At least we'll always have the Polish brothel backstory.
Some dive bars don’t make it. And even worse, some dive bars make it but as a shadow of their organic roots, renovations and reclamation projects stripping some of the authentic appeal that makes a dive bar a dive bar. Gold Star Bar is one such zombie, one of Chicago’s oldest and most interesting dive bars gutted by new ownership in 2018 to create something new in a space that thrived on being something old.
Now these are easy comments for someone who doesn’t pay the rent on a place like Gold Star Bar and only owners John & Kate Leydon know the financial truth about what was going to keep the dive bar alive. To hear it from them, the space required new renovation and new reasons to visit in order to survive. But what remains true no matter the reason for the executed changes is that much of Gold Star Bar’s post-Prohibition appeal has been lost by new fixtures, shiny surfaces and raised prices.
As with any great Prohibition-era dive bar, Gold Star Bar’s opening date is a source of conflicting information, but previous ownership cited 1933 or 1934 as the likely answer. Of course, suggestions that a speakeasy was run out of the same space prior to the repeal of Prohibition exist, meaning Gold Star Bar probably predates its “official” opening date in some capacity. MaryAnn Reid, prior owner of Gold Star Bar, purchased the bar from original owner Vlasta Vucovic, changing little about the dive bar at that time. The star embedded in the ground in front of Gold Star Bar exists unchanged from that transfer of ownership and likely predates it by some time.
The sign that hangs above Gold Star Bar is a good analogy for what has happened to the space overall, the neon sign above the door a relic of days past but the iconic script of “Gold Star Bar” that once adorned a black wall façade in gold script text was scraped off and removed by the Leydons. That the neon portion of the bar’s exterior signage persists is a relief as it is one of the great dive bar neon signs in Chicago, a classic L-shaped sign with the name of the bar punctuated by an illuminated star on top.
A white sign attached to the neon contraption reads “Rooms Furnished Rooms,” a nod to the hotel that was once run out of the space above the bar. The term ‘hotel’ may be a bit kind in this sense, the rooms above said to have been Polish brothels. A vintage key rack, a remnant of that time in the dive bar’s history, once hung in Gold Star Bar’s main room but was removed along with other Leydon-initiated renovations. It may come as no surprise to learn that on many ghost tours of Chicago, Gold Star Bar plays a prominent role, all manner of sordid tale from its dual brothel and bar operation providing fertile ground for supernatural occurrences.
In addition to a full renovation of the interior of the space, like removing the bar’s plaster walls to expose the brick behind, the Leydons also renovated the staff, reportedly firing original staff members via mass text message shortly after taking ownership. Today, Gold Star Bar walks an interesting line, a vintage bar back mixed with a very familiar urban living cocktail lounge starter pack complete with the aforementioned exposed brick and spot lighting. To the bar’s credit, the faint glow of the bar itself feels comforting as only a dive bar can, a towering Schlitz statue still given prominent placement in the center of the structure.
But despite these nods to the past, including a framed piece or two commemorating years past, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Gold Star Bar is a new bar in dive bar clothing, the hint of its past clashing with the renovations that have stripped away some of the bar’s signature features. The space is comfortable, clean, even dog-friendly, but compared to what was once a post-Prohibition dive bar owned by a Polish woman for almost 50 years, something has been lost. No doubt, it is very easy to decry the loss of something when the bills go to someone else, a balancing act that has to be kept in mind when visiting dive bars that have been renovated to the point of existing largely in name and not so much in spirit.