The first time I visited the Deborah Boys Club in Albany Park, it was the late 1960s and I was in seventh grade. I didn’t think much of the building. It’s not that it had seen better days, but I was more interested in watching what was going on inside: several boys from my class at Peterson School were playing a game of basketball.
Looking into the history of the Deborah Boys Club, or Deborah as we called the community center, I came across a stunning early photograph. For more than 40 years I’ve been passing this building, now home to the Albany Park Community Center. How did I not see, not admire, those sharp, clean lines and angles jutting outwards from the corner of Kimball and Ainslie?
I wanted an expert’s opinion. Is this the real thing? Is it as pretty as I think it is? For answers, I turned to Lee Bey, who writes about Chicago architecture on his WBEZ blog and talks about it on Fox News Chicago. Lee agreed:
“It’s a beaut! It’s a modernist building clearly influenced by the Bauhaus, particularly the work of Walter Gropius. The material and form remind me a lot of the Masters’ Houses, designed by Gropius at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany.”
I found the photograph on the website of Epstein, the firm, then known as A. Epstein and Sons, that in 1949 designed and built the Deborah Boys Club. The same firm that designed and built many, many, many of the world’s notable buildings. And the Deborah Boys Club in Albany Park. There’s a story here, but I don’t know it.
The Old Deborah
Funded and operated by the Deborah’s Women Club together with the Young Men’s Jewish Council (later renamed the Jewish Council for Youth Services), the Deborah Boys Club first opened its doors in 1930 at 2441 W. Division with the goal of keeping boys off the streets and out of trouble by offering recreational and educational activities. Although the founders were Jewish social service agencies, the club was nondenominational.
Ron Shapiro grew up in an apartment above his father’s Division Street grocery store during the 1940s, a block away from the Deborah Boys Club. He knew it well.
I spent so many hours there that the manager gave me a set of keys to the gym in case he wasn’t there when a bunch of us from the neighborhood would show up early. I had the keys to the locker that held all of the equipment. I started going to Deborah when I was about 8 or 9 and continued until they moved north.
The New Deborah
In the 1940s Jewish families were migrating north from the West and Near West Side neighborhoods. Businesses and institutions followed in their wake. The new Deborah Boys Club at 3401 Ainslie included space for arts and crafts, radio and electricity, photography, wood shop, photography, a gymnasium, showers, lockers, library, kitchen, dramatics and glee club. At first the club was open to boys from 8 to 18; girls were admitted in 1954. By 1956, the club was serving 1,600 kids annually.
Carol Solomon Proesel, who attended Peterson Elementary School and graduated from Von Steuben High School in the late ’60s, says Deborah was a very integral part of her social life. She recalls after-school programs, babysitting classes, music, arts and crafts, girls volleyball, dances with live bands: “Dances were a big thing. Inside during the winter, outside when it was warm.”
Kids came to Deborah from a fairly large area, stretching from Albany Park north to Peterson Park. In addition to its own programming, Deborah hosted meetings for community groups and had ties to local schools. Many SACs (social athletic clubs) found a home at Deborah for their meetings, dances and sports teams. In an earlier post, I published a 1958 photograph of the Regular Fellas club taken in the gym at Deborah. An article titled “Sports Extensions” in the 1967 edition of the Peterson Elementary School newsletter reports on the tournaments held at Deborah.
The Jewish Council of Youth Services closed Deborah Boys Club in 1975 for the same reason they left Division Street twenty-odd years earlier: the neighborhood changed.
Photo credits: The photograph of the Deborah Boys Club is from the website of Epstein, the 90-year-old Chicago engineering and architectural firm that built the Deborah Boys Club.
Sources: GROUND BROKEN AT NEW DEBORAH BOYS CLUB SITE. (1949, June 5).Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963),NW7. Retrieved July 17, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987). (Document ID: 489266662).
Group to Move at End of Year. (1949, August 21). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963),NW9. Retrieved July 17, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1987). (Document ID: 489647572).
Deborah Boys Club timeline.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lee Bey for his insights; check out his blog for his great photos and stories of Chicago architecture. Thanks also to Ron Shapiro, author of the memoir, Making Happy, and to Carol Solomon Proesel for sharing their memories.
Read more Albany Park Memories