Jerry Freeman’s Pizza Emporium and Time Capsule

Turn-of-the-century iron heating grates separate the dark wood booths, a seven-foot circular oak table circa 1890 centers one dining room, a five-foot-tall Royal Doulton crock once filled with mineral salts anchors the entrance to the bar, and a late-19th-century stained glass dome illuminates the entryway.

This isn’t a Sotheby’s auction. It’s Gulliver’s, a restaurant on Howard Street, one of the city’s oldest pizza places and a showcase for owner Jerry Freeman’s collection of Victorian and art nouveau artifacts. Freeman, who owns more than 300 light fixtures alone–Tiffany glass shades, Steuban blown-glass bulbs, and Quoizel sconces–claims his collection is one of the largest in the U.S.

In 1965 Freeman was just a few years out of college, working as a claims adjuster and ready for a change. A friend had given him a pan pizza recipe that he adored, and it triggered an idea. He spent months adjusting the recipe for large quantities, and finally opened Gulliver’s in a room with 95 seats, white stucco walls, and vinyl asbestos floors.

Uno and Due had been around since the 40s, but the original Lou Malnati’s in Lincolnwood didn’t open until 1971. “I was the original Chicago-style deep-dish pizzeria on the north side,” Freeman says.

The place was an immediate hit, and by 1970 he’d earned enough to buy the building he’d been renting. In ’71, with a bank loan in hand, he hired decorator Phil Rowe to spruce the place up. Rowe, who’d done the Snuggery and “other Rush Street places,” suggested antiques. “I set aside part of the loan to intensely collect antiques, and I haven’t stopped since then,” says Freeman.

Aside from astonishing light fixtures, Gulliver’s is filled with hundreds of terra-cotta and wood carvings, stained glass panels, and other architectural fragments. Two stained glass panels of a man and woman flank a kitchen door. “These came from the 1893 Columbian Exposition,” says Freeman. Another piece of stained glass is actually a lamp by Chicago Mosaic, a famous maker of early-20th-century art glass, that Freeman turned upside down and suspended from the ceiling. Its mate is part of the permanent collection at the Chicago Historical Society.

“When I started collecting 30 years ago, you could still find this stuff pretty cheap from scavengers,” says Freeman. By 1993, when he purchased the empty lot to the east to expand into, he had to resort mostly to antiques brokers and dealers to fill it. The resulting 150-seat patio and 90-seat bar, which finally opened three years ago, are brimming with showpieces from local buildings. A pair of gargoyles from South Michigan Avenue flank the archway that divides the covered area of the patio from the uncovered portion; an 1870s cast-iron female bust from a Loop high-rise sits tall on a plaster pillar in the center; and a carved terra-cotta archway from a doorway in Lincoln Park is mounted on the back wall. “It’s a testament to old Chicago,” Freeman says.

Freeman relishes talking about each piece, but he pays just as much attention to running the restaurant. “Everything is homemade here,” he says. “And service is paramount.” A Saturday night is evidence that his formula seems to work: the place is packed, and even with 350 seats there’s a wait.

The massive kitchen, run by 17-year veteran Armando Gonzales, shares the decor’s larger-than-life quality, with three separate cooking lines and four floor-to-ceiling pizza ovens. And the menu has grown almost as vast as Freeman’s collection, to a total of some 150 items including Mexican, Italian, burgers, and stir-fry. There are plenty of 70s-era appetizers, including stuffed potato skins, deep-fried mushrooms (“Even these are homemade, not frozen,” says Freeman), and nachos. “I want to give my customers variety, since I have so many regulars,” he says. “But I can’t take some of the old favorites off the menu or they complain.” For Freeman, it’s about giving the customers what they want, regardless of trends.

Gulliver’s is at 2727 W. Howard, 773-338-2166.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.