DANK Haus Chicago- A Cornerstone of the German American Community
A few months ago, Monica Jirak sent me an invitation to visit the DANK Haus Chicago. Finally in September, while traveling with my father, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours touring the historic building and learning more about what the DANK organization does. I have to admit, I was astonished! I went in thinking that it was similar to the many German clubs and groups that we find across North America. And yes, they do have many of the same functions…but the DANK organization is so much more. And to my happy surprise, I learned DANK Haus in Chicago is a rich community asset both to German-Americans and to the surrounding community with language schools, art installations, a museum, and a meeting spaces for club members and the general public.
What is DANK?
Chicago in 1900 had a thriving German community. Census at the time showed that one in four people in the city stemmed from Germany, quite a jump from 50 years earlier, when the numbers were one in six. German immigrants found a vibrant city that offered clubs, newspapers, schools, political groups, and even German bakeries and restaurants to make their lives comfortable in the New World. Then came the World Wars. By the end of the 1940s, people were less obvious about their pride in German ancestry.
This didn’t sit well with Leonard Enders, publisher of the Chicago based German newspaper, the Abendpost und Sonntagspost. In his view, the large population of German-Americans were underrepresented politically, and in need of organization.
On December 12th, 1958, the first meeting of the German-American community brought together leaders of local clubs and German organizations at the Chicago Donauschwaben Hall. And DANK- Deutscher Amerikanischer National Kongress (German American National Congress) the was born.
DANK, more than a Club House
DANK’s primary purpose was to act as a united voice for the German-American community in a non-partisan way. (Even today, one in five Americans can trace some German heritage, it is a HUGE block of people/voters). They wanted to preserve the community and give it back the respect that may have been lost in the recent wars.
But it was more than politics and lobbying. DANK wanted to promote friendship between America and German-speaking countries, to preserve the culture that Germans brought to their new home, and to encourage cooperation between the various German groups established in America. Since 1958, the organization grew and branched out. Today there are 18 DANK chapters mostly across the mid-west. (You can find out more about the various DANK Chapters here)
In 1967, the DANK organization bought the property at 4740 N Western Avenue in the very German Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. The six-floor building has seen a few changes, but today is still a hub of activity in the neighborhood. And we can thank the DANK organization for the presidential recognition of the October 6th German-American Day!
Visiting the DANK Haus
Today’s Chicago DANK Haus calls itself a community cultural center, and their vision of Hospitality, Engagement, and Authenticity is evident on every floor. The old and new come together with space for everyone… even non-German members of the community.
When I met Monica Jirak and her colleagues, they took us right away to one of the larger meeting rooms. One side was anchored by a beautiful bar that came to them from the landmark restaurant, the Chicago Brauhaus. The meeting space (originally the Brandenburg room, now the Brauhaus room) is currently used for several clubs (including the Schützenverien- Shooting club) and the weekend Kino Kaffee Kuchen group (coffee cake and Heimat films).
After a tasty lunch, we toured the 100-year-old six-story building. (Fortunately, they have elevators!) First stop- the German School.
The German School operates 6 days a week offering immersion pre-school and Kindergarten. The enthusiastic teachers and colorful classrooms made me really wish my kids had the chance to attend a school like this one. On Saturdays, Deutsche Schule is available for older students. There are even adult classes (and yes, you can participate online if Chicago is too far to drive!)
Upstairs in the DANK Haus Chicago you find the Museum space with the Cultural Heritage collection. Rosa Gallagher, the Museum & Development Director showed us the space and explained that most of the pieces came from Chicago German clubs and music groups. Parade sashes, awards, guest books, history books, programs, and uniforms fill the rooms. There were restaurant menus and cooking tools, coins, and immigration papers. An old radio in the corner reminded my father of his childhood. These treasures are pieces of German American history, and Rosa explained that the DANK Haus currently plans to rework the museum to modernize the space, and better preserve the artifacts.
Nearby the Library and Archives hold thousands of volumes, including issues of German newspapers that they’ve digitized back to the 1950s. Another treasure trove for historians and genealogists!
One room houses the Chicago branch headquarters of the Schlaraffia society, an all-men’s social group devoted to friendship and the arts (and owls). The language is strictly German, and the decoration is quite elaborate. (Find out more about them here Schlaraffia.)
The windows of the 6th floor DANK Haus Ballroom overlook the beautiful terrace and a view of the Chicago skyline. The space holds 500 people and is where most of their bigger parties like Oktoberfest, Maifest, and the Christmas Party take place. (And it looks like a fabulous space to hold your wedding…. Those windows and terrace will look great in wedding photos. CALL THEM!) It’s here you’ll find two more bars, and a kitchen, where they offer cooking classes.
DANK Treffpunkt is the exciting new ground floor addition to Dank Haus. With large windows overlooking Western Avenue, this large space will be home to a new art gallery. Even before its completion, German Artists have already been invited to host exhibitions and workshops. It’s hoped that the Treffpunkt will act as a community meeting space and bring new faces into the building.
Bringing in New Members
After 60 years, DANK Haus wants to expand its offerings, and live up to their vision of Hospitality, Engagement, and Authenticity. It’s hoped that by welcoming in the neighbors, this cornerstone of the German-American community can grow and thrive.
Some of the new programs include-
Kulture Küche – Cooking classes with German chefs
Feierabend– A fun evening event to focus on practicing German language skills, and to meet new people.
Eltern Abend- A parent night with dinner and CHILD CARE!
Flohmarkt– Flea Market to buy and sell German items (because kids outgrow Lederhosen!)
Music Programs– Musicians and singers are brought in for musical evenings.
Bi-lingual Yoga– The classes take place up on that beautiful terrace.
Neighborhood Nights– Local businesses and residents are invited in for wine and networking.
Weddings/Events- The Ballroom and other meeting spaces are available for rent. (With 3 bars, there is a good-sized space for everyone!)
And there’s MORE
In keeping with the preservation of history and heritage, they have an Oral History Program. Since every story is important, Monica and Rosa set up a system to collect oral histories from German-Americans, either in person or over Zoom. These will be added to their archives for preservation.
Room for Old and New
Currently 60% of DANK Haus visitors have German roots. It’s hoped that by opening the doors wider, new members will help bring new life to the 100-year-old building. But don’t worry, even with all the new, the older programs enjoyed by long time members of DANK like the Stammtisch and Kino Kaffee Kuchen will always remain. And the new programs will come with a German accent…and German organization!
And, of course, with three bars, there will always be plenty of hospitality and beer…..
You can find the Chicago DANK Haus:
4740 N Western Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
Phone: +1 (773) 561-9181
Email: dan[email protected]
To see everything they have to offer, including the wonderful German School-
Dank Haus- main Website
DANK Haus School– Preschool, Kindergarten, Saturday Classes, Adult Classes
DANK Haus Events- Everything happening at the DANK Haus, from Fests to meetings.
DANK Haus Stories- Oral History project
DANK Haus Library & Research– including translation services
Thank you again to Monica, Rosa, Samantha, and everyone else who shared their time showing us around the DANK Haus. We will always remember your generous hospitality and hope to see you all again soon.