Amusement parks have always been a memorable part of growing up. Ask just about any adult and they will surely show you pictures of their younger selves beneath blue skies, surrounded by towering rides and a crowd of happy families. What was to be done on days where the skies were not quite as blue? A designer by the name of Robert Brindle often had the same thought and after one particular visit to Knott’s Berry Farm he had an idea. He wanted to bring all the amusement of a park to a location that would allow it to stay open all year round. Thus the idea of building and indoor park had come to be.
In June of 1973 Robert Brindle officially presented his plans that included a 345,000 square foot indoor complex that would feature not only outdoor-type rides, but also a shopping mall with early 20th-century style décor. He was so confident of his plans that he made a statement claiming his idea would “put Bolingbrook on the map.”
Troubles started immediately with many delays due to construction. With two years in the making they were set to open on June 26th, 1975 but not before hosting a grand opening party which saw an enormous crowd of over 10,000 people. Construction however was not complete with quite a bit of electrical wiring still being exposed. Officials concluded it could not open in such condition and Brindle was forced to ask construction crews to work around the clock to perfect the building. With the last minute fixes and inspection the mall was deemed worthy of opening, this time to a crowd of over 15,000. Each weekend saw closer to 50,000 visitors, some traveling for a half hour or longer just to see the one of a kind complex. On opening day a contest was held to find a suitable young lady willing to tap dance on top of the building. The winner, an 18 year old named Michelle Mauthe, won the contest and was filmed dancing on the dome of the building that day by a cameraman in a helicopter. Once inside, the park/shopping center amazed people with over a million dollars worth of memorabilia, two hundred stores, the parks very own mascot, and even vaudeville-esque entertainment. Old Chicago was truly a magical place for children, often decorating entrances with historical figures such as a replica of Harry Houdini in his “death tank” or even characters like Darth Vader.
Problems continued due to the hurried construction as early as the following month with the sprinkler system causing a complete shutdown of the building for nearly six hours and a fire later that year. The park also saw the death of a popular acrobat, Jimmy Troy, as he fell to his death during a trapeze stunt. Within six months of opening Brindle was on the verge of bankruptcy with millions of dollars in construction. In an attempt to turn things around there was a change in management and Clyde Farman took over. More changes were made to attempt recovery including adjusting prices, changing hours and renovating. More misfortune came about with fires destroying a shop belonging to the Old Chicago Tobacco Company and a fireworks display that went off prematurely. The debt grew even heavier and despite being popular, Old Chicago was destined to fail.
In the end it was far more than the debt that doomed the beloved park. A competing park, now known as Six Flags Great America, drew away many visitors as the novelty of Old Chicago faltered and faded. Unlike outdoor parks it was unable to expand as it was confined within the building. Although special events, like competitions, graduations or antique shows brought a sizeable crowd there were not many repeat visitors. Instead of featuring bigger department stores a majority of the mall was filled with smaller family owned businesses or boutiques. The area which housed rides was abruptly closed in 1980 and many surrounding stored had closed too. By August of the following year Old Chicago was closed as a whole with no hope in sight. The building was bought out with plans to convert it into a casino, but the idea was scrapped shortly after and put up for auction. Auction brought no hope for the building, as no bids were received. Talk of demolition stirred but in an attempt to keep the complex around the village changed its zoning laws to prevent destruction. By this time structural damage had begun to occur and interest in the building plummeted. In 1985 an investment banker C.L. Carr bought the building with an oath to keep the building open as an entertainment venue but later attempted to sell parcels of the land. The complete demolition of Old Chicago came about in the spring of 1986 leaving not even a trace of its existence.
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