Even though Chicago is a young city by world standards, it has two things that stand out for a city its age: architecture and history. And the history of Chicago’s architecture is often complex and layered.
That’s what we’re learning about the abandoned office building at 237 East Ontario Street. Its owner, Tishman, wants to turn the 14,000 square-foot site into a new 24-story hotel with 395 rooms. That development plan is what prompted us to look a little closer at the building.
If you’ve ever walked past, you may have have noticed it is a long, low building, supported by a web of visible steel girders. Most recently it was the home to Film and Tape Works, a media production house that closed its doors in 2010, according to Reel Chicago. Since then it’s been sitting unused.
Before it was a production house, it was the location of a film and television program distribution company called Teleservice. And before that it was the home to another type of art: contemporary art. This was the first home of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art when it opened in 1967. As such, it hosted exhibits and works by thousands of artists from around the world including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Frida Kahlo. It was here that Jeff Koons had his first solo show. The MCA moved out in 1996.
For a time the building, itself, was considered a work of art. The Bulgarian/Moroccan artist duo of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, famous for wrapping bridges, buildings, and other large objects in fabric, once wrapped this building in black. It happened in the winter of 1969 and was called Wrap In, Wrap Out. It was their first building wrap in the United States.
Before the MCA started doing strange things to the outside of the building, there was some freaky-deaky going on inside. Before the contemporary artists this was the offices of the skin art empire Playboy. While the publishing company’s earlier years are most often associated with the building formerly known as 666 North Lake Shore Drive (now renumbered as 680 North Lake Shore Drive), our research shows that the Playboy Clubs portion of the company, and likely the entire empire, was run from this building from 1961 to 1965
Going further back, the building was occupied by several photography studios including Underwood & Underwood.
But it’s original purpose was to serve as a bakery. When the building was built in 1908 it was the Charles Garben Baking Company. It turns out Playboy wasn’t the first company to take an interest in hot buns at 237 East Ontario.