When it was built, the first floor had a saloon in addition to a retail liquor store. The rest of the building was offices and warehousing. It was “modernized” in the 1950s, when its ornamental capitals and cornice were removed. Nevertheless, it is a designated Chicago Landmark.
The name was so well known in Chicago and vicinity that, after Prohibition, Chapin & Gore was revived as a whiskey brand, a product of National Distillers. It is no longer made but occasionally appears in collections and at auction.
Many histories incorrectly describe Chapin & Gore as distillers. They may have held interests in some distilleries, most of which were in the countryside, but they did not make whiskey themselves, and certainly not downtown. They bought and sold it: a lot of it. The whiskey arrived in barrels. If it was aged, they aged it. If it was bottled, they bottled it. Then as now, many non-distiller producers pose as distillers and even have the word “distiller” in their company name.
From 1868 to 1920, Chapin & Gore was an important part of Chicago’s economy. It started as a grocery but quickly evolved into a liquor store. In addition to their main location, they had a half-dozen sample rooms scattered throughout downtown. They also operated a popular saloon and restaurant. They were a producer, distributor and retailer of wine and distilled spirits; the sort of vertical integration that is prohibited in the beverage alcohol business today. (So is much else that made Chapin & Gore special.)
Founded by Gardner Chapin and Jim Gore, the firm grew quickly and was already a major enterprise in 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire threatened to put them and everyone else out of business. As the flames spread, Gore paid men to roll barrels of whiskey from his warehouse onto Monroe Street and then into Lake Michigan. They floated, of course. A few were lost but about a hundred were recovered. The contents were bottled and sold as “Lake Whiskey” for a premium price. Despite that, the company’s loss was estimated to exceed $75,000 ($1.7 million in today’s dollars).
When Chapin & Gore rebuilt, still on Monroe, they added the saloon and restaurant that quickly became a favorite among the city’s business and political establishment. An English visitor, writing home to a friend, described Chapin & Gore as a place “as well known in America as the Houses of Parliament in London.”
Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison was a regular. So was Illinois Governor Dick Oglesby. Buffalo Bill Cody, General Phillip Sheridan, railcar manufacturer George Pullman, meatpacker Phil Armour and many other luminaries went there to dine, drink, smoke and gamble; as well as to wheel and deal; and to see and be seen. Original artwork that hung on the walls is in the collection of the Chicago History Museum.
Charles H. Hermann was Chapin & Gore’s longtime sales manager and last owner, who turned the lights off on January 1, 1920. In his 1943 memoir, Hermann recounted how the routine business of extending credit to restaurants and bars led the company to invest in several of them, making five- and even six-figure loans to promising hospitality entrepreneurs. One of their beneficiaries went on to build New York’s legendary Holland House Hotel. Opening in 1891, two years before its more famous neighbor, the Waldorf, it was considered the epitome of luxury and elegance.
Prohibition killed Chapin & Gore, the Holland House, and many other alcohol-fueled businesses.
A son of Austrian immigrants, Charles Hermann grew up in Wisconsin. Orphaned in his teens, he came to Chicago looking for opportunity. After knocking around for a few years, he found it at Chapin & Gore, where he rose to the position of sales manager. Like just about everyone involved in the enterprise, he became quite wealthy and took over as president after the deaths of the founders.
Chapin & Gore was of particular importance to Chicago’s “sporting” community. In his book, Hermann describes how Chicago racehorse owners and bookmakers used Chapin & Gore as a literal bank, depositing, “in many cases large sums of money for which they received neatly engraved deposit certificates, which were honored like legal tender at racetracks in Chicago, Saratoga, New Orleans and elsewhere.” In addition to those deposits, some “sports” just left their stakes on deposit overnight. Hermann estimated that on a typical night there would be about a half-million dollars, cash, in the company’s vault (which would be about $15 million today).
In addition to providing routine credit for liquor purchases to thousands of individuals, stores, bars and restaurants, and more extensive bank-like financial services for certain patrons, Chapin & Gore built Chicago’s first electric plant in 1880. They supplied light, power and steam heat to every building in their block, bounded then by Madison, State, Monroe and Dearborn.
In 1904, Chapin and Hermann moved the business south to Adams Street. (Gore died in 1891.) They commissioned the progressive architecture firm of Schmidt & Garden to build the eight-story building, considered a rare example of Prairie-style design in a high-rise office structure.
You can still buy a drink there, too.
Charles K. “Chuck” Cowdery can be found at The Chuck Cowdery Blog (chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/), where he writes mostly about American whiskey. Books include “The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste,” “Bourbon Straight, the Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey,” and “Bourbon Strange, Surprising Stories of American Whiskey.”