Historic White Castle façade to be preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum
Chicago area museum plans to incorporate the artifact into a recreated 1950s street scene
UNION, IL — When you think of White Castle, “historic artifact” may not be the first phrase that comes to mind, but it was for volunteers at the Illinois Railway Museum (IRM) in McHenry County, northwest of Chicago. When they saw that the oldest active White Castle restaurant in the Chicago area, located in Whiting, Indiana, was closing to be replaced by a new building on the same property, they sprang into action to ensure this piece of Americana wouldn’t vanish.
White Castle was the first national fast-food chain. Founded in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, by Billy Ingram, the chain was quickly spreading across the Midwest by the early 1930s. Its business model included standardized restaurant designs, consistent branding, an emphasis on cleanliness, and of course low cost.
In 1935, the chain opened Whiting No. 1, the city’s first White Castle restaurant, on Indianapolis Boulevard at 119th Street. The building featured the typical castellated styling and newly developed prefabricated porcelain panels on the exterior. For its first five years, streetcars ran right past the door on their way between South Chicago and downtown East Chicago. The castle was remodeled in 1956, but it retains its porcelain-clad exterior. It is closing at the end of March but will be replaced by a newly built structure on the same property.
The Illinois Railway Museum, the nation’s largest railway museum, was founded 70 years ago and moved to Union, in McHenry County, in 1964. Over the past five years the museum has started creating an historic streetscape on its rural property, a streetscape that will someday have streetcars running down the center of the street. The goal is to create a typical 1950s “Main Street” with a variety of storefronts and other historic structures.
“When we learned that the White Castle in Whiting was being replaced, we thought about a way to adaptively reuse and display the façade of this iconic American scene,” said Dave Diamond, the museum’s Facilities General Manager. “It fits perfectly with IRM’s late-1950s Midwest Main Street project, and we have an immediate location for it to be recreated.”
Museum volunteers are working with White Castle to carefully remove the restaurant’s porcelain panels after it is decommissioned. The museum plans to rebuild the façade of the structure on its historic streetscape as time and funding permit. This will take place along with other additions to the streetscape, including the addition of a just-finished building housing the archives of the Chicago & North Western Historical Society and the planned construction of a large Visitors Center.