The high-end retail scene that has for so long preserved the wonderful graystone buildings on Oak Street has eaten three of its wards. This past Friday we joined a small silent crowd of the curious, the sentimental, and the smoking to watch as a bright yellow excavator reduced 70/72, 102/104, and 106 East Oak Street to bricks, sticks, and dust.
The three buildings weren’t landmarked in the city records, but were something of informal landmarks in the urban fabric. They served as keystones in the Oak Street corridor, reminding people that its heritage as an upscale neighborhood predated the arrival of retail. Chicago’s boldfaced names lived on this street long before monograms like Hermes, Graff, and Winston relegated them to microfiche and memories.
For a long time it was the conversion of sitting parlors into shopping parlors that actually kept so many of these old buildings alive. Sliced into three or four boutiques, they could support exclusive small-scale retail that wouldn’t be able to afford the whole house. This allowed their owners to concentrate on the quality of their goods and the shopping experience.
But as global megacorps started gobbling up even small names, the yardstick of success became not customer satisfaction, but revenue per square foot.
Witness Kate Spade. In its old space at 101 East Oak Street, the shopgirls took pride in showing off the quirky fashions and leather goods made by hand in small batches in places like Italy and France. Now that Spade’s owned by MegaConHugeCo and moved down the street, good luck finding anything in store that isn’t stamped, very discretely, “Made in China.”
The upshot is that old homes with their old designs and old fashioned footprints don’t make enough money to keep feeding the beast. Shareholders demand more and more sales each quarter, forcing the companies to tear down great pieces of period architecture and put up glass-and-wood boxes.
That’s what’s happening with 70 through 104. The abscess left on the North side of Oak Street will be filled by a new retail platform launched by the same people turning the Esquire Theater next door at number 58 into a steakhouse and a shoe store (admittedly, a Double Eagle steakhouse and a Christian Louboutin shoe store). They’re replacing limestone cartouches and ramparts from 1891, carved vines from 1884, and fine bay windows into 200 linear feet of flat pre-cast drek, and even flatter glass.
But there’s a green roof, so that makes everything OK.