“In 2003, this organization was close to shuttering its doors,” said Andreas Hecht, president of the DANK Haus board of directors. Over the weekend, a revitalized DANK, 4740 N. Western Ave., threw open those same doors to celebrate not only the unveiling of its new facade but a renewed sense of purpose.
The exterior makeover, which cost $370,000 and was partially funded by a grant from the city, is the most noticeable in a series of recent improvements aimed at increasing the German American cultural center’s profile in the community. “It makes us more of a magnet and gives us more visibility,” Hecht said of the facelift, which also spruced up the appearance of adjacent businesses. Now that DANK is literally presenting a more welcoming face to the public, the next step, according to Hecht, is “to work on getting our message out.”
That message is that while DANK serves as a hub for German American organizations in Chicago–dedicated to promoting German language, culture and heritage–the center also has plenty to offer the neighborhood at large. “Everyone has a little German in them,” joked board member Sarah Miller, citing German traditions such as Christmas trees and Oktoberfest that have permeated American culture. There’s a certain level of familiarity.” DANK strives to present programming, which is open to all and frequently free, that will pique greater interest among people from all walks of life. “No German required,” summed up Miller.
DANK also encourages civic engagement, something Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), on hand for the ribbon cutting, experienced first hand. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for DANK Haus,” said Pawar, who recalled a debate hosted at DANK during last year’s aldermanic race that proved critical to his campaign. “The DANK holds a special place in my heart.” He also praised DANK for the strong link it provides to Lincoln Square’s rich German history. “This is a city of immigrants. Every neighborhood is steeped in some culture,” said Pawar. “We should be investing in, preserving and celebrating these institutions.”
At the same time that DANK Haus is focused on attracting the interest of a new generation of Chicagoans, the organization continues to honor its roots. Lost German Chicago, a permanent exhibit in DANK’s museum space, features art, artifacts and memorabilia from the city’s German American community, once concentrated in Lincoln Square. The exhibit’s treasures include intricate wood carvings donated by the Oscar Mayer family and relics from the Deutsches Haus, built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. “It’s our way of paying homage to the German community that’s passed,” said Miller.
Paula Hebble of Edgebrook toured the exhibit last year and noticed a familiar face in one of its many photos. Motioning to a picture on the wall, Hebble pointed out her grandfather, who immigrated in 1923 from Danzig, among a group of musicians, all German WWI veterans. Hebble proceeded to loan DANK additional family mementos, including her grandfather’s concertina, now on view as part of a refurbished display.
“It’s important to reflect back,” Hebble said. DANK Haus provides a vital bridge between past and present. “It says, ‘We were here and we’re still here.’”