Living room at 161 East Chicago Avenue.
The kitchen at 1300 North State Parkway, atop the former Ambassador West Hotel.
The master bedroom in the duplex at 132 East Delaware Place above the Four Seasons Hotel boasts stunning views of the lake.
The duplex at 1300 North State Parkway, marketed by Koenig & Strey’s Nancy Joyce, has a sweeping, custom-built French-inspired staircase made of rare burnished butternut.
Mention “penthouse,” and a glamorous pad perched on top of a high-rise comes to mind. “They’ve always been considered the ultimate benchmark of the luxe life,” says Baird & Warner broker Tom Gorman. Yet the case can be made that the ultimate duplex—a two-story space that lives like a gracious house but boasts magnificent views—is actually the gold standard of luxury living.
“A good duplex is a hell of a lot harder to find than a good penthouse,” teases Gorman (312-981-2395), who is currently marketing one for $7.9 million on the 60th floor of the Olympia Centre at 161 East Chicago Avenue that sports 8,000 square feet, five bedrooms, five bathrooms, three half-baths, stunning views, and a sleek contemporary interior. Substantiating his instincts are the current state of the penthouse market and the numbers.
“Today, ‘penthouse’ is just as much a marketing term as a form of housing,” he explains. “It’s used to denote high units and differentiate them from others in the building. They may have better views thanks to the height, but aren’t necessarily bigger, grander, or even on the top floor. I’ve seen developers call the top five floors of a building penthouses,” explains Gorman. At press time, Midwest Real Estate Data’s numbers confirm that out of 323 active listings priced over a million dollars in Chicago’s tony lakefront and center city districts, 26 are penthouses. As for duplexes? There are only eight.
These ultra-high-end properties are often marketed privately as pocket listings, but our search turned up only two more for sale right now—a 6,800-square-foot duplex with three bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms at 1300 North State Parkway, priced in the high seven figures and marketed by Koenig & Strey broker Nancy Joyce (312-339-4949), and a three-bedroom, four-bath, two half-bath 7,000-square-foot duplex at 132 East Delaware Place, above the Four Seasons Hotel, marketed by Baird & Warner broker Katherine Malkin (312- 981-2308) for $12.8 million.
“Cathedral spaces and dramatic staircases are the most prestigious decorative elements you can have inside an apartment, and the only way to get them is with a duplex,” points out Joyce. Her listing has a sweeping, custom-built French-inspired staircase made of rare burnished butternut—as well as five fireplaces (including a historic mantel from New York’s Plaza Hotel), two private balconies, and a 1,000-square-foot terrace, thanks to the fact that it is also a bona fide penthouse atop what was once the venerated Ambassador West Hotel.
Malkin’s listing, with a grand limestone staircase and soaring, 25-foot-high cathedral ceilings, has been given such a glorious decorative buildout by architects Marvin Herman & Associates and interior designer Juan Pablo Molyneux that it earned a lavish spread in Architectural Digest in 2009. But she sees the duplex as a solution in a tight market. “The problem is that developers stopped developing over the last few years, thanks to the recession, and there are no large, dramatic spaces right now. That’s made spacious duplexes even more desirable.”
Malkin feels so strongly about this that she convinced the powers that be at 77 East Walton Street, officially known as The Residences at 900, to turn the project’s last two unsold units, 23 and 24 F, into a 7,000-square-foot duplex listed for $7.4 million. The developers recently paired them together and drew up potential plans for the space that include a grand staircase, of course—and the price includes a $2 million credit toward the build-out.
The penthouse was originally the brainchild of publishing magnate Condé Nast. In 1924 he found a co-op being built and “arranged to have the top floor—originally designated as servants’ rooms—redesigned to accommodate one of the most astonishing apartments up to that time,” notes a New York Times story from 2000. Before that, top floors were considered way too hot, leaky, or hard to reach for luxury living. Duplexes, on the other hand, “date back to the 19th century and are associated with artists who wanted high, light-filled rooms,” notes Neil Harris, professor emeritus of history and art history at The University of Chicago and author of Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury (Acanthus Press, out of print). But by the early 20th century, he says, “They were considered a luxurious way to live. Who wouldn’t want to have a house in the sky if they could afford it?”
Of course, some lucky souls get it all. Last year, in the most expensive condo sale in Chicago’s history, Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin paid $15 million dollars for the entire 66th floor of the Park Tower at 800 North Michigan Avenue, a floor below his duplex-penthouse on the 67th floor that he bought in 2000 for $6.9 million. New accounts note that he plans on combining the two spaces into a penthouse triplex. Just imagine the staircase he can craft for that.