A few years ago, the aromas of pickled beef and roast duckling wafted out of the Klas Restaurant kitchen into a dining room cluttered with Old World Bohemian charm.
Now, as Irene Hogstrom hovers outside the restaurant on Cermak Road in Cicero, a musty odor drifts outside, and Hogstrom gets a little queasy.
“It’s kind of gut-wrenching to know that this will all be lost,” she says.
With its half-timbered front, gabled roof and stained-glass windows, the Klas is a nostalgic celebration of Cicero’s Czech heritage to some. To others, the restaurant evokes the town’s gangster past: Al Capone was said to be a fan of the place that opened in 1922.
For Hogstrom, a landscape architect, the pending sale of the restaurant has a deeper, more personal meaning. Her grandfather, who fought the Bolsheviks in 1917 Russia, painted many of the murals inside the restaurant — artwork that’s likely to be lost if the building is demolished.
The place went on the market in May for $399,000 and went under contract in August. Hogstrom says the listing agent has told her the building isn’t in good enough shape to save.
The real estate agent declined to discuss possible plans for the property, and the current owner couldn’t be reached. But the online listing said: “Value is in the land.”
Hogstrom, who lives in Downers Grove, came back to see the place where her parents were married and where they celebrated their anniversaries and to see the murals for what she figured might be a final time, though she holds onto a frail hope they might yet be saved.
“If a Russian oligarch came in, I’d be fine with that,” she says, only half-joking. “At least, they’d be preserved.”
As salvage crews in dust masks came and went, Hogstrom was allowed in for a few minutes to see her grandfather’s work. It’s a banquet scene. Rosy-cheeked Russian aristocrats feast, their jeweled robes gleaming in the golden light from the hearth. A family huddles together in a horse-drawn sled being pulled across a winter landscape. The scenes bring to mind the Art Deco era or a beautifully illustrated children’s book.
The splendor depicted in some of the murals seems a world away from Gennadi Gordeyev’s own life, at least the early part of it. Hogstrom’s grandfather was born into privilege at the wrong time in Russian history. He fought on the side of the czar during the Russian revolution and was shot in the chest and arm, nearly losing the limb. He fled to Greece and later to Prague, where though he was committed to a sanitarium for a time to treat recurring nightmares, he studied architecture.
An accomplished singer, he traveled across the United States in the 1930s with the Don Cossack choir before settling with his wife in Chicago in the late 1930s. He died in 1967.
“He and his wife loved to entertain, and their parties were legendary, with lots of homemade Russian specialties and vodka and singing from their homeland,” Hogstrom says.
He couldn’t find work as an architect during the Great Depression, so he painted murals to make ends meet, including those at Klas.
Now, nearly 80 years later, at least one of the ceilings in the restaurant is crumbling. Though yellowed from layer upon layer of varnish, the murals still are in good shape, Hogstrom says after getting a look inside for a few minutes.
“If you reflect on the thousands of weddings, showers, baptisms, funerals, lunches, etc., the tangible link to those stories will disappear,” says Charles Pipal, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who specializes in historic preservation.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, visited Klas in 2012. Actress Kim Novak, who was born in Chicago and is probably best known for her role in the Alfred Hitchcock film “Vertigo,” also visited in recent years.
In the 1970s, when Cicero’s Old Prague Restaurant was still around, there was talk of creating an Old World stretch of Cermak Road, but the plan fizzled.
“We would love to see these restaurants stay open, but there is not a lot we can do about it,” Cicero town spokesman Ray Hanania says.