O'Banion's fate was sealed. He was shot dead in 1924 after double-crossing Chicago Outfit boss Johnny Torrio and his emerging protege, Al Capone.
According to Ken Burns' "Prohibition" documentary on PBS:
Dion O'Banion was a safecracker and sometime florist whose Irish North Side Chicago gang specialized in smuggling liquor down from Canada. In 1926 O'Banion became worried that the Italians, including Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, were conspiring against the Irish, and decided to double cross them.
When O'Banion learned that the police were planning to raid his biggest illegal brewery, he kept it to himself, and told Torrio and Capone he wanted out of the business – and was willing to sell it to them for half a million dollars. When Torrio arrived to take possession, the police descended and arrested him and a number of his men. A few months later, as O'Banion was working in his flower shop, two gunmen shot him dead. Capone denied any connection to the crime and sent a huge bouquet to the funeral.
The killing sparked a vicious five-year war between O'Banion's North Side gang and Capone's South Side crew, a conflict that culminated in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929 that killed members of George "Bugs" Moran's gang.
"The death of a bootlegger with a strange taste for flowers or of a florist with an eccentricity for murder might not affect the general welfare much," the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote shortly after O'Banion's murder. "It might be only one of the studies in metropolitan life which the romanticist in fiction likes. But O'Banion was not an incident in the phases of a city. He was almost the political essence of this city."
O'Banion, once an altar boy at Holy Name Cathedral, wasn't allowed to be buried from the famed church across the street from his flower shop because of his unsavory other line of work.
Dean O'Banion's photo in a 1960 retrospective. Newspapers at the time referred to him as Dion O'Banion. [Chicago Tribune]
The block's bloody history is part of Chicago's notorious past. And it's not the only sightseeing spot there. Across the street is Holy Name Cathedral, which still bears a deep hole in its 19th century cornerstone.
Legend says the hole stems from the 1926 murder of O'Banion protégé Earl "Little Hymie" Weiss on the church's steps. Capone reportedly ordered the hit. To this day, some newlyweds place their finger in the hole for good luck.
The hole in Holy Name Cathedral's cornerstone. [DNAinfo/David Matthews]
Some real estate experts have estimated the parking lot's value at $100 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. That's serious money, especially for the Catholic archdiocese as it faces slipping church attendance and churches falling into disrepair. Burritt said proceeds from Holy Name Cathedral's parking lot sale would go toward "debt repayments" and the archdiocese's other cash needs.
Burritt said the archdiocese "expects" a new development would include 200 garage spaces for the church, but didn't say how the church would address parking while a new building was under construction.
Lynn Valentine, of Logan Square, was walking by the church Wednesday afternoon. A Catholic and a disabled woman, she was concerned how parishioners' parking needs would be met if the lot is sold.
"I think the church has enough money; they don't need to sell parking lots," Valentine said. "Maybe sell some icons. Don't make it harder for parishioners."
An aerial view of the church and parking lot. [Google Earth]
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