Long Neglected, a Chicago Art Deco Gem Inches Toward Rebirth

Wacker Tower

In a city filled with Art Deco delight, this small skyscraper is an exceptional gem. Recently named a Chicago Landmark, the fifteen-story Chicago Motor Club Building (68 East Wacker Place) was designed in 1928 by Holabird & Root. It’s not a well-known building; it has been empty for a decade, and you can’t access its dazzling lobby. But for locals who remember it way back when, and those lucky enough to attend the rare open house events, it is a favorite.

Wacker TowerAutomobiles were a new phenomenon in the earliest years of the twentieth century. Auto clubs sprouted all over the country, their goals being to promote automobile use and to advocate for better roads and safety for motorists. The Chicago Motor Club was founded in 1906 and became a nationally prominent organization.

In the first four decades of the century, the auto business was booming and, in Chicago, these auto dealers clustered on South Michigan Avenue, between 14th and 24th Streets. It was an easy and enjoyable urban shopping experience: everything you could want related to motoring was there. And most important: South Michigan Avenue was a smooth motorway on which to take a test drive. Called “Motor Row,” over 50 buildings remain today in this designated Chicago Landmark district. At the height of sales, Chicago’s Motor Row was selling over 100 different makes of cars.

The Chicago Motor Club wanted to be close to all the action, so its first clubhouse headquarters was located near Motor Row. As membership increased and it outgrew its spaces, it eventually opted to build its very own skyscraper in the Loop.

The Chicago Motor Club was not just a social or sporting group as many auto clubs had been. It wielded power in advocating for city improvements. Nineteenth-century roads were made for horse-drawn carriages and streetcars and were, by the early 20th century, deeply rutted – not well suited for cars. With the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908 and Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, major change was afoot. The middle-class could now afford automobiles and Burnham’s Plan called for urban changes to accommodate the increased auto traffic (to facilitate commerce, naturally!).

The Motor Club helped make things happen. North Michigan Avenue was widened by 1920, a public parking garage was built in Grant Park (1921), and Wacker Drive was transformed into a double-decker motorway by 1926. Coordinated traffic control signals in Chicago were implemented in 1925. Roads all over the city were now better surfaced and safety concerns for motorists and pedestrians alike were brought to the fore.

The Motor Club also enthusiastically encouraged tourism by automobile. It identified scenic routes throughout the United States and publicized them. Motoring was seen as an escape from urban congestion – freedom to explore the beauty of the country. Americans were taking to the road like never before.

The Club’s membership reached 70,000 in the late 1920s and it was time for that skyscraper headquarters. A $1 million building program was announced and a plum site near Michigan Avenue and the river was chosen. Many sleek new skyscrapers were going up along the Chicago River and on North Michigan Avenue – and the Club’s would be one of them.

Wacker TowerThe Chicago Motor Club wanted a beautiful, contemporary building, so it hired the firm that was working successfully in the new modern style: Holabird & Roche. But in 1928 the firm was undergoing reorganization due to the 1927 death of Martin Roche. The Club hired Holabird & Roche but by the end of the year got the successor firm of Holabird & Root. William Holabird had died in 1923 and now the firm was headed by his son, John Holabird, and John Root, Jr. (son of Daniel Burnham’s original partner). And they delivered a jewel of a building.

The Motor Club planned to use the whole building for its activities. Entire floors were dedicated to various departments such as law, mechanical, first aid, claims. But the lobby itself would house the exciting touring bureau.

After a rapid six-month construction period, the building opened in January 1929, its reception nothing but positive. The restrained limestone exterior spoke of strength and reliability. Its modern design and sleek ornament spoke of sophistication.

It’s important to note that what we now call “Art Deco” was not known by that name in the 1920s-30s. It was usually called “the modern style.” The term “Art Deco” began to be used in the 1960s with the resurgence of interest in the style. The name comes from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, where this type of design was first shown to an international audience.

Wacker TowerThe Art Deco style was applied to all sorts of design, but very often utilized in American architecture. It was considered modern because it didn’t hearken back to historical forms and it embraced the technology of the time (“the machine”). Art Deco buildings often emphasize verticality, simplicity, hard-edged forms, geometric patterns, low-relief designs, and lavish materials. Celebrating the Jazz Age and speed of movement, it was wildly popular during the 1920s-early 1930s until it fell out of favor when the Depression and World War II made it seem frivolous and wasteful.

The Chicago Motor Club building is a compact and stunning example of the style. At only 15 stories, the structure was not required to have setbacks per the 1923 zoning ordinance, which was directed at taller buildings. The ordinance required setbacks for the upper stories to allow more light to reach street level (thus the characteristic setback look of so many Art Deco skyscrapers).

Clad in limestone and wholly monochromatic, the Chicago Motor Club tower celebrates its (modest) height by the soaring verticality of its design. The focal point of the façade is its cast-iron framed entrance with the abundance of low-relief details (flowers, plants, flowing fountains of water, zigzags, swirls). Above the entrance is a slightly-curved bay that extends to the top of the building. Windows on each side of the bay are connected by limestone spandrels with more Art Deco design (birds, flowers, geometric patterns).

But entering the building is the highlight. The low-ceilinged vestibule gives way to a soaring, gleaming space. The triple-height lobby is one of the best Art Deco interiors in Chicago. Original frosted glass chandeliers, two mezzanine balconies with shimmering metallic ornament, and flowing staircases beckon. The lavish Art Deco ornament includes the Chicago Motor Club insignia, sunbursts, plant forms, eagles, and geometric patterns.

This is where the Motor Club’s touring bureau inspired motorists and promoted auto tourism. The elegant alcoves on the east wall, in fact, displayed scores of auto touring pamphlets. The sophistication and luxury of the lobby reflected the excitement of the automobile age.

Wacker TowerBut the focal point of the lobby had to have been, and remains, the huge, colorful map of the United States by the noted muralist, John Warner Norton. It is a glorious celebration of the American road trip, highlighting national highways, cities, and parks of the time. The mural was painted on three sections of canvas in Norton’s studio, then adhered to the lobby’s wall.

The Motor Club affiliated with the Chicago-founded American Automobile Association (AAA) in 1914, but remained an independent body into the 1980s. The Motor Club finally sold and moved out of it Art Deco skyscraper in the mid-1980s, relocating to the suburbs.

Wacker TowerAlthough listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 as a contributing building in the Michigan-Wacker Historic District, and continued life as a commercial office building through the 1990s, when hard times fell on the old Motor Club tower. Various owners and various plans for adaptive reuse didn’t save the building from remaining vacant since 2004.

Its location on what was originally known as East South Water Street changed in recent years
to East Wacker Place. The building was then renamed Wacker Tower.

Now, finally, landmark status and potentially workable plans have arrived. A new owner promises to convert the building to a 144-room hotel. It will have good company, as another new hotel is going up on the site immediately west of it and East Wacker Place is already home to Hotel Monaco and the Hard Rock Hotel.

Editor’s Note: While the latest plan to turn this building into a hotel does not currently show any signs of progress, there is work going on behind the scenes. Just last week, the Chicago’s landmarks commission recommended that the city award the developers a tax break to help return the building to productive use.

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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