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Ramova Grill's Seating Finds New Life At Benton House

By Chuck Sudo in News on Sep 10, 2012 6:00PM

When Ramova Grill owners Bob Gertos and Tony Dinos announced in March they would be shutting down in mid-April they didn’t anticipate the flood of nostalgia (and customers) that followed. Business picked up and the legendary Bridgeport diner went on a six-week victory lap before finally shuttering on May 26.

On May 31 I received a text message from Friends of South Halsted’s Maureen Sullivan asking me to come down to Ramova Grill immediately. When I arrived I found employees of Benton House, a neighborhood center dating back to the settlement house movement that has been providing food, clothing and social services to Bridgeport residents for over 100 years, and volunteers dismantling Ramova Grill’s benches, tables, counter and stools. All these furnishings dated back to Ramova Grill’s 1929 opening. (The Ramova's chalkboard menus and specials were earmarked for friends and family, while Bob Gertos's son Bill claimed the diner's iconic phone booth.)

Through Sullivan, Dinos and Gertos met Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago, who helped to formulate a plan to preserve the furnishings. The initially reached out to the National Hellenic Museum about donating the seating but the museum, according to Miller, didn’t have the space to reassemble everything. Enter Benton House, which was interested in the seating as a centerpiece for its Friday food pantry and as seating to serve meals to seniors.

“We just wanted to preserve (the seating),” Dinos said. “We told Benton House they could have it if they could get it out as soon as possible.” Ben Noetzel, Benton House’s former youth programs coordinator, said of accepting the furnishings, “It made for a good fit, given the neighborhood history of each establishment, and having the benches and counter live on at Benton House can become a sense of neighborhood pride.”

Once the furnishings were moved to Benton House the process to strip away over eight decades of diner grease and grime began. Benton House executive director Mark Lennon reached out to neighborhood churches and youth programs for volunteers to refurnish and rehab the benches, while they painstakingly worked to reassemble everything to approximate, as best they could, the Ramova Grill layout.

“There were times where I thought we may have bit off more than we could chew,” Lennon said. “Every time we thought we got rid of all of the built-up grease, we’d find another layer.”

The goal was to have what Benton House now calls their “Ramova Room” ready for its “Summerfest” fundraiser last weekend. Lennon, his wife Joyce, son Tyler and other volunteers worked into early Saturday morning to ensure the room was ready.

Everyone who entered the Ramova Room left impressed at how fast Benton House was able to turn the project around, although Lennon downplayed the effort.

“We still have a lot of work to do with this room,” he said, pointing to rust at the base of the stools. “But the hardest part is over.”

Benton House is located at 3052 S. Gratten Ave.