It’s impossible to ignore the neon sign, loaded with classic fonts and retro-kitsch straight out of an episode of Mad Men. Stepping inside the Erie-LaSalle Body Shop, I’m greeted with a symphony of whirling gears and popping car hoods. And of course, smiling faces.
More than one customer service member greets me.
“May I help you?”
Owner Bob Gottfred wraps a call as I climb the spiral staircase. His stepfather, Ivan Goodmonson, was the son of a bankrupt farm owner from Bemidji, Minnesota. With dreams of a career in aviation, he hopped several freight trains to Chicago. When that didn’t take flight, Ivan started doing mechanical work on cars to make ends meet.
“Did you know at that time,” Bob asks, “cars we’re tuned by ear?”
Ivan started fixing cars in three parking spots he leased from a mechanic who owned a body shop and blacksmith business. The landlord, a German immigrant named Helmut, had issues with alcohol, money and in general, was very irresponsible. Ivan, diligent and good-natured, began lending his landlord funds to stay afloat.
As Ivan worked “sun up to sun down” his landlord lost interest in the property. Ivan took ownership of the shop (and the boarding house next door – we call them hotels today) when Helmut defaulted on a loan. Erie-LaSalle Auto Body Shop was on its way to establishing a great reputation and becoming a River North landmark.
Of course, I have to ask about the sign.
“No doubt it’s a large part of our brand,” Bob says. “It’s been there since 1957 but people always ask if it’s been up since the doors opened.”
Gottfred attended college at Arizona State University, and former professional baseball player and manager, Bobby Valentine – yep, another Bob! - was his roommate. They batted around the idea of opening a restaurant as partners in Stamford, Connecticut (Valentine’s hometown). Heading east after graduating in 1971, the deal didn’t materialize and Bob managed several restaurants. A promotion landed him in San Francisco and he received a sad call. His stepbrother, also named Bob, had passed away suddenly from a brain aneurism.
Contemplating retirement and not in great health, Ivan was crushed by the death of his son. At the time, he hoped Bob would take over the shop. He then reached out to “stepson Bob” and asked if he would be interested in coming back to run the business. With a degree in finance, and business acumen, Ivan felt he could be the right fit to help manage the shop. In January of 1976, he turned in his shirt and tie, donned his overalls and went to work.
As “the longest continuously owned auto body repair service of its kind in Chicago and Illinois” marches toward its 81th birthday, this team isn’t slowing down. Two years ago, Erie-LaSalle Body Shop expanded to the south side and the family connection continues with sons Jim and Jay in the business.
Coming up September, Erie-LaSalle Body Shop is celebrating their 81st birthday with Gilda’s Club. The gala to benefit this amazing organization, will be held at 500 W. Superior.
Learn more here
Sponsorship opportunities are available.
Interested in hearing more? Bob was kind enough to share some more details on his historic concept and the neighborhood he calls home:
Take us back in time, any knowledge of who the community businesses and or neighbors were?
I have been here 40 years - Wells Street west was “dicey and industrial” (Clark as well). The neighborhood was called Near North at the time. River North has become a tremendous mixed use development, as you can see. It may even be the fastest growing neighborhood in the country.
What aspects of your business make you different from other auto body and repair shops?
It’s a simple philosophy: it’s all about taking care of customers and that’s what keeps them coming back. Several staff members have been here over 20 years and we just had a technician who had been with us over 40 years.
Anyone ever experience strange phenomena or ghosts in the building?
Nope, nothing like that.
Any famous celebrities or personalities come through the doors?
Some! Bill Curtis has been a customer, Ron Majors, we’ve assisted with some cars from athletes, but it’s not really a claim to fame.
Any clients who have been coming for many years?
Yes, we have seen families evolve, parents, grandparents and the next generation are now coming in.
What’s your favorite aspect of being in the River North neighborhood?
I just love the energy - live in a high rise six blocks south and enjoy walking everywhere, it’s very convenient. I'm also on the board of the River North Residential Association and a neighborhood liaison.
Jon Davis is the Marketing Manager at Cushing, digital printers in the River North area of Chicago. From custom wall graphics to banner printing, they offer a number of creative solutions. Jon guest blogs and assists the social media team a member of the River North Business Marketing committee.