When a 16-story Chicago building sold at auction in 2011, admirers of the fading art deco beauty feared it might languish on the still tepid real estate market or, worse, meet the wrecking ball. But three years later the Chicago Motor Club has refueled—Hilton Hotels Corporation is installing a 43-room Hampton Inn at 68 East Wacker Place to open early next year. “The Motor Club is very near and dear to my heart,” said Amy Keller, preservation director of the Chicago Art Deco Society. “We were thrilled when we saw what they wanted to do with it.”
Keller’s organization first proposed the building for landmark status with the city in 2010, and later gained the support of groups like Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois. Vacant since 2004, the historic building brought in enough preservation tax credits to rev developer MB Real Estate Service’s engines—already on the National Register of Historic Places, the building was eligible for 20 percent off rehab expenses. The county’s “Class L” property tax relief offered tax abatements over the next 12 years. Those tax breaks were cited prominently in investor documents from Aries Capital, who paid $9.7 million for the building in 2011.
Once dubbed Chicago’s “temple of transport,” the Chicago Motor Club building was designed by Holabird & Roche and built in 1927–8. Decorative metal spandrels and art deco detailing adorn the limestone facade. Inside, a massive mural by Chicago artists John W. Norton advertises popular driving routes across the country. That mural still stands 29 feet tall in the lobby, and will remain under Hampton Inn’s management. “My first time visiting, I was surprised with the grandeur of the lobby,” said Erin Heckert of GettysOne, which conducted the rehab. “It’s exciting as a designer to have more than a flat wall. It doesn’t cost any money to get that character—it’s already there.”
Documents submitted to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks estimate the total project costs at about $40 million, before tax credits. Work included exposing the original green terrazzo floor and redoing the lobby using colors pulled from the Norton mural. A mirrored laminate glaze on the lobby bar complements the vintage furniture and light fixtures. The aim was to make it a desirable hangout, said Heckert, and to restore some of the roaring 20s glamor. There are even plans to put a Model T in the mezzanine. Chicago-based Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture oversaw the restoration of the limestone facade and cast-iron pylons.
The Motor Club is just one of several art deco buildings in Chicago currently in transition. In addition to artists lofts in Wicker Park and Logan Square, early 20th century buildings are quickly becoming desirable real estate for hotel operators. The 1929 Northwest Tower in Wicker Park’s six corners area is pursuing a similar cocktail of financial incentives to bring a ground-floor restaurant and 67 rooms to the thriving nightlife district. Downtown, the Old Dearborn Bank building at 203 North Wabash Street is on its way to becoming a 250-room Virgin Hotel. “People are looking at these buildings and understanding that you don’t get the same level of ornamentation nowadays,” said Chicago Art Deco Society’s Amy Keller. “They just don’t make them like this anymore.”