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Destination Deco: The Windy City

Interested in learning more about Chicago Art Deco?

Check out our recorded Video Event, Windy City Art Deco, to see Chicago's soaring Art Deco skyscrapers that epitomize the glamour, exuberance, and optimism of the era, as well as residences, churches, theaters, and small commercial buildings. Learn More

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Stepped tower at the northern end of 333 North Michigan Avenue recalling Eliel Saarinen’s second-prize-winning entry in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. 

Photo: Glenn Rogers

ADSNY members participated in a fabulous fall weekend in Chicago hosted by the Chicago Art Deco Society (CADS). The trip coincided with the recently opened Chicago Historical Society’s exhibition, Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America, which ran through December 2, 2019 and our curator-led tour gave us a wonderful overview as an introduction to our visit.


After a private lunch at the Historical Society, we took a guided walking tour of Art Deco gems in the Loop (Chicago’s downtown), including the Chicago Motor Club (Holabird & Root, 1928). This slender, elegant tower, one of the city’s earliest Art Deco buildings, originally housed the club’s headquarters and touring department.


The Motor Club is one of the smaller of Holabird & Root’s Art Deco buildings, just 48 feet wide and 15 stories (260 feet) tall. But its graceful proportions and exquisite Art Deco ornamentation more than compensate for its diminutive dimensions. Geometric motifs and stylized flowers, plants and birds accent the limestone-clad façade with its gently projecting bay that rises from just above the entrance to the parapet. Above the entrance sits a cast-iron relief of a frozen fountain, strikingly reminiscent of designs by Edgar Brandt and René Lalique at the 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes from which Art Deco takes its name. Inside, the beautifully restored three-story lobby sports geometric moldings, patterned terrazzo floor, and Art Deco chandeliers––plus a large-scale mural by John Warner Norton charting the country’s nineteen national highways as of in 1928, along with the principal cities and all the national parks.

Used for offices following the Club’s departure in the 1980s, subject of an unsuccessful condominium conversion in the early 2000s, the building stood vacant until reopening in 2015 as the Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown. Its multimillion dollar renovation included the installation of a 1928 Ford Model A on the mezzanine balcony as a reminder of its past. The Inn made the perfect setting for ADSNY’s home base during the weekend.

The Chicago Motor Club sits just across the street from another stunning design, the 37-story-tall former Chicago headquarters of the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation (Burnham Brothers, 1929). Most of Chicago’s Deco skyscrapers are conservatively clad in gray limestone, but this one rises from a three-story polished black granite base into a tower covered in dark green terra cotta with gold terra cotta accents and a gold-leaf-trimmed pinnacle. Legend has it that the façade took inspiration from a green glass champagne bottle with gold foil wrapping, but it has also drawn comparisons to a Union Carbide dry cell battery. The exquisite geometric bronze grille work at the entrance includes a double C referencing the company’s name. From 2004 to 2017, the building housed Chicago’s Hard Rock Hotel, but it recently reopened as the St. Jane, a hotel named for Chicago activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.

One block to the north, overlooking the Chicago River and the Michigan Avenue Bridge, stands another Holabird & Root tower, No. 333 North Michigan Avenue (1928). Its stepped-back design recalls Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s second-prize-winning entry in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. Its unbroken piers, vertical columns of windows, dark recessed terra-cotta spandrels, and lack of a cornice combine to accentuate the building’s soaring verticality.

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Art Deco grillework at the entrance to the Carbide and Carbon Building.

Photo: Glenn Rogers

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Bank of elevators off the lobby of One North LaSalle Street.

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Lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade.

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Stepped back façade of the Chicago Board of Trade. Photo: Glenn Rogers

 The design of No. 333 reflects a 1923 zoning ordinance regulating building height and mass, similar to the one enacted in New York in 1916. Chicago’s ordinance divided the city into five so-called volume districts, with the maximum allowable height increasing progressively from the first to the fifth district, in which a building could reach 264 feet. As in New York, the law encouraged setbacks from the lot line for taller towers like No. 333, which rises 426 feet. The scenes from Chicago’s early pioneer days depicted in Fred Torrey’s low relief sculptures at the top of the base might seem like an odd choice for such a modern structure but reflect the site’s earlier history as Fort Dearborn, an 1803 Chicago military outpost.

One of Chicago’s best-loved Art Deco buildings is the Chicago Board of Trade, another Holabird & Root design, at the foot of LaSalle Street in Chicago’s financial center. On completion in 1930, the 605-foot structure was the city’s tallest. The forty-four-story tower at the rear of the building is deeply recessed behind the nine-story base, and the two twenty-two-story wings on either side are set perpendicular to it, creating a profile frequently described as a high backed armchair with the base as the seat, the tower the back, and the wings the arms. Above the red granite base, a broad band of low relief sculpture shows corn and wheat surrounded by geometric patterns.

The tall narrow windows over the building’s entrance originally marked the location of the six-story trading room, later divided to accommodate an options exchange and now outdated by modern technology. The figures flanking the clock above the windows—a bearded farmer holding sheaves of wheat and a Native American with ears of corn—were designed by Alvin Meyer, the director of Holabird & Root’s sculpture department. On the tower’s pyramidal roof, John Storrs’ cast aluminum sculpture of Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain and the harvest, holds a sheaf of wheat in one hand and a grain sample bag in the other. A 1983 addition to the Board of Trade, topped with an abstract representation of a trading pit, puts a postmodern spin on the setbacks and roof of the original building.


The Board of Trade’s outstanding three-story lobby, restored in 2006 to its original Art Deco dazzle, includes waterfall motifs of black and buff marble on the walls, nickel silver storefronts in the arcade, and a large back lit panel extending the full length of the ceiling. References to wheat appear throughout the lobby—in the balustrades of the mezzanine, the grillework framing the entrance, and the elevator doors.


A short distance north on LaSalle Street from the Board of Trade we visited two more Art Deco towers with exquisite interiors. The Field Building (Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, 1934), now the Bank of America Building, was one of the few construction projects underway during the years of the Great Depression––25 years would pass before the erection of another major commercial building in the Loop.


The Field Building’s two identical five-story main entrances are framed in polished black granite with fluted white marble pilasters. The subdued but sophisticated interior includes white and beige marble walls in an arcade extending the full length of the building, and mirrored bridges with chevron-framed clocks that connect the lobby balconies. The combination mail drop and elevator indicator replicates the building’s profile.

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The façade of the LaSalle-Wacker Building.

The intricate geometric bronze work framing the entrance to One North LaSalle Street (Vitzhum & Burns, 1930) provides just a hint of the glorious lobby beyond the doors—walls sheathed in green-black marble, bronze grilles, and chevron and sunburst motifs on the plaster ceiling. Stylized eagles support frosted-glass lamps, and stylized female figures personifying Success and Reputation adorn the bronze elevator doors.

Since any visit to a jazz and blues destination should include an evening enjoying its famed music, our first day ended at Andy’s Jazz Club.

The following morning, we continued our journey of discovery with a rare Art Deco single-family residence, the Edward P. Russell House on Astor Street in Chicago’s Gold Coast, built in 1929 by Holabird & Root, better known for their Deco skyscrapers. A four-story limestone-clad townhouse, it has an asymmetrical but balanced façade with a three-story bay rising over the main entrance. Like many Gold Coast residences, it was subdivided into apartments in the 1950s. In the late 1990s, new owners undertook an extensive renovation that involved reconstruction of the bay window, removal of multiple layers of paint from the bay’s metal exterior to reveal intricate foliate ornamentation, and repair of the deteriorating façade using limestone from the same quarry in France that had supplied the original material. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks recognized their efforts with a 2010 Preservation Excellence Award.

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Playroom in Frank Lloyd Wright's home.

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Waiting area of Frank Lloyd Wright's studio.

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Façade of Robie House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, we visited a Streamline Moderne design, the Frank Fisher, Jr. Apartments (Andrew N. Rebori and Edgar Miller, 1937) on North State Parkway. This L-shaped four-story complex contains thirteen multilevel apartments, facing a landscaped courtyard, all with separate entrances. The curved common brick walls are painted white, and the extensive use of glass-block windows allows natural light to reach the interiors while maintaining privacy and reducing noise. Chicago artist Edgar Miller designed the cast-cement reliefs with animal motifs on the door jambs and the terra-cotta plaques on the façade and some of the apartment doors.

We saw yet another Deco residential building in the Kenwood neighborhood south of downtown Chicago: the 22-story Powhatan Apartments (Robert S. DeGolyer and Charles L. Morgan, 1928). The building’s name reflects its First Nation decorative theme, including black terra cotta relief figures at the base, other figures standing guard in the entranceway’s metal grillework, and abstract polychromatic terra cotta panels in the upper level spandrels.

The white terra-cotta-clad Ritz 55th Garage (M. Louis Kroman, 1929), aside from providing parking for 400 vehicles, included an automobile showroom and retail stores on the ground level. The façade ornament is full of automotive imagery—traffic signals, headlamps, and a streamlined roadster with a driver wearing goggles and a woman passenger at his side.

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Colorful spandrel mosaics on the façade of the Powhatan.

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Fireplace with colorful details in the inner lobby of the Powhatan.

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Indoor swimming pool at the Powhatan.

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The front door of the Powhatan.

In the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, our exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie legacy included a guided tour of Wright’s home and studio; a visit to Unity Temple, considered Wright’s finest public building from his Prairie era; and a look at other Wright homes nearby. Then we were off to Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side, to see Wright's Robie House, a masterpiece of the Prairie style and an icon of modern architecture––its hundred-year-old interiors seem startlingly contemporary today. We ended our day relaxing over a family style Italian dinner.

We began our last day with an architectural cruise along the Chicago River, offering us a from-the-water perspective of the Chicago skyline and up-close views of the city’s most iconic structures. Following the cruise, we visited Festival Hall at Navy Pier as V.I.P. guests of the organizers of SOFA––the Sculptural Objects, Functional Art and Design Show––taking place that weekend. One of the nation’s most important annual design shows, SOFA features the work of the world’s finest designers––from the mid-twentieth century to the present day––in furniture, ceramics, glass, textiles, and fine art. What a wonderfully appropriate way to conclude our stay in the Windy City!

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Group photo of those attending the ADSNY program on the mezzanine balcony overlooking the lobby of the Chicago Motor Club.

About the Author:

ADSNY expresses deep appreciation to Joseph Loundy, president of the Chicago Art Deco Society, and the CADS team for organizing this memorable trip. Many thanks to Kathleen Skolnik for providing the architectural history of buildings mentioned in this article. Kathleen served as the editor of the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine for eight years. Her Spring 2016 issue of the magazine highlights more than sixty of Chicago’s Art Deco attractions, and includes maps and 150 stunning photos by long-time CADS member Glenn Rogers.

All photos unless noted otherwise: Meghan Weatherby

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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