Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 23

The new home of the Irish Rose had quite a history. It had originally been the first business of J.L. Clark, the Irish immigrant who founded the company that grew into the present Clarkcore. There is a 1979 picture of it in the J.L. Clark history book, and it looks pretty much the same as it does today. First, it was Robinson Brother’s Hardware, but then J.L. bought out one of the Robinson brothers and it became Robinson Clark Hardware. It is a telling note to J.L. Clark’s personality that he had it listed as Clark and Robinson Hardware in the city directory. He must have always been a hard charger.

J.L. Clark lived in my apartment. His son Louis was born there. Norm Robinson lived above the Brio at Bacchus dining room, where the yoga studio is today. When you walked out the front door of the hardware store and looked to the right (south), you could see the limestone house of the man who brought the railroad to Rockford. My friend Jon Augustson lives there today. We get a big kick out of living in the digs of the original movers and shakers of our city. Too bad there isn’t more awareness of these buildings’ history.

We decided to keep the Irish Rose name rather than continue using Old Rock River Café. I think that was a really good decision. Every day I would work from early in the morning until late at night, tearing out the more than 100-year-old building, and turning it into something that could contain a modern restaurant. Among the things we discovered were that the antique gas lamps were still operational. I got a shock when I turned one on and there was a hissing noise. When I applied a lighter to the nozzle, it lit.

The electricity was interesting, too. It was the old knob and tube electric—still code, as one of the city inspectors explained to me. He said it was one of the safest forms of electrical wiring because the two wires never came together until it was necessary. Needless to say, we tore it out anyhow. We rewired the entire building. Stephan Soroka did it for me. I still cannot believe the good price he gave me. It was another thing that came to me from someone who respected the willingness to work. Stephan was big on work.

When I was tearing out the bricks that had been used to partially block the store windows, an old-timer, who had lived on the street, walked up to talk to me about the building. He said it had been a bar since before prohibition. He said that even during prohibition, if you knew someone, you could get a drink. The last two owners had been Irish barkeepers. The original owner was an Irish immigrant with lots of attitude. It seemed as though we had chosen the right building for the Irish Rose Saloon.

The back dining room was the original home of Rockford Chemical Co. coatings. We had to cut a hole in the walls to connect the two buildings. There was a tin ceiling that had been pretty much destroyed. Fortunately, the same ceiling existed in what was the kitchen area of Ma’s Café, the previous tenant. I recovered enough of the tiles to repair the ceiling in the dining area. Actually, I had to spot in some non-matching tiles from a building down the street, but it’s good enough that no one notices until you say something. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to save the gorgeous inlaid tile floor we found under the linoleum. Too many years of leaking ceilings had relegated it to the waste bin.

While I was rebuilding the tin ceiling (I spent two weeks on a step ladder), a kindly older man would show up to watch me work. His name was Jack Lucchese. He was the father-in-law of Philippe, who would open Café Patou. In our conversation, he learned that I wanted to bake my own bread for the restaurant. He was a baker and he offered to teach my mother to bake bread. He did. It’s the same bread we serve today.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the August 17-23, 2005, issue

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