His name was Oscar A. Brotman (1916-1994), and not just once but twice he brought his vision of glitz and glamour to the Hollywood Park neighborhood. Nothing remains of the Tower Cabana Club and Lincoln Village Theatre, but in their glory days Brotman’s venues were the swankiest spots around.
Setting the stage for fun in the sun
In 1955, on a narrow two-block strip of land overlooking the North Shore Sanitary Canal, a total of 6.75 acres east of Jersey and Peterson, Oscar Brotman built the Tower Cabana Club. It was a pool with pizazz, a pool surrounded by bright umbrellas, tents, cabanas … and palm trees.
They warned Brotman about the palm trees, but he ignored the naysayers. He imported eight 35-foot-high coconut palms from Florida and had them planted in cement blocks and chemically treated to withstand Chicago’s winter temperatures.
When the fronds turned brown and fell to the ground, Brotman had them spray painted green and nailed back up where they belonged. Sometimes the leaves turned brown but didn’t fall off.
“If they don’t fall off,” Brotman complained to a Chicago Tribune reporter, “how do they expect to get painted?”
Brotman’s ingenuity as a set designer was once again evident in December 1956 with the transformation of the palm trees into 45-foot Christmas trees.
“No one would ever guess,” Brotman told the Trib, “that I had those eight evergreens hauled down from Michigan by special truck, lashed them as close as possible to the palm trunks and steadied them with guy wires.”
With 150 cabanas available for rent, Brotman offered families a plan for “poolside living” at a private club. Besides the full-size pool, there was a wading pool, a day camp, and a playground “far enough away from the cabanas to ensure a little peace and quiet for the parents.” Betty Draper of Mad Men couldn’t have said it any better.
The Chicago Tribune loved Tower Cabana; the neighbors, not so much
In August 1955, a two-page spread in the Tribune, “The Florida Idea of Fun Catching On in Chicago,” showcased the delights of the Tower Cabana Club with photos of teens playing table tennis and shuffleboard, frolicking in the pool, and dancing to a live orchestra.
But it wasn’t all sun and fun and beauty contests. The club fought city and neighborhood opposition throughout its existence. The first case, a battle with City Hall over whether Brotman could build a commercial project on land leased from the Sanitary District, went to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The city of Chicago argued they had zoned the land for single-family dwellings, but the judge ruled the city didn’t have the right to zone Sanitary District property. Not to mention the land was 50 feet west of a waterway used to drain sewage from North Shore suburbs into the city. Brotman won round one.
On April 21, 1955, the day after his inauguration as 40th Ward alderman, Seymour Simon demonstrated a seasoned pro’s grasp of Chicago neighborhood politics. He asked the Department of Streets and Sanitation to barricade the Peterson Avenue driveways leading into the Tower Cabana Club’s newly paved parking lot.
“I’m not trying to stop the project,” Alderman Simon explained to the Tribune. “I just don’t want to help.”
During the zoning battle, Hollywood North Park Civic Association (HPNCA) came into existence. Founded by Gerald Specter, my friend Susan Specter’s father, and other local residents for the purpose of blocking construction of the club, HNPCA fought Brotman on several issues to preserve the neighborhood’s quiet character and its property values.
Cold weather brought more controversy
In November 1955, Brotman came up with idea of offering club members ice skating during the off-season. His was no ordinary flood the backyard plan; Brotman enlisted the engineers of the Burge Ice Machine Company to build an icy surface over the pool that would stay frozen even in 60 degree weather. The ice froze but outdoor lighting and piped music heated up the neighbors.
Alderman Simon introduced a proposal calling for a 9 p.m. curfew for public ice rinks within 150 feet of residential homes. It would apply not only to Tower Cabana, but to 122 outdoor rinks in the city.
Brotman won that round but lost the next one. His scheme to boost revenues by adding a golf driving range met with neighborhood disapproval:
“A pool is one thing, but a golf range in a quiet area is ridiculous,” said Specter. “I don’t want to see neighbors kids dodging golf balls.”
Specter and the HNPCA won this round. The experience of challenging Brotman’s Tower Cabana Club served Specter well for a history-making battle nearly twenty years later. In 1974, the city closed the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, also located in Hollywood Park. The first Mayor Daley wanted to give the land to developer Harry Chaddick, who had plans for a shopping mall and high-rise apartment buildings. Specter and others fought to preserve the land for public use.
“My father was a huge player in keeping the TB site out of the hands of commercial developers. He fought the Daley machine and won,” Susan Specter said. As a result of the efforts of her father and the North River Coalition, the land occupied by the TB Sanitarium became Peterson Park and North Park Village.
The end of an era
In 1966 Tower Cabana Club went out of business and its facilities quickly deteriorated, helped along by nature and vandals. HNPCA begged for its demolition and in 1968 the Sanitary District finally obliged. They then leased the site for a dollar a year to the Chicago Park District and to this day it remains a free and open space.
Update: Decoma Day Camp had its swimming pool activities at Tower Cabana starting in 1956. Thanks to Bonnie McGrath for providing the photograph of her camp group, probably in 1956.
Next Monday, I’ll write about Brotman’s Hollywood Park comeback, Lincoln Village Theatre, the last movie palace built in Chicago. In the meantime, I never set foot inside Tower Cabana so I’d love to hear from anyone who remembers it.
Sources: Billboard, Chicago Park District and Susan Specter. Thanks also to Illinois State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, who grew up in Hollywood Park, for suggesting I research the history of Tower Cabana. Map of the former site of the Tower Cabana courtesy of Google Maps. Thanks to Merle Citrin Monroe for photographs of the Tower Cabana Club. Here’s some more photos from the Tower Cabana.
LUCY KEY MILLER. (1955, May 6). Front Views & Profiles :Miami in Chicago. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963),p. a4. Retrieved October 7, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987). (Document ID: 508257392).
Tribune photo, ANGELA. (1955, August 6). The Florida Idea of Fun Catching On in Chicago. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963),p. 15. Retrieved October 6, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987). (Document ID: 508877962).