Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Allerton Hotel

The Allerton Hotel, 701 N. Michigan Avenue  (JWB, 2008)

Stroll up Michigan Avenue one day when the sun is out and ask yourself a simple question:  Of all the buildings on the Magnificent Mile, which one seems least likely to be a “Chicago” building.  Which building seems to be the offering of an out-of-town intruder who plunked it down in the midst of the grand boulevard that winds its way from the river to Oak Street?

You might first guess the 1970 John Hancock building, the X-braced black steel-and-glass giant that sits opposite the Fourth Presbyterian Church, proclaiming that God really is in the details.

But, of course, you immediately think of Willis Tower in the West Loop, 330 North Wabash on the river and the Federal Center between Jackson and Adams, and you know that Big John holds its own with any of those great Mid-Century Modern Chicago towers.

There’s really only one possibility left, right?  Up and down a street on which virtually every building takes its cue from the yellowing Joliet limestone of the Chicago Water Tower and is clad in stone, the Allerton Hotel is the only structure on the Magnificent Mile that is clad in brick as it rises to its 25-story height.  Then . . . tack on the “Tip Top Tap” sign hanging way up there, just above that tip top balcony, and you’ve got something that you don’t see much of around Chicago.

The Tip-Top-Tap is gone but the sign still remains as part of this
Chicago landmark (JWB, 2011)
And that’s as it should be; the firm that designed the Allerton was the New York outfit of Murgatroyd and Ogden.  This was the first hotel outside of New York City for the Allerton Company; it was to be part of a series of “club hotels,” built to provide accommodations along with privileges such as lounges, reading rooms, dining rooms, a gymnasium, and a squash court. 

It’s easy to look at the Allerton today as being out of place, but when it was finished in 1922, there was only one other high-rise hotel on the street—The Drake, finished in 1920, on Lake Shore East at the end of Michigan Avenue.  Both the Allerton and The Drake  had three-story limestone bases that filled their sites.  At the time they would have simply been two competing hotels in very different styles for very different clienteles.

The three-story base clearly shows the northern Italian medieval style
that was chosen for the building (JWB, 2008)
Architect Arthur Loomis Harmon, the designer of the original Allerton hotels in the shopping districts of New York City, used the Medieval architecture of Northern Italy as his model.  In the early 1920’s the Allerton Company replaced Harmon with Murgatroyd and Ogden.  Architect and engineer Everett Murgatroyd remained faithful to Harmon’s original style.

Weekly rates ranged from ten to twenty dollars when the building opened in 1924, and the hotel became popular with young men and women just out of college.  Eventually 102 colleges and universities and 21 fraternities and sororities made the Allerton a residential headquarters with ten floors for men and seven for women with another four given over to married couples. 

Planned as a 20-story hotel, the Allerton was built to 25 stories which contained 1010 rooms.  The three-story limestone base was set aside for shops; Brooks Brothers and Nine West currently occupy the retail space.  The shaft of the building is H-shaped, designed to increase window area, an important consideration in the days before air conditioning.  At floor 20 the corner wings become eight-sided, forming imposing towers.

More Italian influence (JWB, 2011)
John W. Stamper said of the building’s design, “The building’s three-story base has an arcade motif consisting of broad pilasters and lancet arches with window motifs and corbelled sills and arches.  At the main entrance, which as with the Drake Hotel faces south rather than onto Michigan Avenue, the arcade motif is open to form a grand loggia.  The buildings’ upper-wall surfaces, clad in red brick, are articulated by pilasters and further punctuated by a pattern of projecting headers giving the building a rustic quality.  Other features of the Northern Italian style are seen in corbeled cornices, striping, and, at the top, overhanging balconies supported by arched brackets.” [Stamper, John W.  Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development 1900-1930.  University of Chicago Press:  1991.  P. 128]

And there’s the rub . . . the style, although certainly reflective of the Allerton Company’s brand at the time, worked in the beginning on a building halfway between the classically designed towers at the Michigan Avenue bridge and the streamlined art deco surfaces of The Drake. But now The Allerton stands apart from the sleek facades of the art deco, mid-century modern, and post-modern buildings that line the great boulevard.

The brickwork, which causes the Allerton to apart, on
Michigan Avenue is quite exceptional (JWB, 2008
I, for one, love the difference.

Take any great hotel in the city, and you can find stories of exhilaration and woe reflective of the thousands and thousands of human beings who come to stay.  The Allerton has had its share.

One of the most thrilling stories occurred on June 19, 1936 when firefighters rolled up to the hotel as smoke rolled out of its 19th floor windows.  Beneath one of the windows, crouching on a ledge was 18-year-old Madeline Britain of Salem, Illinois.

When the firefighters reached the 19th floor, they found it filled with smoke.  The door to the girl’s room was locked, so Lieutenant Thomas Burns ordered the men of Engine Company 98 to use their axes to break down the door.  The girl had locked the door, opened the window in her room and climbed out onto the ledge. 

And she wouldn’t leave it.

Burns tried to get Ms. Britain to give him her hand, but she was too panicked to respond.  “Get me a bath towel,” Burns ordered.  With the towel in hand, Burns leaned out of the window, looped the towel under the girl’s and “yanked her to her feet.”  She was quickly lifted into the room.

The fire, it turns out, began in the hotel’s incinerator and was quickly extinguished.


Tony said...

Beautiful hotel! Great location!

Anonymous said...

I am a distant cousin of Ms. Britain and have information pertaining to this article you may find of interest.

Please contact me at JCO-Nineteen Sixty One (use numbers and type all together, no dashes) at


Jim O.
Tampa Bay, FL