Purple Reign

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The hotel on the very prominent corner of Touhy and Kilbourn Avenues in Lincolnwood, Illinois used to be the town’s most famous building. The first Hyatt hotel in all of Chicagoland – premier accommodations, top-notch restaurant.

Gwen Macsai:
It was swank! Roberta Flack stayed there.

Roman Mars:
Barry Manilow stayed there.

Gwen Macsai:
Perry Como!

Roman Mars:
Michael Jordan stayed there on his first night in Chicago.

Gwen Macsai:
And every 13-year-old boy in the area had his Bar Mitzvah there.

Roman Mars:
The hotel was built in the 1960s and it looks it. So If you’re wondering how much, potentially anachronistic lounge music I’m going to cram into this episode? Oh, it’s going to be a lot.

[LOUNGE MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Then, slowly, over time, it became Lincolnwood’s most infamous building. It changed hands, got seedy, and run down.

Gwen Macsai:
It was the home of the Midwest Fetish Fair and Marketplace convention. There were drug-fueled sex parties attended by shady Chicago politicians later convicted of things like extortion. And of course, there was the convicted mobster Alan Dorfman, who was gunned down in the parking lot.

Roman Mars:
But that’s not why everyone in the area knows the building. If you know nothing of its history, it’s still pretty hard to miss.

Gwen Macsai:
Because it’s purple.

Roman Mars:
Really, really purple.

Gwen Macsai:
Growing up nearby, I always thought it was really, really ugly. Lots of people did. To be fair, lots of people didn’t. But everyone had an opinion about it.

Roman Mars:
But Gwen Macsai, that’s who I’m talking to now, by the way – noted essayist and public radio host, and she even created a sitcom once – she has a secret about the Purple Hotel.

Gwen Macsai:
My father designed it.

John Macsai:
“My name is John Macsai. I’m a retired architect and former professor at UIC. I designed a lot of….”

Gwen Macsai:
“Just the building we’re talking about.”

John Macsai:
“Don’t interrupt!”

Gwen Macsai:
“I don’t have time for the long bio dad…”

John Macsai:
“Ok, I designed a lot of apartment buildings in Chicago….”

Gwen Macsai:
“We’re here to talk about the Purple Hotel. I need you to say, ‘My name is John Macsai. I’m an architect and I designed the Purple Hotel.’”

John Macsai:
“My name is John Macsai. I’m an architect and I’m the designer of the Purple Hotel.”

Gwen Macsai:
Finally! Now, you have to understand that when I say the building is purple, I don’t mean the kind of purple of say an iris or a plum. It’s purple as in lavender. Lavender purple glazed brick all over pretty much the entire thing.

Roman Mars:
Which, needless to say, makes it stand out….

Gwen Macsai:
Depending on how you look at it, like a prized jewel or a sore thumb.

Lee Bey:
It’s one of the few buildings that if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it forever. You can’t get the image out of your mind.

Gwen Macsai:
It is so purple that after it changed hands, the new owners renamed it the “Purple Hotel.”
WBEZ architecture critic Lee Bey-

Lee Bey:
I think it’s worth looking at, absent the brick. The brick I like. But I wish you could put on glasses that could filter it out so you don’t see the brick, at least in one trip, and really see how the building holds itself together structurally. I think it’s really good the way that John was able to put those supports on the outside of the hotel, to give larger floor plates in the middle, which is what you want! You want big functional spaces inside of a hotel. And then again, the little nooks of green space and the way the complex fits together. There’s really a lot of good things going on there. I say come for the purple but stay for the architecture.

Jackie Koo:
The thing everyone notices first, including architects, would be the color. I think that if anyone is saying that it’s not the color, then they’re lying because you can’t really look at the building without noticing that it’s purple. So it’s the only purple building around, but then after that initial wave of color hits you, you notice really what a great modernist structure it has and how the structure is expressed on the outside, which is also not something you see every day anymore. I think it’s a wonderful building.

Gwen Macsai:
That was Jackie Koo, founding principal of the architectural firm “Koo and Associates.” We’ll get back to her in a minute. But first, the story of why and how the building got to be so… purple. My dad, John Macsai-

John Macsai:
It was commissioned by the Pritzkers, a very rich family in Chicago. And it was the first Hyatt hotel in the midwest. It was called “Hyatt House.” It had nothing to do with the purple. By the way, the purple came because one of the Pritzkers, A.N., the big man among the Pritzkers in the family, asked me what color glaze style I want to use, and I wanted to use gray. And he said, “That’s dull, I like something brighter.” So I made the mistake of showing him the sample books, with some 35, 40 colored samples. And sure enough, he picked the purple! And you don’t argue with A.N. Pritzker.

Gwen Macsai:
My father tells me this story but I suspect differently. He’s always gravitated towards bold color choices. Our current argument is over bright orange balconies on a building that we always pass. He loves them. And I hate them. When I was growing up, his favorite color was blue, a color that to me is suspiciously close to purple. In fact, every house we ever lived in – brick bungalow, summer house in the woods, suburban barn-shaped house with mustard-colored siding – all had bright blue front doors that my father painted. My elementary school bus driver used to call me “blue door.” Upon interrogation, my father coughed up his strange Hungarian logic.

John Macsai:
In the near east, where ultimately I come from, the blue color on the doors – blue and green – is to keep the evil spirit away. So that’s the reason I always painted the entrance door of our houses blue, to keep the evil spirit away. And it did!

Gwen Macsai:
“Do you think it worked for the hotel? So, you don’t think the purple kept the evil eye away from the hotel?”

John Macsai:
“Not really, because there was a murder in the hotel.”

Gwen Macsai:
Actually, there were two, but I digress.

John Macsai:
The beauty of the building is the exposed concrete frame, how the columns are pulled out of the structure… It’s like a human being whose skeleton would be on the exterior, partially. That would be weird, right? Well, that’s how the building is. The columns are pulled out, the slabs are slightly pulled out. It’s a building which reveals its structure and that is, architecturally, the interesting thing about it. The purple is totally irrelevant. It could be green, ok? It would be the same good or bad building.

Gwen Macsai:
“So as an architect, I have to ask you, this is a perfect example of the difference between what the public sees and what the architect sees?”

John Macsai:
“Oh, absolutely.”

Gwen Macsai:
“Because the public sees purple brick, but the architect is sitting here saying the purple is unimportant in the scheme of the building. It means nothing. It’s just such a tiny thing. But to the public, that’s all it is.”

John Macsai:
“That’s right because the public is ignorant. (chuckles) Truly ignorant.”

Gwen Macsai:
Well, you really can’t argue with him there. But in our defense, and I count myself as one of the public in this scenario, it’s really, really purple.

Roman Mars:
And despite how far the Purple Hotel fell from its original glory – the dilapidation, the murder, the drug-fueled sex parties, and a demolition order – it was not torn down.

Gwen Macsai:
Time passed. The economy fell to pieces. Mid-century architecture slowly came back into vogue. Mad Men was on TV. The purple brick was kind of retro-cool.

Roman Mars:
A light, however dim, was starting to shine on the building and its future.

Gwen Macsai:
Then the Purple Hotel was nominated for landmark status, a place on the historic registry. There was talk of finding a buyer, talk of renovation. And then, while I was researching and interviewing for this very story, the Purple Hotel went up for auction.

Jackie Koo:
There was a lot of pomp and circumstance in the beginning. The auctioneer yelling and saying “ARE YOU READY!?!” in a booming voice. And then, really there was only one bidder.

Gwen Macsai:
And that bidder was Jake Weiss of Weiss Properties in Skokie, which happens to be right next to Lincolnwood. He bought the Purple Hotel. And while Weiss is a shrewd businessman with a keen eye and good instincts, this particular purchase was also a labor of love.

Jake Weiss:
When you have something that’s really not realizing its value and its potential, that has such a prime piece of property, it bothers you. It’s part of your neighborhood, it’s part of your community, and it’s something that you really want to see be an asset instead of a blight.

Gwen Macsai:
Here comes the love part….

Jake Weiss:
Separately from that, and more importantly I think, we almost lived at the Purple Hotel for a period of time. When my grandfather had passed away and my father was saying the traditional Kaddish-

Gwen Macsai:
That’s the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Jake Weiss:
There was no synagogue anywhere in close proximity to where he lived at the time. And because we’re orthodox and we don’t drive on the Sabbath, that was a little bit prohibitive to say the Kaddish. There’s a very convenient shul right down the block-

Gwen Macsai:
Also known as a synagogue.

Jake Weiss:
Congregation Yehuda Moshe. So, on every single Shabbos for a year, we would move into the Purple Hotel to accommodate my father’s responsibility to say the Kaddish for his father. So we lived there for about a year, every single weekend. And, you know, for me and my sister, the hotel was our playground.

Gwen Macsai:
And the architect Weiss has chosen to redesign the Purple Hotel and bring it back to its original luster is Jackie Koo of Jackie Koo and Associates. Also a former student of my father, the original architect, John Macsai.

Jackie Koo:
One of the things that we’re looking into is more of a historic restoration of the building and it would be wonderful, especially since we have some of the original drawings from the sixties, 1961 when it was constructed. And there are a lot of pieces that are still left in the building, such as this wonderful monumental terrazzo stair with this wood wall behind it. You can really see it as a late 50s early 60s kind of Mad Men-era, Pan Am, sort of, hotel that would be very current in today’s hospitality environment.

Jake Weiss:
The culture today, especially in the hospitality market, for some reason, purple is a predominant color. Not necessarily in the color of the brick, but in all their marketing. You’ll look at the neon lights and color of the key fob cards, and the brochures that get printed. For some reason, purple is popping, and I’m not quite sure why.

Gwen Macsai:
Have any of your buildings had this kind of history, this kind of life cycle, that you know of?

John Macsai:
No, none of them.

Jake Weiss:
The same way that a person may go through life, and you might go through different cycles yourself. Everybody goes through different rebellious times and ups and downs. I think the same holds true for a property like this that really was a character itself. The building really was a product of the environment around it at any given time. To a certain extent, the fact that the building really did change with the decades and the environment around it, it really is the building’s character.

Gwen Macsai:
And while it’s true that this character, this building, this structure of nine lives sits empty at the moment, surrounded by bored traffic and an empty parking lot, it may just be crouching, gathering its muster, ready to spring back to life, arresting that traffic, filling that parking lot and strutting like a proud peacock. A purple one.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Gwen Macsai, host of “Re:sound” from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, with a little help from me, Roman Mars. It’s a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible is provided in part by the Facebook Design Team who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at facebook.com/design. Support is also provided by TinyLetter, email for people with something to say. My boy, Mazlo, always has something to say. What do you have to say, Mazlo?

Mazlo:
(inaudible)

Roman:
“What does that mean?”

Mazlo:
(whispers)

Roman Mars:
Tinyletter.com, the simplest way to write an email newsletter. From the people behind MailChimp. This program is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Making public radio more public, online at prx.org. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars but this week, you’re going to want to go to 99percentinvisible.org and look at pictures of the Purple Hotel and become one of the 5,000. Come on, don’t think, just go. Go to Kickstarter. Let’s make this happen. Right now I’m optimistic. I might feel differently next episode. Let’s do it. Come on. Thanks.

Gwen Macsai:
“Does the name ‘Mad Men’ mean anything to you?”

John Macsai:
“Mad man?”

Gwen Macsai:
“Mad Men.”

John Macsai:
“No.”

Gwen Macsai:
“Nothing? No association with that word?”

John Macsai:
“Repeat it again.”

Gwen Macsai:
“Mad. Men.”

John Macsai:
“Oh! Mat men.”

Gwen Macsai:
“MAD MEN.”

John Macsai:
“Mad! Like crazy?”

Gwen Macsai:
“Yes. But it’s also the name of a television show.”

John Macsai:
“No, I haven’t watched it.”

Credits

Music

“I’m OK” — Tone Traeger
“Walk on the Wild Side”— Si Zentner
“Gonzo”— James Booker
“Big Town”— Laurindo Almeida, The Danzeros
“Ricky Balboa (feat. Mau)”— Dubphonic
“Desafinado”— Antonio Carlos Jobim
“Theme from a Summer Place”— Percy Faith
“Caravan”— Gordon Jenkins
“Male Bonding (The Wrong Man)”— Original Soundtrack Four Rooms
“Stranger on the Shore”— Acker Bilk
“Antes De Medianoche (The Misbehavers)”— Original Soundtrack from Four Rooms
“Mad Men Suite”— David Carbonara
“Swingin’ Safari”— Bert Kaempfert & His Orchestra
“A Beautiful Mine”— Aceyalone and RJD2

  1. antonio

    What is the flute music playing at the end of the episode? I’ve been looking for this song over 5 years! Please help!

  2. the1andonlydjt

    I heard Gwen Macsai’s story about the Purple Hotel for the first time this afternoon. The Purple Hotel was shocking the first time I saw it. But it grew on me. There is something comforting to me about about the unusual. While listening to the story I was almost moved to tears. I was uncertain of its fate as I hadn’t been in Linclonwood in a few years. I was hoping that it had somehow survived. The comments at the end of the show confirmed that it had not. Great story about a once great hotel.

  3. Brilliant episode again. I love listening to this retired architect in his distinctive Hungarian accent. Have you noticed his name is not mentioned anywhere in the page or the summary?

  4. A C

    I stayed here a few months before it was finally condemned (and a week after the first condemnation hearings, how it made it through I’ll never know). It was a terrible place at that time, but I could still see how it had once been something else, and in a way it’s a shame it couldn’t be restored. (On the other hand, having stayed there at the time I did, I can fully understand why it couldn’t be, it was a wreck.)

    1. Teddi Litman

      It’s kinda sad to hear that they ended up demolishing The Purple Hotel after all. The new development looks kinda boring based on the artist rendering photos. I like the purple in the “glory days” photos.

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