Roman Mars (RM): 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, premiere accommodations, top-notch restaurant.
Gwen Macsai (GM): It was swank! Roberta Flack stayed there.
RM: Barry Mannilow stayed there.
GM: Perry Como!
RM: Michael Jordon stayed there on his first night in Chicago.
GM: Every thirteen-year-old boy in the area had their bar mitzvah there.
RM: The hotel was built in the early1960s, 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.
RM: Then, slowly, over time, it became Lincolnwood’s most infamous building. Changed hands, got seedy and run down.
GM: 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.
RM: 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. Why?
GM: Because its purple.
RM: Really, really purple.
GM: 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.
RM: But Gwen Macsai, that’s who I’m talking to now, by the way, noted essayist and public radio host (she even created a sitcom once). She has a secret about the Purple Hotel.
GM: My father designed it.
John Macsai (JM): My name is John Macsai. I’m a retired architect and former profeccor at UIC. I designed a lot of….
GM: Just the building we’re talking about.
JM: Don’t interrupt!
GM: I don’t have time for the long bio dad…
JM: Ok, I designed a lot of buildings in Chicago….
GM: Were talking about the purple hotel. I need you to say I’m John Macsai and I designed the purple hotel.
JM: My name is JM, I’m a retired architect and I designed the purple hotel.
GM: 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.
RM: Which, needless to say, makes it stand out,
GM: Depending on how you look at it, like a prized jewel, or a sore thumb.
Lee Bey(LB): It’s one of the few buildings where once you see it once, you’ve seen it forever. You can’t get the image out of your mind.
GM: It is so purple that after it changed hands, the new ownders renamed it “The. Purple. Hotel.” WBEZ Architecture critic Lee Bey:
LB:I think its worth looking at it absent the brick. The brick I like. But I wish you could put on glasses that filter it out so you don’t see the brick, at least in one trip, and really see how the building holds its self 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 complext 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 (JK): I think the thing everyone notices first, including architects, would be the color. I mean, I think that if anyone is saying that it’s not the color, 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 everyday anymore.I think it’s a wonderful building.
GM: That was Jackie Koo, Founding principle 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
JM: 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 samples books, with some 35, 40 colored samples. And sure enough, he picked the purple! And you don’t argue with A.N. Pritzker.
GM: 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 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. (Or had painted. For an architect? Not very handy). My elementary school bus driver used to call me “blue door.” Upon interrogation, my father coughed up his strange Hungarian logic.
JM: In the near east, where ultimately I come from, the blue color on the door, blue and green, is to keep the evil spirit away. So that’s the reason I always painted the entrace door of our houses blue, keep the evil spirit away. And it did!
GM: Do you think it worked for the hotel? So you don’t think the purple kept the evil eye away from the hotel?
JM: Not really because there was a murder in the hotel.
GM: Actually, there were two. But I digress.
JM: 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 is on the exterior. That would be weird, right? Well that’s how the building is. The columns are pulled out, the slabs are 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.
GM: 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.
JM: Oh Absolutely.
GM: Because the public sees purple brick, but the architect is sitting here saying the purple is unimportant in the scheme of building. It means nothing. But to the public, that’s all it is.
JM: That’s right, because the public is ignorant. [Laughs] Truly ignorant.
GM: 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 is really, really purple.
RM: 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.
GM: But 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.
RM: A light, however dim, was starting to shine on the building and its future.
GM: 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.
JK: there was a lot of pomp and circumstance in the beginning. The auctioneer yelling and saying “ARE YOU READY!?!” in a booming voice. And really there was only one bidder.
GW: 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 (JW): 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, it’s something that you really want to see be an asset instead of a blight.
GM: Here comes the love part….
JW: 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.
GM: That’s the Jewish prayer for the dead.
JW:There was no synangoue anywhere in close proximity to where he lived at the time. And because we’re orthodox and don’t drive on the Sabbath, that was a little bit prohibitve to say the Kaddish. There’s a very convenient shul down the block.
GM: Also known as a synagogue.
JW: Congragation Yehuda Moshe. So on every single Shabbos for a year, we would move into the purple hotel to accomodate my father’s responsibility to say the Kaddish for his father. So we lived there for about a year, every single weekend. You know, me and my sister, the hotel was our playground.
GM: 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.
JK: One of the things that we’re looking into is a historic restoration of the building and it would be wonderful, especially since we have some of the original drawings from the sixties. And there are a lot of pieces that are still left in the building, such as this a monumental tarrazzo 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 hotel that would be very current in today’s hospitality environment.
JW: The culture today, especially in the hostpitality 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 broshures that get printed. For some reason, purple is popping, and I’m not quite sure why.
GM: And have any of your buildings had this kind of history, this kind of life cycle?
JM: No none of them
JW: The same way that a person might 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 hold 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.
GM: 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.
RM: 99% Invisibile was produced this week by Gwen Macsai, hose of ReSound, 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. This program is distributed by PRX, the Publc 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. This week, you’re going to want to go to 99percentinvisible.org and look at pictures of The Purple Hotel.
GM: Does the word Mad Men mean anything to you?
JM: Mad man?
GM: Mad men.
JM: Repeat it again
GM: Mad. Men
JM: Oh! Matt men
GM: MAD MEN.
JM: Mad! Like Crazy….
GM: Yes. But it’s the name of a television show.
JM: No, I haven’t watched it.