Friday, September 23, 2011

The Commodore Apartments (550-568 West Surf)


The Fair Store at State and Adams

German immigrant Ernst Johann Lehmann began his career in Chicago by opening a small jewelry store on Clark Street.  By 1875 he had been so successful that he had moved his business, right along with the big boys, to the prestigious corner of State and Adams.  He called the new store “The Fair,” a name that assured customers that they would be treated fairly.

By 1882 The Fair occupied every building along the north side of Adams between State and Dearborn Streets where The Citadel Center stands today.  But such amazing success did not come without some difficulty, and Lehmann’s story does not end happily.

The year of 1890 was not a good one for the great merchant.  On April 7 at 2:00 in the afternoon Lehmann was driving a “pair of spirited horses attached to a phaeton,” according to The Chicago Tribune of that date.  South of Grand Crossing on the south side, he got stuck in the mud.  As he urged the team to pull the carriage out of the mire, one of the horses flipped out, broke loose and headed off into the marsh. Mr. Lehmann was dragged from the carriage but was able to chase after the horse.  Neither the merchant nor the horse reappeared in a reasonable time, and there was some concern for his safety.

A little over a month later it was announced that the entire south half of the block bounded by Dearborn, State, Monroe and Adams streets had been leased to The Fair in a deal amounting to a little over three million dollars.  On the site a great emporium would be constructed, twelve stories high, costing two million bucks.  The building would be the largest in the city and, in fact, the largest in the world devoted to merchandising.

Commodore Apartments Oculus
(JWB, 2011)
By May 23 a Probate Court jury agreed to the following writ, “We, the undersigned jurors in the case of Ernst J. Lehmann, alleged to be distracted, having heard of the evidence in the case, find from such evidence that Ernst J. Lehmann is distracted and is incapable of managing and controlling his estate; that he is a resident of Cook County, and is aged about 41 years, and has been in such condition for the period of about three months prior to this date.” [Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1890]

The three witnesses at the hearing agreed that Mr. Lehmann’s “special mania” seemed to involve spending money.  “While walking along the street he would stop and purchase a horse which happened to catch his eye, or drop into a jeweler’s and buy valuable diamonds, and he would carry the jewels around loose in his trousers pockets.”

Mrs. Augusta Lehmann was appointed as the conservator of her husband’s estate, and he was carted off to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in White Plains, New York.  Ernst Lehmann died of heart failure ten years later at the asylum.

The Commodore Apartments (formerly The Lessing)
at Surf and Broadway (JWB, 2011)
With an estate of ten million dollars at their disposal, the Lehmann clan had become interested in real estate even before poor old Ernst passed on to his greater reward. It was in 1897 that the uber-swank Lessing Apartment building was finished on Surf and Evanston Street, now Broadway.  Seven years later the Lessing Annex was finished just to the south.  The Lessing is now the Commodore; the Lessing Annex is called the Green Briar today.

The Lessing was marketed to an upscale clientele and had 86 apartments, some of them with as many as eight rooms. Architect Edmund R. Krause broke the huge six story complex into a series of projecting units with deep, but narrow, courts between them to provide light and ventilation.  The Roman brick fa├žade is organized into the classic three part design of the Chicago School and is minimally decorated although there is a nifty oculus centered at the top of each projecting bay.

Light Court at The Commodore (JWB, 2011)
When The Lessing was completed, it boasted 86 apartments, some of which had eight rooms.  The apartment building was marketed to an exclusive clientele, folks who had moved to the north side of the city, having discovered the peaceful quality of life in Lakeview, along with its proximity to the city and to the lake.

Even an upscale apartment building is not without its troubles, and trouble came five years after the building was finished when on January 26, 1902 a fire started in the basement and moved quickly from there to the second floor by means of an air shaft.  Smoke filled the building as residents fled in their nightclothes, finding safety in the frigid darkness of the street.

The quiet of the apartment building was disturbed once again in 1915 when a lurid tale of deceit and betrayal led to a murder that reads like an Erle Stanley Gardner story.  The story of the Commodore, the physician, and the cabaret singer in the next blog.

1 comment:

Henry said...

Love the architectural design! It's something that the residential owners should be proud of!