River North's Renaissance
by dawn reiss
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The building that housed Tree Studios was built in 1894. The Medinah Temple and Tree Studios building. Hubbard Street as it stood in 1948. A view of Hubbard Street today.
The afternoon glow of a sinking sun peeks through Albert Friedman's office, backlighting a bookcase filled with green, blue, and caramel-colored glass bottles still frosty from the Great Chicago Fire that glazed them more than a century ago. They've been picked up at various River North buildings Friedman has acquired over the last 40 years.
Holding one of the bottles, his son, Jason—the executive vice president of Property Development for Friedman Properties—recalls telling some of the neighborhood restaurateurs they should serve their drinks in this bottle. "You know why?" he asks with a laugh, showcasing the bottle's rounded bottom. "Because you can never put it down; you just have to keep drinking."
Though Albert Friedman was the earliest proponent and a visionary of what has become one of Chicago's most thriving real estate districts—he owns some 50 properties, including the huge Bloomingdale's Home & Furniture store in the former Medinah Temple and Tree Studios building—others have joined the scene along the way, fueling explosive growth that has taken off primarily in the last decade.
From trendy restaurants to soaring real estate, a pulsating late–night club scene to a bona fide tech boom, this pocket of real estate has turned into Chicago's most desirable destination.
"Ten years ago there was a physical void, and no one was really going there," says Billy Dec, CEO and cofounder of Rockit Ranch Productions, a restaurant and entertainment development company that owns and operates Rockit Bar & Grill, Sunda restaurant, and The Underground. When Dec was considering the area as a site for his group's first restaurant, "It lacked customers, wasn't cool, and didn't have energy," he says, "but it had potential."
The Reid Murdoch Building was designated as a Chicago landmark.
The Early Years
At the turn of the 20th century, River North was known as Smokey Hollow for the sooty haze the myriad factories created. Rail cars transported goods in and out of the city, making it an ideal space for manufacturers that needed warehouses with large floor plates. Slowly this industrial area disappeared as companies—ike the middle-class families they employed—moved to the suburbs in the 1950s in favor of single-story, modern buildings surrounded by large tracts of land. By the 1960s many businesses had vacated, leaving behind large empty warehouses and loft buildings for a "skid row that manufactured lots of vices," Friedman recalls. "It was made up of people who were down on their luck. Most of the buildings were vacant and derelict."
The neighborhood (at the time called North Loop) was known as a red-light district, with adult bookstores and peep shows. When Marina City opened in 1962 just north of the Chicago River with its twin 64-story "corn cob towers," it was billed as a "city within a city"—much like the Marshall Field & Co.-built Merchandise Mart that opened in 1930 with a massive 4.2 million square feet—which kept those who lived and worked in the respective buildings secluded from exterior elements.
It wasn't until the 1970s that things started to change–but slowly. "A new culture of people came of age who were a little less constrained by what was, and were more defined by what could be," says Mark Falanga, president of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., from his fourth-floor suite. "It took some great vision to look at old manufacturing buildings and redefine the environment in which people here worked and lived."
After the death of his father in 1970, a 21-year-old Friedman inherited an "old rooming house" on Clark and Hubbard. A plethora of code violations forced him to tear it down, but it captured Friedman's attention, and he quickly purchased a vacant 40,000–square–foot building across the street with a $4,000 down payment. But he struggled to find tenants and was forced to fill the buildings with artists and photographers who paid rent in the form of artwork and photographs of Friedman's young family.
"I started seeing an opportunity in these old buildings because of what I saw being demolished," says Friedman, who later was named the chairman of the City of Chicago Landmarks Commission under former Mayor Richard M. Daley for his preservation work of historic buildings in River North.
When Gordon Sinclair opened his namesake restaurant at 500 N. Clark St. (now Naha restaurant) in 1976, Friedman had an epiphany. "I had people pulling up who had never been here in the past," he says. "All I had before were drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. All of a sudden I was actually seeing people who had money in their pockets." Soon after, Friedman started courting restaurants to join the neighborhood. "Remember, back then, restaurants and bars weren't sexy," he says. "They were the orphans of any real estate developer because they were notorious for odors, insects, and for people not paying rent."
It was also in the late 1970s when real estate mogul Daniel Levin, founder and chairman of The Habitat Company, tried to get financing for the posh East Bank Club, originally dreamed up as a pair of residential buildings on either side of a large health club. "They told me I was crazy," Levin says. Along with his partner, Jim McHugh, they rescaled their vision into the high-end, 450,000-square-foot health-club facility that now has 10,000 members and attracts the likes of President Barack Obama, Derrick Rose, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Grant DePorter, CEO of Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse, was one of East Bank Club's early adopters. At the time, he lived at the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker Drive. "Back then, it was very unsafe," DePorter says. "I wouldn't walk through River North; I would always run through it to get to East Bank Club."
For the next 20 years there were pockets of growth. Before Harry Caray's opened at 33 West Kinzie in 1987, DePorter says all the windows were boarded up so patrons wouldn't have to look out at the landmark building that had once been home to Frank Nitti, the enforcer of Al Capone, and his cheese company. Although windows were replaced so patrons could look outside, the neighborhood still had that stigma.
"We were always a planned destination," says DePorter. "We never had any impulse diners walking by. For years we didn't even bother to have a menu box outside."
At the same time, a young, unknown chef named Rick Bayless approached Friedman about backing a new restaurant concept: modern Mexican. Bayless had written a doctoral thesis on the cooking style, but Friedman says he was skeptical. Friedman eventually changed his mind, telling Bayless, who opened Frontera Grill in 1987, "Hopefully, we'll do it well, because I happen to like your cuisine."
Other early adopters included the likes of Rich Melman, the founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises—which started Maggiano's Little Italy and Corner Bakery in River North in 1991—and Ruth Fertel of Ruth's Chris Steak House, to whom Friedman rented on the condition she opened for lunch, not just dinner, to help with foot traffic.
Following the influx of upstart and trendy restaurants, forward-thinking art galleries, suppliers, and designers, such as The Golden Triangle, helped anchor the development and set up shop along the Superior and Huron Street corridors. These nascent studios laid the foundation for River North's famed Gallery District, a concentration of art galleries that has, over time, grown to become the nation's largest outside of Manhattan. Events like the Merchandise Mart's annual NeoCon World's Trade Fair, the largest commercial interior furnishings show in North America with nearly 1,000 exhibitors and more than 40,000 attendees, now cement the area as Chicago's design hub.
Rockit Bar & Grill
portraits by maria ponce berre