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Heavy snow topples Aragon Ballroom wall, but it can’t bury nearly a century of memories at Chicago landmark

It’s been shuttered by fire, flood and pandemic, and now the storied Uptown venue’s considerable lifespan is being put to the test by snow.  A stretch of a wall came down, but the 94-year-old’s structure and roof still appear sturdy.

Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In almost a century at Lawrence and Winthrop, the Aragon Ballroom has hosted everyone from Benny Goodman and Bob Dylan to Barack Obama and Al Capone.

It’s survived changes in tastes from big band to disco and on through generations of rowdy rock shows that spawned the Aragon “Brawlroom” moniker, all while catering to fans of bingo and boxing.

It’s been shuttered by fire, flood and pandemic, and now the storied Uptown venue’s considerable lifespan is being put to the test by snow.

A buildup of thick, heavy snow caused a partial collapse of the Aragon’s west wall Tuesday, sending bricks tumbling into an alley and disrupting CTA service nearby.

A stretch of the wall came down shortly before 8 a.m., but the 94-year-old’s structure and roof still appear to be sturdy, according to Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

A wall of the Aragon Ballroom fell Tuesday in Uptown.
A wall of the Aragon Ballroom fell Tuesday in Uptown.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The wall collapsed after two storms dumped nearly 18 inches of snow on Chicago. Snow on the domed roof pushed against a parapet wall, causing it to collapse, Langford said. Crews sprayed water on the roof to dislodge snow and loose bricks.

“When you get a foot of heavy snow, you start to get roof failures,” Langford said. “We haven’t had too many so far, but that’s what happens when 12, 14 inches of snow sit for a while on a roof that’s already old and may be compromised.”

Chicago’s Department of Buildings missed its annual inspection of the Aragon in July because the venue was closed for the pandemic and an inspector was unable to gain entry, department spokeswoman Mimi Simon said.

The building’s owner, Live Nation, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Add the collapse to the list of battle scars the Aragon has weathered since brothers William and Andrew Karzas broke ground on the $1.75 million ballroom in 1925.

Advertising their 1926 opening, the brothers promised working-class Chicagoans could “know the raptures of dancing under the enchanting spell of Old-World romance.” It was built with its signature ceiling star lights to resemble a Moorish castle courtyard from Aragon, a medieval kingdom preceding modern Spain.

Most of the original terrazzo tiles have stayed in place through the generations as the Aragon hosted premier big band players and drew revelers from across the Chicago area.

A 1926 ad in the Chicago Daily News previews the opening of the Aragon Ballroom.
A 1926 ad in the Chicago Daily News previews the opening of the Aragon Ballroom.
Sun-Times archive

A leftover speakeasy in the basement was run by bootlegging king Hymie Weiss and the gang of Charles “Deanie” O’ Banion, a Capone rival who was gunned down in 1924. An underground tunnel connected to the Green Mill club, which the O’Banion gang allegedly used to move booze.

As for Capone, he had a private booth in the southwest balcony complete with an escape route down a fire escape that faces the Green Mill and Uptown Theater.

The Aragon was shut down for several months in 1958 due to a fire next door and the resulting water damage from efforts to put it out. And that was after a separate flood earlier that year, which left chest-high water lines that still line basement walls.

One of the Aragon’s first rock shows took place in November 1969 featuring Abbie Hoffman, in a show benefiting him and the other members of the Chicago Seven who were later acquitted on charges of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The names got bigger from there as the stage was graced by rock heavyweights including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osbourne, the Clash, the Pretenders, Smashing Pumpkins and Jack White.

The Aragon Ballroom in 1990 after a Public Enemy concert.
The Aragon Ballroom in 1990 after a Public Enemy concert.
Sun-Times archives

Former President Barack Obama filled the Aragon with 2,400 donors for his birthday fundraising party in 2011, joking about his “warm welcome” on stage, where a thermometer read 92 degrees.

He wasn’t the only talent to complain. Numerous artists have griped about the echoing acoustics of the cavernous venue.

The Aragon’s lengthy history — which also included stints as a roller rink, bingo hall and boxing venue — includes some run-ins with Chicago officials.

In 2013, the Aragon was sued by the city for letting its exterior walls fall into disrepair. A lawsuit claimed the exterior walls had holes, cracks and “eroding mortar” in several locations, DNAinfo reported at the time. In 2012, the ballroom’s owners were fined $7,500 for failing to get a permit to work on the venue’s sign.

A suburban man fell to his death from a catwalk in 2015, but the city’s building department found it was unrelated to any building code violations, the Chicago Tribune reported.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters during a birthday fundraiser on August 3, 2011 at the Aragon Ballroom.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters during a birthday fundraiser on August 3, 2011 at the Aragon Ballroom.
Tom Cruze/Sun-Times file

It was designated a historic landmark in 2016 by the Chicago City Council as part of a sweeping “landmark status” decision for the Uptown Entertainment District, before it was tagged with a corporate moniker in 2019 as the Byline Bank Aragon Ballroom.

Its most recent concert was held in March, days before COVID-19 turned life upside down across the nation.

The venue is selling tickets for an April 21 show, though the city has not cleared such large events to resume any time soon.

Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Chicago Fire Department firefighters spray water on the roof of the Aragon Ballroom to knock loose at least a foot snow that had accumulated and damaged a brick wall on the North Side building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times