Illinois Tollway Oasis Restaurants
Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera Theater
Old Spinning Wheel Restaurant
The original five Oases [Belvidere, Des Plaines, Hinsdale, Lake Forest and O’Hare] were built over the Tollway in 1959 by Standard Oil of Indiana [Amoco], on land leased from the Tollway Authority. Vehicle service areas were on either side of the highway, and unique Fred Harvey restaurants spanned it like a bridge.
A twenty-year lease agreement was concluded with the Standard Oil Company of Indiana requiring them to invest $13 million to provide over-the-tollway restaurants and adjacent auto service facilities. The restaurants were to be operated by Fred Harvey under a ten year subcontract with Standard Oil.
Locations of the "Top-of-the-Tollway" Oasis Restaurants:
Belvidere: I-90 (Jane Addams Memorial Tollway), south of Belvidere.
Des Plaines: I-90 (Jane Addams Memorial Tollway) north of O’Hare airport and southwest of Des Plaines.
Hinsdale: I-294 (Tri-State Tollway) southeast of Hinsdale.
Lake Forest: I-94 (Tri-State Tollway) west of Lake Forest.
Chicago Southland Lincoln: I-80/294 (Tri-State Tollway) south of South Holland.
O’Hare: I-294 (Tri-State Tollway) southeast of O’Hare airport.
Back of postcard: Oases or service areas on the Illinois Tollway feature unique Fred Harvey “Top-of-the-Tollway” restaurants and gift shops built on bridges. Diners watch traffic flow beneath the buildings, as they enjoy Fred Harvey food and service.
The Fred Harvey postcards mention there were five locations, though they are not named. The later Illinois Tollway placemat has six named. The Abraham Lincoln Oasis was built in 1967 and had a completely different design.
A seventh ground-level “Oasis” was built beside I-88 [Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway] near DeKalb in 1972, with a ramp over the highway for access from both directions. It probably was never a Harvey site.
In 1975 the Oases were run by Howard Johnson’s. They were extensively remodeled in 1984 when the fast food chains took over.
From 2003 to 2005, an extensive renovation program of these oases was completed. This involved demolishing the old oases structures to the bridge deck and replacing them with new buildings. Where in the previous buildings the view of the highways were blocked by the vendor restaurants, in the new buildings large expanses of glass are used to create a sense of openness, and to give patrons better views of the highway.
In the Then & Now pictures, you can see the original concrete foundations for the outdoor terraces have been painted a brick color and brick structures have been added above them to enlarge the interior space.
The “fast food” eating choices today are nothing compared to the days of Fred Harvey fine dining, complete with Harvey Girl waitresses: McDonald’s, Subway, Panda Express, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.
The Chicago Skyway, also known as the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge, is 7.8 miles of elevated roadway originally built as a shortcut from State Street, a major north-south street on Chicago’s South Side that serves the Loop, to the steel mills on the Southeast to the Indiana state line at where the Indiana Toll Road begins. The main feature of the Skyway is a 1/2-mile long steel truss bridge. The bridge spans the Calumet River, a major harbor for industrial ships. The main span is 650 feet long, providing 125 feet of vertical clearance, and is the highest road in Chicago. The Chicago Skyway opened to traffic on April 16, 1958.
The Illinois Tollway placemat shows a Fred Harvey Restaurant at the Service Area of the Chicago Skyway, the sole reference I have been able to find for it. The only place remotely resembling a “Service Area” today is the toll plaza a mile to the NW of the bridge, where there is a standard McDonald’s in the median. Very likely this is where there used to be a Fred Harvey restaurant of some sort.
Beloit, Wisconsin – Lastly, the ever-informative Illinois Tollway placemat shows a Harvey House just to the east of Beloit, which is to the northwest of Chicago in Wisconsin. This is another rare site that it is hard to find anything about. Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for the Fred Harvey Company shows a photo of its sign off of I-90, before it was taken down in the summer of 2006. The location is unknown, but an image of the sign on flickr shows a truck stop in the background. There are truck stops on both north and south sides of US-51/Gardner Street, just to the west of I-90.
The red roof design has faded off this side of the sign. Perhaps the Skyway Harvey House and the one in Beloit were similar structures?
L. Hamilton McCormick mansion, ca. 1943; Arcadia Publishing
Ontario Street to the right and Rush to the left, looking NE, 2011
L. Hamilton McCormick (nephew of reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick) and his English-born wife built the 4-story, 25-room Italian Renaissance style mansion at the northeast corner of Rush and Ontario for $125,000 in the 1890’s. On its 4th floor was the largest residential ballroom in Chicago, which could accomodate 400.
The two western second floor windows of the original mansion are still visible in the back left corner on Rush Street.
Mrs. McCormick, widowed in 1935, leased the great house in 1937 to Danish-born Chicago restaurateur Fredrick Chramer, who opened an elegant restaurant specializing in Scandinavian dishes and lavish “smorgasbord.” The Kungsholm dining rooms were decorated in Swedish Modern style, royal blues and gold.
The original idea for the “Miniature Grand Opera Theater” was the brainchild of a Chicago youth named Ernest Wolff. He became a lifelong fan of opera at the age of twelve in 1928 after his mother took him to see Carmen. As a teenager, Wolff became interested in creating miniature renditions of opera sets in his basement, performing these miniature operas for friends. He and his mother Esther devised puppets that would move on the stage in slots and be operated from below by rods and wires.
In November of 1936, the Chicago Miniature Opera Company opened to an audience of forty friends and admirers with a complete performance of Aida. News of the Miniature Opera spread quickly, and Ernest Wolff was approached by the Gas Industries of America to perform a full six-month engagement at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, seen above. RCA Victor was to co-sponsor the event, providing a new sound system and all the records needed. The Wolffs built new thirteen-inch puppets, including a full puppet orchestra, new sets, properties, and a new stage.
After the close of the World’s Fair, the Chicago Miniature Opera Theatre began a tour of the United States through the spring of 1941 as the Victor Puppet Opera. Mr. Wolff was called into the military, and so the company returned to Chicago for a farewell run, where it was seen by Fredrick Chramer. Mr. Chramer negotiated an agreement with the Wolffs to install their puppet opera in the fourth floor ballroom of the one-time mansion. In November of 1941 Fredrick Chramer opened what was to become world famous as the “Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera Theater.”
Tragically, fire destroyed the Kungsholm Puppet Opera in February of 1947. Mr. Chramer began plans at once to re-build it on the street level in the space once occupied by the mansion’s carriage house, creating a 208 seat theater with a mezzanine and box seats at a cost of $500,000. It was at this time that the lower part of the mansion received its added limestone exterior seen today. In 1952 the curtain rose again at the new theater.
Fred Harvey Souvenir Program, “Madame Butterfly,” eBay image
Kungsholm Miniature Opera Repertoire, 7/5/1965 - 1/10/1966
The Kungsholm continued to do well, often attracting famous opera stars such as Lauritz Melchoir to do guest performances. But, with rising debt and declining health, Mr. Chramer sold the Kungsholm to Fred Harvey in 1957. The repertoire of operas and the number of characters were greatly reduced during 1960s, with a steady decline in the quality of the performances. In 1971 the Kungsholm closed and the remaining puppet opera artifacts were donated to the Museum of Science and Industry, where they were exhibited for many years.
One source mentions that a Shipwreck Kelly’s was then briefly at the location. A Shipwreck Kelly’s matchcover does list Chicago as one of the Home Ports: “Operated by Fred Harvey, An Amfac Happening.” It is unknown whether it is referring to this location or some other spot in Chicago.
Lawry’s The Prime Rib opened at 100 East Ontario Street in May of 1974, bringing back the class and elegance of this once-exclusive McCormick home and the incomparable atmosphere and style of the Kungsholm. The sloped floor of the theater on the first floor was leveled. In 1988, structural damage to the building’s north walls caused by the new office building next door necessitated removal of the top two floors of the original McCormick mansion.
Bill Fosser first worked at the Kungsholm in 1943 for the summer when he was 14 years old, applying for the job when he “saw a picture in the paper of a girl holding an armful of Kungsholm puppets like a bouquet.” He returned for a couple years in the 1950s after it was rebuilt, and then later served as the Artistic Director from 1963-1966. As Director, he initiated changes in the puppets and scenery to give better movement and create a more efficient theatre. He continued the tradition of puppet opera with his own endeavors. In September of 1958 Opera in Focus was first presented in a rented store on Chicago's north side. Because of his professional art director and set designer/decorator career, regularly-scheduled public performances were infrequent, until Opera in Focus was able to be located at the Rolling Meadows Park District Theater in December of 1993, at which time he retired to devote his time entirely to puppet opera. He mentored and trained two young men until his death in 2006. The Snyder brothers are the current owners and operators of Opera in Focus, keeping the “Miniature Grand Opera Theater” experience alive today!
Fred Harvey card of original log structure with stone chimney
Center front view with “tandem” additions looking WNW, 2011
The Old Spinning Wheel was located at 421 East Ogden Avenue, U.S. Route 34 in Hinsdale, Illinois, just SW of Chicago along the Tollway, although it predates that. Pre-Harvey cards often refer to it as a Tea Room. The normal slogan found on the earlier cards is:
Spinning Wheel and old rail fence, cabin in the trees
Food to charm an epicure in his life of ease
The original Old Spinning Wheel Restaurant was opened in 1935 by Charles and Vacia Duncan at 401 East Ogden Avenue [“Ogden Ave. at Oak St.”], just to the west of the location of the second one. Within seven years it was too small, so the Duncans built a much larger version immediately to the east on 20 acres of land, adding extensive gardens. The Old Spinning Wheel was run by the Duncans from 1942 until they retired in 1954, at which time it was leased to Fred Harvey. Amfac closed the restaurant at some point not long after it acquired the Fred Harvey Company in 1968. The heirs of the original owners sold the property and it was purchased from a developer by the Hinsdale Hospital in 1978 and served as the Hinsdale Sanitarium until fairly recently. I did not see any signs to that effect when I was there. Google Maps labels it the Hinsdale Hospital Library.
The above postcard says “Now under Fred Harvey Management” and offers “Luncheons, Dinners and Cocktails in charming Colonial settings. Air-conditioned.” The Telephone: Hinsdale 80. This view is also featured on the cover of one of a series of Fred Harvey menus from the 1950s showing different Harvey locations.
An earlier Fred Harvey matchcover than this does not mention the “Tandem Gift & Gourmet Shops,” neither do the earlier postcards. There is a non-Harvey card that shows a separate “Country Store” which was built north of the restaurant about ten years after the restaurant by Charles Duncan. So, it is likely Fred Harvey added the tandem buildings to the front/east to replace the Country Store, which is now gone.
Fred Harvey postcard of the North Dining Room
Original South Dining Room behind the two detached wings, NNW, 2011
This postcard of the more frequently used North Dining Room also says “Now under Fred Harvey Management” and offers the same services as the card above. But the phone number is more modern than the earlier card: FAculty 3-9080.
The modern view of the South Dining Room shows a close-up rustic log structure that is now hard to see from the front, due to the added buildings.
Fred Harvey postcard showing added “tandem” buildings out front
An appearance very similar to that of the Fred Harvey era, NW, 2011
This card has the same telephone as the previous one, but in addition to the services listed on it adds: “Rooms for meetings and parties. Unusual imported and domestic gift and gourmet specialties. Open seven days a week, the year ’round.” That is the Gift Shop on the left, and the Gourmet Shop is to the right. Though the two buildings have been added out front, the lawn jockies from the first view are still seen greeting guests.
I have another non-photo postcard advertizing the Old Spinning Wheel, undated but presumably pre-Harvey 1950s, which says “...53 eating places were named the most popular in the United States; out of which Chicagoland has 13.” In the list, besides the Old Spinning Wheel, is the Kungsholm Swedish Restaurant, another one subsequently operated by Fred Harvey.
If you want to enjoy a wonderful guided tour of the Old Spinning Wheel, watch these two YouTube videos created by the founders’ grandson. The first one shows many old still photos, including the 1935 location and constructing the 1942 one. Interior views are shown of the Lobby, the North and South Dining Rooms, the Upstairs Apartment, Kitchen and Country Store. The second video consists of old Duncan family movies of the restaurant, mostly of the grounds, and is narrated by the grandson.
I was told by someone leaving the building while I was taking pictures that this historic restaurant is scheduled to be torn down in the next two years.
Bing Maps view