Chicago Architecture Info

919 North Michigan Avenue

Photographs

Facts

Formerly
  • The Palmolive Building
  • The Playboy Building
  • The Palmolive Building
  • The Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Building
Addresses
  • Business: 919 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611
  • Residential: 159 East Walton Street, Chicago, Illinois 60611
Neighborhood The Gold Coast
Built 1927 - 1929
Architecture firm Holabird & Root
Type
  • Office
  • Residential
  • Retail
  • Skyscraper
Floors 37
Maximum height 551 feet
Size 458,000 square feet
Size 458,000 square feet

Notes

  • The tall mast on top supports what was once called the Lindbergh Beacon. It was donated to the city of Chicago by Elmer Sperry, the man who invented the gyroscope. It was turned off when nearby residential skyscrapers grew taller than the beacon.
  • The original beacon at the top of this building cost $100,000. The original beacon at the top of this building was 12 feet tall.
  • There were originally two aircraft beacons at the top of this building. One rotated to guide aircraft to Chicago. The other was stationery and pointed the way to Chicago Municipal Airport (now Midway Airport).
  • The original beacon at the top of this building rotated once every 30 seconds. On a clear night, it could be seen for 200 miles.
  • The original beacons atop this building were said to be the brightest in the world at 2,000,000,000 candlepower. The current beacon is 18,000 watts.
  • The beacon at the top of this building is not original equipment. It is World War II surplus and is rated at 14,000 candlepower.
  • The beacon at the top of this building is 12 feet tall, and stands on a 134-foot-tall tower.
  • The beacon at the top of this building was originally called the Lindbergh Beacon, but aviator Charles Lindbergh wasnʼt impressed. The beacon was later renamed the Palmolive Beacon. In the 1960ʼs it was commonly called the Bunny Beacon. When Playboy moved out of this building it once again became known as the Lindbergh Beacon.
  • From the 1960ʼs through the 1980ʼs, this building had nine-foot-tall illuminated letters at its top reading PLAYBOY.
  • The 2004 residential conversion developer was Draper & Kramer.
  • This was the location of the first Playboy Club.
  • The 2004-2005 renovation was designed by Booth Hansen Associates.

Timeline

1929 This building opened.
August, 1930 The Lindbergh Beacon was installed at the top of this building. It was 600 feet above North Michigan Avenue, and illuminated for the first time by remote control by President Herbert Hoover from the White House.
March, 1942 The beacon at the top of this building was extinguished to prevent enemy aircraft from using it to home in on Chicago.
1944 The beacon was turned on again.
1965 This building was bought by Playboy Enterprises as its world headquarters.
1966 Playboy Enterprises moved into this building, changing the building name to The Playboy Building.
1968 Metal shields were erected to keep the beacon from lighting up apartments in the neighboring John Hancock Center at night.
1981 The Lindbergh Beacon was turned off.
1988 The original Lindbergh Beacon was removed, by helicopter, from this building. It was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
1989 Playboy Enterprises moved out of this building, and the building's name changed to 919 North Michigan Avenue.
1989 This building was bought by Lehndorff USA Group.
1990 The beacon was replaced by a globe with a soft glow.
1999 This building was named a City of Chicago landmark.
2000 This building was bought by L&B Realty Advisors.
2001 This building was bought by Draper & Kramer for $57,000,000. It restored the buildingʼs name to The Palmolive Building.
August 29, 2001 A new 2,800 pound, $88,000, 7,000,000,000 candlepower beacon at the top of this building was activated at 1am in an hour-long test. Its owners promised the light would only shine out onto Lake Michigan and not disturb anyone. Neighbors called 911 and their alderman when the light shined in their windows. 911 ignored the complaint. The alderman let the phone calls go to his answering machine. Further testing was canceled due to the complaints.
2002 A new, 14,000 candlepower beacon was installed at the top of this building, designed to only send light in a 120-degree arc across Lake Michigan. Light meters were placed on surrounding buildings during an initial test to make sure it wouldnʼt shine in peopleʼs windows at night. People complained, and the illumination did not continue.
2002 This office building was converted to 103 residences.
2005 The retail space in this building was sold for $57,000,000.
2006 Actor Vince Vaughn bought a 7,880 square foot penthouse encompassing the 36th and 37th floors for $12,000,000.
July 4, 2007 The beacon atop this building was illuminated for a few hours, turning in an arc between Belmont Harbor and Monroe Harbor. It was a test to see if it could be lit on special occasions.

Narrative

One of Chicagoʼs most magnificent examples of art deco architecture, 919 North Michigan Avenue has changed with the times and adapted as the city modernized around it. But the building remains as classic Chicago as arguments over pizza and hot dogs.

This building presents its narrow sides to the winds of Lake Michigan, while broadly looking over the heart of Chicago. Its setbacks have setbacks and the whole thing looks vaguely reminiscent of those shiny, stylized steam locomotives that only seem to exist in the French poster art of a certain age.

The building began life as the headquarters of the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet company. Its placement was an important visual cap to mark the end of Michigan Avenue at a time when the boulevard was a fairly uniform collection of posh shops and apartment houses.

Like so many companies that got their start in Chicago, Palmolive would move East. It left for New York in 1934 but the building kept the Palmolive name until a publishing company called Playboy Enterprises moved in in 1966 and give its name to the skyscraper. As the publishing industry collapsed at the turn of the 21st century, Playboy moved to smaller offices in the neighborhood and this building once again became known as the Palmolive Building.

As the decades passed, the city grew up around 919. Today, the art deco tower provides an important visual and stylistic link in a progression from the historic Drake Hotel to the still futuristic John Hancock Center. Though it once stood proudly as a sentinel over North Michigan Avenue, today 919 North Michigan Avenue is lost in the cityʼs skyscraper forest.

As its neighbors grew taller, they also grew more demanding. 919ʼs historic aircraft beacon was snuffed out when the residents of neighboring high rises complained about the light.

In the 1980ʼs, the Chicago architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill renovated the lowest floors into better retail space. From a shopping standpoint, it was a success and works well with the rest of Michigan Avenue. But on a pedestrian scale, the result is divorced enough from the tower above that one can walk right past 919 and not realize itʼs there.

In 2004, the process began to turn this office building into residences. The conversion by architect Laurence Booth was successful, with little visual impact on the building. In fact, the building is somewhat more interesting today as the people who live in it have installed art, plants, and even putting greens on the art deco setbacks theyʼve turned into open-air patios. Conversions of vintage buildings into residences are rare for such tall skyscrapers. But the units generated are often sought after as pieces of art, themselves.

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