My Magnificent Mile – Personal Reflections & Short History – North Michigan Avenue

This blog is about my family’s personal connection to North Michigan Avenue (from the Chicago River north), also known as the Magnificent Mile, as well as an homage to a few iconic buildings and businesses that no longer exist. The stretch of North Michigan called the Mag Mile, for short, figured into my family’s life from the day I was born. While my dad first started his private psychiatric practice in a bathroom-sized space at 25 E. Washington (Field’s annex facing an alley) in October 1952 for $93 a month, that was his only office location not on the Mag Mile.

 

 

The Sterling Building (also called Michigan-Superior)

Shortly after returning from serving in the U. S. Navy in Bainbridge, Maryland in 1958, my dad’s first office on the Mag Mile was at 737 N. Michigan (Sterling Building). Once I was old enough, I would shop at the Walgreens next door before going up to his office. In 1970, my dad was forced to vacate when Neiman Marcus decided to build on that site. Ironically, the deal fell through and a parking lot occupied this site for more than a decade. It took 14 years before Neiman Marcus opened its flagship Chicago store here in 1984.

Designed by architect Andrew Rebori and completed in 1929, the Sterling Building was commissioned by the family that owned the Fine Arts Building. The gorgeous 5-story Art Deco building had an intriguing observatory on top. The building was originally designed to include artists’ studios, but even in the 1920s, artists couldn’t afford those rents. 

 

777 N. Michigan Ave, 1982

 

The Farwell Building – 664 N. Michigan

My dad’s next office was the 11-story historic Art Deco/Classical Revival Farwell Building designed and constructed in 1927 by architect Philip B. Maher. Arthur Farwell owned several other North Michigan Avenue properties and bought this one in 1912. He was the son of entrepreneur John V. Farwell, the owner of a wholesale dry good store purchased by Carson-Pirie Scott in 1925.

 

Dismantling 664 N. Michigan

 

Interestingly, this was the original home of the Institute of Psychoanalysis when Franz Alexander was director, an institution that figured prominently in my dad’s professional life and still does to this day. At the time, Lloyd Wendt wrote that “the lady who has just bared her psyche can go across the street to Saks Fifth Avenue or the new Helena Rubinstein Salon.” In 1980, my dad was kicked out of that building when the Terra Museum decided to buy it and the building next door. The Terra Museum folded in 2004, and in 2007, the entire building was dismantled. Historic elements were retained in the 40-story high-rise and Ritz-Carlton Residences, although the building is hardly the same.

Michigan-Ohio Building – 612 N. Michigan

From 1980-1988, my dad practiced at the former John R. Thompson building. Designed by architect Alfred S. Alschuler, construction began in 1924 and was completed in 1925. Clad in Indiana limestone, the building housed shops and restaurants on the first two floors and offices on the remaining floors. Initially, the building’s corner street-level space housed a typical Thompson “white-tiled armchair rapid fire food emporium.” This is the same Thompson that operated a huge chain of lunchrooms/cafeterias in Chicago in the early 20th century. Shortly after the building was completed and occupied with tenants, Thompson sold the building to the Michigan-Ohio Building Corporation for $1 million.

 

612 N. Michigan

 

This time, my dad was asked to give up his suite, so he decided to move to a different address. Among the commercial businesses around that time were Szechwan House and a furrier on the second floor. The building was torn down in 1995 to create the commercial monstrosity 600 N. Michigan.

The last building he practiced at was 500 N. Michigan. From 1988-1998 his office was on the 18th floor. Constructed in 1967 and renovated in 2011, this 24-story building is nice, but not historic. In 1998, the Italian consulate wanted to expand. Although the deal inevitably fell through, my dad decided to move to a shared space on the 15th floor. He practiced there until 2017, albeit just a few days a week in the last few years, and now practices telemedicine exclusively at age 95!

 

A Short History

 

Pine Street After Fire, 1871

Widening of North Michigan, 1926

World’s Fair Series Postcard, 1933

Pedestrian Bridge at Michigan and Chicago, 1938

 

In 1866 a small portion of Pine Street was moved 80 feet west of its original location to accommodate installation of the new pumping station standpipe, housed in the famous Water Tower that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The main advantage of the north part of the street was its close proximity to the Loop on the south end and Lincoln Park on the north. The area around Rush and Erie was dubbed McCormickville because Cyrus McCormick’s 35-room mansion (built from 1875-1879) was at 675 N. Rush Street. As the Loop expanded, there was a good deal of speculation about developing Pine Street, but the biggest barrier was that the Chicago River divided the street into two separate sections. Although a Michigan Avenue Bridge was approved by the Chicago City Council in 1905, it wasn’t until 1918 that actual construction began. Pine Street was renamed Michigan Avenue in 1917 in anticipation of the bridge opening in 1920. A decision was made early on that this stretch of North Michigan would be exclusive and upscale, with private clubs, expensive hotels, and boutique-scale retailers. The makeshift pedestrian bridge pictured above was built so U.S. Navy seamen training to be officers at the Armory on Chicago Avenue east of Michigan wouldn’t have to deal with traffic. Apparently, it was dismantled shortly after the conclusion of WWII.

 

The Demolition of Other Classic Buildings

 

As the late architectural photographer and historical preservationist Richard Nickel could attest to, Chicago seems to have little regard for its historical buildings. Sadly, the Mag Mile is no exception and many exquisite and landmark buildings have been torn down with wanton abandon. In addition to those already mentioned, here are a few others, traveling down Michigan Avenue from north to south.

 

Exterior view of street and buildings near 936-940 N. Michigan, June 15, 1957

 

900 N. Michigan Building

For everyone familiar with the iconic 900 North Michigan shops, like me, you may not have known that the original building was completed in 1927 by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt (1863-1941). Unlike the mammoth 871-foot tall 900 North, which ranks as the 31st tallest building in the U.S., the original was a stately 9-story building with high-quality shops like Walter H. Wilson Ltd. (British silver company) located on the ground floor and 33 rental apartments on the second and third floors. The charming French restaurant Jacques featured a beautiful outdoor dining in the summer and a continental dining room with a glass roof the rest of the year. The remaining six floors were divided into 36 units for the owners of the cooperative apartment building. An effort to get landmark status failed in the early 1980s and the structure was demolished in 1984.

 

 

Judah Building & Central Life Building – 720-700 N. Michigan

The taller Central Life Building at 720 N. Michigan was 16 stories high, designed by the Burnham Brothers, and completed in 1924. Designed by Holabird & Root, the shorter building, known as the Judah, was completed in 1930. Both of them were demolished in 1982 and replaced by a Skidmore Owings & Merrill building, with construction completed in 1991. Once known as Chicago Place, this building is currently home to Saks Fifth Avenue, T-Mobile, and Zara. 

 

Central Life Building

700 N. Michigan Ave

 

Italian Court Building – 619 N. Michigan

An urban sanctuary at the southeast corner of Michigan and Ontario, this delightful building was constructed from 1919-1926. The Italian Court featured a complex of shops and apartments for artists, and Le Petit Gourmet, a beloved and ultra-romantic date-night favorite for Chicagoans (including my parents). Harriet Tilden (Brainard) Moody opened this delightful restaurant in 1920. Literary celebrities like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay recited their poetry at the restaurant and mingled with diners afterwards. The Italian Court was demolished in 1968 to build a new high-rise office building at 625 N. Michigan.

 

Italian Court, October 1, 1953

 

Michigan Square Building – 540 N. Michigan

Designed by the iconic Chicago firm Holabird & Root, the eight-story Michigan Square Building spanned an entire block and featured fairly nondescript Bedford limestone on the outside. It was the incredible Art Deco lobby with the famous Diana Court that set this building apart. The Diana Court resembled the famous Parisian public rooms of the Ile-de-France, with white-metal-railed stairways zigzagging around it. The floors featured gorgeous terrazzo patterns, bold and tall marble columns, and hidden lights reflecting from behind panels that cast shimmering light onto the exquisite showpiece fountain by sculptor Carl Milles. In 1929, the ballerina Ruth Page and her husband Thomas Fisher rented a one-room studio penthouse here.

 

Diana Court, 1963

 

One of the ground-floor tenants was the cutting-edge gallery/shop Baldwin Kingrey, which was in business from 1947-1957. My dad purchased several Eames chairs at Baldwin Kingrey he still has today. In the early 1950s, there were no shops in Chicago selling modern furniture and décor. The brainchild of architect Harry Weese, his wife Kitty Baldwin Weese partnered with Jody Kingrey to open this innovative salon. It featured beautiful modern objects that were affordable for young professionals. Each of the women borrowed $3000 from their parents to buy $9,000 worth of furniture. The concept was so successful, it only took 3 months before they made a profit.

 

 

The gallery served as an informal meeting place for students and faculty from the Institute of Design (ID), Chicago architects, and interior designers. The inventory included furniture by leading modernist designers such as Alvar Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen, and jewelry by sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia. While the address was 105 E. Ohio, the shop was in the famous Michigan Square Building. Ironically, this building was torn down in 1973 and replaced with what is considered the worst Harry Weese building in Chicago – the Marriott Hotel.

McGraw-Hill Building – 520 N. Michigan

This 16-story, 190-foot-tall landmark Art Deco building designed by Theilbar & Fugard was completed in 1929. The facade and its architectural sculpture were designed by Chicago-born artist Gwen Lux. The building was designated a Chicago Landmark on February 7, 1997. While it was torn down in 1999, the beautiful façade was saved and reinstalled in 2000. The hotel was renamed the Gwen Hotel in 2015 and is now part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. This is also the location of the Shops at North Bridge with anchor store Nordstrom.

Silver Skyscraper (Music Corporation of America Building)

One of the narrowest skyscrapers in the U.S., this 13-story building with a depth of only 25 feet from Michigan to its back side, was designed by Loebl & Schlossman and completed in 1929. It featured an Art Deco design façade with continuous limestone piers rising to three projecting fins in front of a set-back upper floor. It was demolished in 1963 and replaced by the Realtor Building, which Billy Goat Tavern moved into on the lower level, back in 1964.

Personal Reflections

Woolworth

As a child, by far my favorite place was the Woolworth store at Michigan and Huron. By the time I was 10, I was taking the bus by myself to downtown Chicago from Lincolnwood. My mom rarely gave me any money beyond what I needed for bus fare, but I managed to find spare change on the ground or sometimes brought my meager savings earned from returning Diet Rite bottles to the corner store. I loved the counters and displays filled with delightful trinkets, and I fondly remember the turquoise and yellow parakeets chirping away in the pet section. I loved buying big grab bags of stamps, Blue Waltz cologne, K-Tel record albums, and eating at the lunch counter with my mom. After looking for years for photos of this store, I finally found one where you can partially see the red store sign, circa 1961. That tiny building was torn down to build the huge Omni Hotel at 676 N. Michigan.

 

Looking North on Michigan from Erie, 1961

 

Saks Fifth Avenue

As a child, I loved shopping on occasion at the most iconic Chicago location of Saks Fifth Avenue at 669 N. Michigan. Prior to moving to the Blackstone Shop Building in 1935, the store was farther north at the corner of Chestnut and Michigan. Designed by Philip B. Maher, the store had been leased to Stanley Korshak in 1929, who moved north near Oak Street. Although we rarely bought anything at Saks, I was enchanted by looking down the spiral staircase to the floors below, especially when Santa Claus was sitting there. In January 1985, I experienced something far less pleasant when I witnessed a women bleeding from her head after being struck by debris from a construction fire at a building at 101 E. Erie across Michigan Ave.

 

 

A one-story addition to the original building was designed by Holabird & Root and erected in 1944 with a nine-story addition by the firm added in 1966. A curious fact about Saks is that the charming Malabry Court apartments were hidden away behind the store. Designed by Maher and completed in 1926, the six rather small but elegant apartments were French-inspired with wood burning fireplaces. Oddly, the book Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development, 1900-1930 states the address of Malabry as 571 N. Michigan, which seems odd considering Saks’ address was 669 N. Michigan.

Tip Top Tap Sign

As a kid, I was fascinated by the Tip Top Tap sign on the Allerton Hotel. Built in 1922-1924, the hotel is a rare example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture. Don McNeil hosted his popular Breakfast Club radio show from the swanky Tip Top Tap cocktail lounge on the 23rd floor. After it closed in 1961, he broadcast from the hotel’s Cloud Room on the same floor. The hotel has been sold several times over the years and when it was the Allerton Crowne Plaza Hotel, the 23rd floor area that once housed both of these lounges was converted into a ballroom. According to a 2014 Chicago Tribune article, the new owner Warwick International Hotels has plans to reopen the Tip Top Tap.

 

Allerton Hotel and Saks Fifth Avenue, June 27, 1958

North Michigan Avenue, 1964

Photograph credit: William C. Brubaker, 1982

Michigan at Erie, 1994

 

Defunct Retail Stores & Eateries

Countless stores that once called the Mag Mile home no longer exist, while others like Saks Fifth Avenue and Hanig’s Footwear abandoned their digs for glitzier new buildings. These are just a few of the defunct businesses. I’m counting on Consumer Grouch readers to add more!

  • Andrew Geller
  • Anna’s Florist
  • B. Dalton Bookseller
  • Bes-Ben
  • Blum’s Vogue
  • Bonwit Teller
  • Borders
  • Boul-Mich Lounge
  • Bramson’s
  • The Brassary
  • The Brass Bull
  • Brittany Ltd.
  • Celano’s Custom Tailor Shop (Chicago mob headquarters)
  • Dunhill
  • Florsheim Shoes (the company is still in business)
  • Frank Brothers
  • I. Magnin
  • Jacques French Restaurant
  • Joseph Salon Shoes
  • Kon-Tiki Ports
  • Lake Shore National Bank
  • L’Escargot 
  • Lower East Side
  • Main Street Bookstore
  • Marshall Field’s (at Water Tower)
  • Martha Weathered
  • Mrs. Snyder’s
  • NH Rosenthal Furs
  • Normandy House Restaurant
  • Panache
  • S. Garber Furs
  • Seasons Best
  • Sherlock’s Home
  • 625
  • Stanley Korshak (A Dallas heiress purchased rights to the name)
  • Stuart Brent
  • Szechuan House
  • Tale of the Whale
  • The Forgotten Woman
  • Tip Top Tap
  • Upper Avenue National Bank
  • Viacom Entertainment Store
    Walter H. Wilson Ltd.
  • Woolworth

Art Galleries

  • Baldwin Kingrey Gallery
  • Allan Frumkin Gallery
  • Terra Museum
  • Wally Findlay Galleries (Still in NYC and Palm Beach)

Stay tuned for a separate blog on Michigan Avenue south of the Chicago River and South Michigan, because it deserves equal billing!

 

Photo sources: Art Institute of Chicago, Calumet 412, Chicago Collections, Chuckman Chicago, Chuckman’s Collection, Classic Chicago Magazine, Cocktailera, Etsy, Explore Chicago Collections, Forgotten Chicago, Northwestern University, Pinterest, Tumblr, YoChicago

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