Why saving Des Plaines McDonald's No. 1 might be tougher this time
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When McDonald's Corp. announced last month it planned to demolish the replica of founder Ray Kroc's first restaurant in Des Plaines, negative reaction was swift on social media and from historic preservation groups, calling for the local roadside attraction to be spared from the wrecking ball.
The fast food giant plans to tear down the replica building of its first franchise store because of its location in an oft-flooded area and the difficulty of maintaining it, officials say, though they do plan to remove and preserve the original 62-year-old road sign somewhere off-site.
There was similar outcry 35 years ago when McDonald's announced it would close the still-operating store at 400 Lee St., with no plans -- initially -- to preserve the site, according to Daily Herald archives.
But the backlash -- in the form of phone calls and letters from as far away as London to McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook -- led company brass to decide to restore the site as closely as possible to its original condition and appearance.
"Des Plaines asked for the No. 1 store back and we're giving it to them," said Michael Quinlan, McDonald's then-president and chief operating officer, at the dedication of the replica museum on May 22, 1985.
The one-story concrete block building was constructed to resemble Kroc's first restaurant, covered in stripes of red and white ceramic tile and with two 25-foot parabolic sheet metal arches painted yellow. The original neon sign -- with its moving "Speedee" chef character -- was restored.
Local officials are less optimistic the site will be saved this time around. Crews from ComEd were on site last Friday disconnecting utilities, an indication that demolition isn't far off.
The Des Plaines History Center's board of trustees met with a McDonald's representative in late November in hopes the company would delay demolition and explore preserving the site, or some elements of the structures or contents. McDonald's executives had already told city officials the company wasn't willing to donate the entire site -- left intact -- in order to protect the brand.
McDonald's officials told Shari Caine, the center's executive director, in mid-December that they were still discussing the issue.
But, she said, "I do not have reason to believe that McDonald's is having second thoughts."
Founder's first store
Kroc opened his first walk-up restaurant at Des Plaines' "Five Corners" intersection on April 15, 1955, after the Arlington Heights milkshake machine salesman convinced the McDonald brothers of San Bernardino, California, to let him franchise their fast-food operation nationwide.
The final burger was flipped there March 3, 1984, after the company decided that, even though the eatery had been remodeled several times, it was outdated, with little room for indoor seating or a drive-through. The road sign and golden arches were removed and placed in storage, along with original kitchen equipment.
The next day, the company opened a new, larger location across the street, displaying a few artifacts -- red tiles, an old barrel root beer machine, photographs -- some of which remain there still.
A few months later, McDonald's inked a deal to purchase the property it had formerly leased, and announced plans for the replica museum.
The longtime landlord, lawyer Frank Martoccio, for years resisted Kroc's overtures to get into the franchise business, said son John Martoccio, who remembers answering the house phone as a kid when Kroc called for his dad. "It didn't seem like it would flower like it did. It was just another hamburger joint."
Building a museum
Though the original 1955 blueprints from architect Robert Stauber weren't found, architects used several sets of plans from McDonald's restaurants built between 1957 and 1960 to build the replica. Workers restored the road sign, topped by the neon Speedee character that was reanimated. Below "McDonald's Hamburgers," the sign exclaims, "We Have Sold Over 1 Million" -- perhaps a nod to it being Kroc's "No. 1" store since earlier iterations of the sign said "15 million."
The original sign, built by Laco Signs of Libertyville, would have been considered high-end for the time, said Duane Laska, whose uncle Andrew Bork co-owned the sign company.
"It's a fantastic piece of history," said Laska, of North Shore Sign Co., who worked on maintaining the sign as an apprentice in the 1970s.
The other owner was Gina Hermreck's dad, Joe Sicuro, who would always point out the sign when he drove to the city.
"I feel it's a part of Americana," she said. "It's almost a piece of artwork -- the work and craftsmanship that went into it."
The kitchen included refurbished equipment, including the original 6-foot grill and one of Kroc's Multimixers, which was still in use when the store closed. Other equipment collected in a nationwide search of early McDonald's locations was placed according to the original layout. Mannequins, dressed in period uniforms, manned crew stations.
In the basement, the company installed glass block and neon-lit displays of company history featuring more memorabilia, like cups, hats and potato sacks.
The downstairs was open for tours until 2008, when floods left the building underwater. Then came the flood of 2013 and talk of McDonald's closing or moving the museum swirled, though company officials would only say at the time that a decision hadn't yet been made.
More flooding occurred in the area last July. By November, the company confirmed plans to raze the structure, removing and preserving the Speedee sign and other items of historic value. Company officials plan to give the land to the city, but haven't said where those things would go.
The city has no plans for the site, though it's possible a historical marker could be installed, City Manager Mike Bartholomew said. There are already entry signs at the city limits that say Des Plaines is "home of the first McDonald's."
"People in the community do have an attachment to it," Bartholomew said.
The building's fate might have been different if a quest to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places had succeeded.
In seeking the protective designation, McDonald's officials said in 1985 the building "needs to be preserved as an early example of the road side hamburger stand that grew to change the way Americans eat." They were denied because it was a replica.
Chuck Ebeling, a former McDonald's company spokesman who helped plan the rededication, said he reached out to current leaders in hopes of convincing them to save it.
"Having that originally-designed McDonald's restaurant on Ray Kroc's original site in Des Plaines continues to be historically significant," said Ebeling, who retired in 2000. "Not just to McDonald's, but the history of the American restaurant industry and the history of post-World War II mobilization of America in cars, and services created to support that automotive culture."