WICKER PARK — Gold Star Bar, a nearly century-old Division Street watering hole known for its welcoming and unpretentious vibe, has been sold.
Longtime owner MaryAnn Reid confirmed to Block Club that her iconic Wicker Park bar at 1755 W. Division St. and the three-story 1890s apartment building it anchors was sold to John and Kate Leydon. The sale closed Friday, the Leydons said.
Reid, who bought the bar and building in 1990, plans to retire.
Reid and the Leydons declined to share the sale price.
Owning Gold Star won’t make the Leydons first-time bar owners. They also own a 72-year-old tavern, The G&L Fire Escape Tavern at 2157 W. Grace St. in North Center.
“Neighborhood taverns used to be on every corner and they have unfortunately become an endangered species. Kate and I want to do our part to preserve the history of the neighborhood meeting place,” Leydon said.
Elsewhere on Division Street, the Leydons own Ruby Room, a spa and bed and breakfast at 1743 W. Division St. and a corner building at 1700 W. Division St. that was recently home to fried chicken restaurant Buck’s, which closed last year.
The Leydons plan to preserve the bar’s legacy and keep many of the things that made Gold Star so beloved over the years, such as a pool table, free popcorn, art shows featuring local artists and the iconic neon sign.
“And the thought of that magnificent Gold Star sign being removed is something we want to do everything in our power to ensure will remain for generations to enjoy. We are honored MaryAnn has entrusted us to carry on the tradition,” Leydon said.
Gold Star’s long-running softball team will continue to be sponsored by the bar, Leydon assured.
The bar does not plan to close, but in the coming days it will undergo what Leydon said are “necessary upgrades while still honoring the history and celebrating the future.”
“Gold Star has a rich history. Nelson Algren and Art Shay were regulars. Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone’s brother and this list goes on. Back in the day, there was a stage and live music was on the menu. We are big fans of The Green Mill and The California Clipper and would love to bring that vibe to Wicker Park. Just ideas at this point,” Leydon said.
He added, “We are just beginning conversations with seasoned operators and music promoters with the intention of bringing on operational partners. We want to align ourselves with the right folks who share our passion for preservation, design, great service and a best in class bar program. Opportunities like this do not come along frequently and we want to do it right.”
For Reid, the fact the Leydons were eager to preserve the bar played a key role in her decision to sell her business to the couple.
“The legacy of preserving the bar is my top priority. I don’t want the sign to ever go down. I want to come back here for free popcorn,” Reid said.
Anchored by a bar with two floors of apartments upstairs, Gold Star’s history as a bar dates back to the Prohibition era.
Reid said a Polish woman named Vlasta Vucovic opened the bar in 1933 or 1934. The gold star embedded in cement in front of the bar was there when Reid bought the bar from Vucovic 28 years ago.
For several years, Reid’s daughter, Susan Stursberg, helped to run the bar and was Gold Star’s main bartender. Stursberg lost a battle to pancreatic cancer in December 2012 at age 45. Hundreds of mourners filled Club Foot to celebrate her life and impact on the neighborhood.
The building is teeming with history.
As noted in a DNAinfo feature on the city’s 12 oldest bars, the neon sign above Gold Star Bar in West Town still announces “Furnished Rooms” for rent by the hour, a holdover from the building’s seedy hotel days.
According to Liz Mason, who researched the bar for a walking tour of area dive bars, an antique key rack at the left of the front door of Gold Star Bar was for “ahem, well, let’s just say gentlemen could get with a prostitute in a room.”
That room by the hour key rack still hangs on the wall.
Leydon confirmed the history of the key rack and the upstairs rooms.
“It’s been operated as an apartment building for decades but pre- and post-Prohibition prostitutes worked in the bar and upstairs. The original owner would send a bus down to Navy Pier to pick up the sailors and bring them back to the Gold Star,” Leydon said.
The rooms for rent could come back, but as hotel rooms.
“If the community is open to it, we would love to explore the possibility of resurrecting the hotel. The more tourists we can introduce to the street/neighborhood, the better it is for all of us. Division street has come a long way, but I think I can speak for all business owners in the neighborhood: We need more people/business to prosper,” the Leydons said.