Here at Chicago Architecture, we’ve written often about how even though ours is a young city, it still has layers of history to explore. Occasionally we get lucky, and the onion of history gets peeled before our eyes. One of those opportunities may be approaching.
Recently, Zeller Realty Group and Apple made waves by announcing their intention to build a new sub-street-level consumer electronics store at Pioneer Court on the edge of the Chicago River. Pictures of the Wrightian design by Foster+Partners were splashed across web sites from Vancouver to Vietnam.
What made few headlines recently was last month’s sale of the three retail buildings from 663 to 673 North Michigan Avenue to British firm Meyer Bergman. These three buildings abut the current Apple flagship store at 679 North Michigan Avenue — A store Apple will soon no longer need. So it’s not unreasonable to think that the owner of the store might sell it to Meyer Bergman, or buy the neighboring buildings from the Brits, either way combining the four properties under one owner. And there we have our onion skin.
Should the four Michigan Avenue properties find themselves siblings, it is further not beyond the realm of possibilities that they would all be torn down. The Apple Store is only two stories, and very customized for its current purpose. The Cole-Haan store is three stories. The Nike building is four. And the Garmin building is nine. This at the center of the Midwest’s premiere shopping district where even historic old buildings top 20 or 30 stories. A skyscraper would not be out of place here. And that skyscraper is the knife we need to peel the onion of history.
Because behind the Cole-Haan store at number 673 is a piece of lost Chicago. We last wrote about it nine years ago. There is an apartment building back there. Abandoned. Forgotten. Walled in by the surrounding towers of progress and commerce. A new skyscraper would mean the demolition of the existing retail buildings and the unveiling of this architectural time capsule.
To explain why there is an abandoned apartment building entombed in the middle of downtown Chicago, we have to go back to Michigan Avenue’s heyday. Back before it was little more than an outdoor mall. Back when it was lined with beautiful low-rise buildings offering the finest goods money could buy. That kind of money attracts idealism, and idealism is often expressed through art.
To be sure, Chicago was a capital of commerce, but it also fancied itself a leading art center. On State Street, in Bronzville, on Bughouse Square, and elsewhere buildings were erected all over town to serve as nexuses for like-minded proto-hippes. Poets, writers, musicians, thinkers, and philosophers flocked to these enclaves to feed off of what modern-day consultants would call “synergy,” but back then was plain old good vibes.
Two of the people who helped make this happen were brothers Chester and Raymond Cook. They were real estate developers in the early part of the 20th century. And they had the idea to build apartments on the roof of the building at 675 North Michigan Avenue, then known as Malabry Court.
In 1926 they carried out their plan, erecting three two-story brick townhouses on the north edge of the roof, and three on the south edge of the roof, designed by Philip B. Maher. In between was a courtyard paved with multi-color slate tiles, complete with a fountain. The apartments featured high ceilings, wrought iron balconies, window boxes overflowing with colorful flowers, and Tutor Revival roofs. They were an instant success, and maintained years-long waiting lists for future residents.
At the time that the apartments on top of Malabry Court opened, there wasn’t a complete Michigan Avenue streetwall the way there is today. The building was pulled back from Michigan Avenue to show off its Parisian-inspired beauty. But that couldn’t last forever. In 1954 the retail space was expanded out to the edge of the Michigan Avenue sidewalk, giving Malabry Court an additional 13 feet of depth, and hiding the apartments from view.
They remained in service until 1983 when maintenance problems caught up to them. We once got access to the green roof on the Apple Store, but were not able to see over the edge to the apartments. But we have spoken to a couple of Cole-Haan employees over the years, and they confirm the six townhouse apartments are still there, left for the snow and pigeons to deal with.
Update: December 18, 2015 — This story generated a lot of interest from our readers, including two who actually felt compelled to visit the site and try to photograph the apartments. What they managed to capture appears to be one of the mansard-style roofs and the top half of one of the townhomes. It may be the only surviving one of the six, since in 2012 the city issued a permit for the demolition of all six townhomes while preserving the retail space below. It’s clear from the photographic evidence gathered by our readers that not all of the townhomes were removed, or removed completely.
Other readers have asserted that the entire building was demolished and that only foundations remain. They believe this from looking at Google Earth, rather than climbing out of their mother’s basements and going out in the fresh air and seeing for themselves what the world is like. Their assertion is completely false, as it would mean the destruction of the Cole-Haan store, which is still functioning, and again we have photos from our readers showing the retail building and something on top still exists in this location.