A remnant of the prewar luxe life gets a fitting 21st-century makeover.
The former Lake Shore Athletic Club is now a grand residential building with gracious public spaces.
In a city renowned for its historic buildings, what becomes a legend most? The luxury treatment, of course, ideally coupled with adaptive reuse. That tried-and-true formula has been especially successful in Streeterville; the first edifice in the area to get the swan transformation was the American Furniture Mart (currently known as 680 North Lake Shore Drive) in the mid-’80s, followed by the Palmolive Building in the mid-’oughties. Now the Lake Shore Athletic Club—rechristened with just its address, 850 North Lake Shore Drive, like many other grand buildings that line the boulevard—is joining this exclusive group of regal residential properties.
All are kindred structures: architecturally significant buildings with sensitively conserved exteriors and resourcefully adapted interiors; noteworthy Chicago architectural firms behind their makeovers (Lohan Associates did 680, while Booth Hansen did 850 and the Palmolive); and expansive apartments, thanks to the high ceilings and deep floor plates dictated by the commercial codes that originally governed their design. But unlike its predecessors, 850 reflects a new world order, filling a post-recession marketplace need: Its 198 units are for rent rather than sale. “No one has this product,” says Matt Phillips, CEO of Integrated Development Group and the visionary behind the project. “It’s a new format in Chicago.”
Phillips is spot-on. “This property is very different than the competition,” adds Gail Lissner, vice president of the real estate consultancy Appraisal Research Counselors. “The other new development taking place is generally very contemporary, with a younger orientation, lots of smaller units, and not on Lake Shore Drive. But this property has lake views, lots of large apartments, and unique, character-rich spaces.”
The building’s commercial past gives its apartments elegantly high ceilings.
Indeed, these residences come with lavish fixings and finishes, a coveted amount of space, and cosseting amenities, including fitness facilities, an impressively large pool, and a landscaped roof deck with gas grills. The units average 1,300 square feet and boast nine-to-14.5-foot-high ceilings. At 772 to 900 square feet and $2,290 per month and up, the five studios are larger and more costly than most one-bedrooms; the largest apartment is a 3,800-square-foot duplex for $12,000 a month.
In truth, the 1927 building—a patrician, classically detailed number with gracious public spaces and top-drawer athletic facilities (Olympic gold medalist and movie star Johnny Weissmuller trained in the posh pool), designed by noted Chicago society architect Jarvis Hunt—narrowly escaped the wrecking ball and a subsequent plan to turn it into luxury condos for seniors. “Northwestern University bought it in the 1970s for student housing, then put it back on the block in 2007,” says Phillips, “but Fifield Realty won the request for proposals, and they were going to tear it down and build condos.” (At the time, his company was one of the losing bidders.)
Fortunately for Phillips, the historic building was coded orange and thus subject to the city’s Demolition Delay Ordinance, which gives citizens a period in which to comment on a developer’s plans. “When I read that there was a lot of local public support during that waiting period to save the building,” he says, “I contacted Northwestern and reminded them of my intention to do an adaptive reuse and turn it into luxury senior housing.”
The entrance of the restored Beaux Arts structure.
His tenacity paid off. In 2008, Northwestern accepted his bid. But two years later, with construction drawings in hand, Phillips found it impossible to secure financing for the project because the market had tanked. But he knew he had a “special and incredibly valuable asset,” he says, and was determined to “find a way to save it.” A proposal to turn the building into luxury rentals did the trick.
With a new plan, the architects had to add more units. “The condos were designed to be bigger and have more double-height spaces,” says Booth Hansen principal George Halik. “We had to subdivide them with new floor slabs to fit in more units. And to garner more lake views, we moved the double-loaded corridors on the upper floors to the back of the building.” That made the apartments extra-deep, “which led to 64 unique floor plans.” Yet while “the units are modern in concept,” Halik adds, “the building’s detailing is consistent with the historic exterior.”
With its posh apartments and classy trappings, “they’re aiming at pretty high-level renters, and getting them,” he notes. “People want exclusivity, and this fills that need.” Still, the remarkably high caliber of the project raises the obvious question: Will 850 go condo someday? No one will say, but it’s clear that a conversion would be one indication of a full market recovery. 850 Lake Shore Dr., 312-915-0850
photography by Marian Kraus