SEPTEMBER 18, 2013
Recently in Chicago, a committee was formed to “Save the Belgian Hall”. The Belgian Hall is a two-story structure located at 2625 W. Fullerton in Chicago, Illinois. The building was constructed in 1921, by the All Belgians are Equal Club, one of the predecessor organizations of the current Belgian American Club of Chicago. However, in 1979, the building was sold and has remained vacant and used for storage since then. At the end of August 2013, a for sale sign appeared. With the condition of the building and urban renewal of the neighborhood, there is a strong possibility the building may be torn down. And this would be a shame, as the building is so much more than a structure; it is a symbol of a Belgian past and should become a reminder to future generations of their Belgian ancestry.
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Belgian immigration to Chicago began in the middle of the nineteenth century, and reached its peak in the early decades of the 1900s. A stretch of Fullerton Avenue grew as the focal point for the Chicago Belgian community’s clubs, taverns, and businesses. On September 3, 1905, Saint John Berchmann’s parish was organized nearby. In 1909, the first Belgian cultural organization, Kunst-En Broederliefde (Art and Brotherly Love), was established. In 1914, they organized the Belgian American Janitors Club, which served as a mutual aid and social organization for its members. Soon after the founding of the Janitors Club, Belgian women began organizing their own clubs. The Belgian American Ladies Society (1915), a social organization, and the Queen Elizabeth Club (1915), a civic and charitable organization, together had membership of nearly 200.
In 1921, the All Belgians Are Equal Club built the Belgian Hall which served as social gathering place for the growing number of Belgians and the different organizations. Most of the 13 listed Belgian organizations in Chicago – The Belgian Bow and Arrow Club, the Belgian Stamp Club, the Queen Elisabeth Club, etc. – rented the Hall for events as needed. Just off the Fullerton Street entrance was a bar area. The larger part of the Belgian Hall included a long dance floor and a stage. The heyday for the hall was from the 1920s until the 1970s. Jim Vertenten, a past-president of the Belgian American Historical Society of Chicago, remembers: “The downstairs had one big open room with a stage for dances and parties. Upstairs was kind of a men’s area…a bar with pool tables, darts and card tables.” The building hosted many events, such as, wedding receptions, dances, bowling tournaments, bingo games, bike races, and the annual Belgian Night beauty pageant, which ran from 1962 to 1975 and attracted crowds of over 750 people.
The Belgian Hall is a justifiable landmark not only for the its significance to the Belgian community, but on a larger scale, as it is a symbol for Chicago labor. It is located on the Chicago Labor Trail Map, an online resource map of 140 significant locations in the history of labor, migration, and working-class culture in Chicago as discussed in “The Labor Trail: Chicago’s History of Working-Class Life and Struggle”. The Chicago Center for Working Class Studies identifies the Belgian Hall as the meeting place of the Chicago Flat Janitors Union, forerunner to the Service Employees International Union.
The Save the Belgian Hall Committee is working feverishly to establish a plan to preserve the building for future generations. Near the entrance of the building, in the cornerstone are the words “All Belgians Are Equal” which cause many a walker or runner to stop and wonder about the old building as they pass by. Some have even photographed and researched the cornerstone, learning of a past existence of a vibrant Belgian community. How sad it would be if one day the building is gone and no one wonders anymore…