A lot of folks in Chicago, even those who love games, don’t really know the history of the city as the center of innovation. It’s easy to understand that Chicago has always been a manufacturing and transport oriented city, but to know that the coin-op industry was once a major force here would require knowing some background. The leftover pieces of this legacy still linger today though they are not as readily evident from just a cursory glance.
I’ve been in Chicago for six years though I’ve never taken the opportunity to view the old sites of these arcade game companies. With They Create Worlds’ latest episode on Williams Electronics, I decided the time was right to do exactly that! We’ll be looking at the old sites of Harry Williams and his company to see what still stands today.
6123 North Western Avenue
Harry Williams started in manufacturing by co-founding United Manufacturing with Lyn Durant in 1942 to refurbish old coin-op games. This company remained a major force in the industry through the 1960s in the electro-mechanical games industry before being bought by Seeburg to conjoin with Harry Williams’ other company. For unknown reasons he left United in 1943 before rejoining the industry the same year with his new company. So what remains of the old United facility today?
A parking lot. Couldn’t have expected much else from buildings that old. The real surprise was that it was in what is now a residential area on a semi-important roadway. back in the days before these operations were huge, it was probably just one of dozens of facilities set-up during World War II to build both coin-operated games and work on military contracts.
25 East Delaware Place
North past the Chicago River, one can get off at a train stop in the heart of a busy shopping center. A park sits in the middle with performers abundant and even a few horse and carriages which would have been less uncommon back in Williams’ day.
Moving West one can find a narrow division of road with another small park, right in the middle of a vast intersection.
On the other side of the street sits a Tesla Motors, perhaps an indication of the living legacy of high technology still in this area.
Banking a left, we come to an apartment building, many stories high, sitting outside some shops. This was the home of Harry Williams for much of his early days in the industry.
While certainly old-looking, the building has a clear modernity with an electric keypad on the front. However, the fire department call button at least looks vintage.
It was from here that Harry Williams would sit and contemplate his rise to the top of the industry, no doubt tinkering with games or receiving calls from his number published in Cash Box.
161 West Huron St
Travelling down further Southwest, we come to a junction at West Huron Street, not too far of a walk from the Williams apartment.
The businesses along this road are scattered amongst buildings undergoing heavy rebuilding and construction. Not bustling, but not dead.
It’s clear that the original Williams Manufacturing building no longer exists here. It’s been swallowed up by a neighboring tenant to create a grand rising structure. A parking lot, no doubt.
The area is right next to the Brown Line train stop, which gives a nice transport option for those coming to the area now. Ultimately Williams Manufacturing would move to an area which gave them a bit more mobility in getting their games around the country.
4292 West Fillmore Street
The first facility which they moved to under the Williams Electronics name was located right outside of a train line on West Fillmore Street. Far out of the center of Chicago, but still accessible from transportation today.
Once again the neighboring tenants have absorbed the original address, but the place still looks like a manufacturing facility.
A lone door sits tightly closed to the probably abandoned facility on the cross street.
It was, at least at one time, home to a communications company. Couldn’t say whether it’s truly abandoned or not (would you go to that part of town?).
3401 North California Avenue
In 1952, United Manufacturing set up a new facility north of the heart of Chicago on North California Avenue. When the company was purchased by Seeburg in 1964, it was slowly integrated with Williams Electronics which had been purchased the same year. By 1965, the old United facility was now the corporate office of Williams.
This site has expanded into the massive space which houses WMS Gaming today, the holding company which spun out Williams into Midway in 1998. Though twenty years divorced from traditional entertainment, they still remain as the only still-standing link back to the ancient days of Chicago coin-op.
How much of their business really contributes to Chicago itself, it’s difficult to say. Obviously much of gambling goes to the Vegas market, but they are still a pretty big deal within the gambling industry. Aside from the games, scattered in out of the way places in the huge city, it’s the last remaining scar of Williams Electronics in Chicago.