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Often, when visiting Chicago, I lament how profoundly the city’s downtown has changed since I first began visiting it regularly 40 years ago. Yet, on pretty much every visit, I encounter at least one amazing old building (usually many more).
Often that building has been converted into a modern hotel. Like the Kimpton Gray, 122 E. Monroe St., which occupies an 1894 building designed by no less than William Le Baron Jenney, who is widely regarded as “the father of skyscraper.”
The 14-story building on the northeast corner of Monroe and LaSalle, was built – as a classical-inspired 12-story home for New York Life Insurance Company – at a cost of $800,000, which was big money at the time.
Hard as it may be to believe now if you see the building – designed while Jenney was in partnership with William Bryce Mundie, and which was declared a Chicago Landmark in 2002 – there was a time earlier in this century when it seemed unlikely to survive.
In fact, just four years after achieving landmark status, Preservation Chicago called the building one of the most threatened in the city, due to a plan to tear it down to make room a tower.
Fortunately, a few years later, Kimpton arrived on the scene and saved what Living Landmarks of Chicago noted, “was one of the last remaining examples of William Le Baron Jenney’s steel frame construction, and the closest link to the first skyscraper in the world.”
Born in Massachusetts in 1832, Jenney studied in Paris – graduating from the Ecole Central a year after his classmate Gustave Eiffel – before returning to serve in the Civil War, during which time he designed fortifications.
Moving to Chicago after the war, Jenney – who would briefly employ a young Louis Sullivan (who, in turn, would later hire a young Frank Lloyd Wright) – designed the Home Insurance Building in 1885.
Because the 10-story Home Insurance Building was entirely metal-framed, it is considered to be the first skyscraper. Razed in 1931, it was located a block south of where Jenney’s New York Life Building would go up.
Of note to Milwaukeeans, Jenney also designed red terra cotta-clad Cream City’s Railway Exchange Building, which still stands on the corner of Broadway and Wisconsin Avenue.
The New York Life Building’s landmark designation report explains the structure’s significance:
“The New York Life Building is an important early example of a fireproof, steel-framed commercial building and reflects the city’s internationally recognized role in the development of
the skyscraper. Also known as ‘Chicago construction,’ skeleton-frame construction allows the weight of a building to rest on an interior ‘skeleton’ or framework of iron or steel, rather than load-bearing exterior walls. This great technological advance revolutionized building construction throughout the world, setting the stage for today’s metal-and-glass curtain-wall skyscrapers.”
This new construction method was not only strong and allowed for flexibility in the facade, it also sped up the building process, the report noted.
“Skeleton-frame technology allowed the New York Life Building’s structure to be completed in about 10 weeks, an extremely rapid pace by late 19th-century standards (and even today). At the time of construction, the New York Life Building was claimed to be the first in which the outer walls were clad not from the ground up, but begun at several floors. (As the exterior walls were no longer load-bearing, they could be affixed to the steel frame in any order.)”
The report also explained how the New York Life Building was important in other ways, too.
“The 14-story New York Life Building is noted for its forceful expression of structure and function, its carefully integrated Classical-style detailing, and its innovative building materials. As one of Chicago’s earliest surviving terra-cotta-clad structures, the New York Life Building also marks an important step in Chicago’s leadership in the architectural terra cotta industry. Lightweight, easily molded and inexpensive, terra cotta quickly became a popular facing material for some of the city’s most prominent buildings in the 1890s and early 1900s.”
You’ll notice there’s a difference in descriptions of the building – 12-story vs. 14-story. That’s because the initial building, on the corner, put up in 1894, had 12 stories. Four years later, Jenney designed a 13-story addition to the east and added a 13th floor to the original section, too.
In 1903, an unknown architect was tapped to add a 14th floor to the entire structure.
The building was faced with brick and details in terra cotta, and originally had a cornice and parapet, but those fell victim to the upward expansion.
In 2014, after 120 years as an office building, KHP Capital Partners bought the the New York Life Building with plans to open a 293-room Kimpton Hotel, and that’s exactly what it did.
After a two-year, $106 million restoration and conversion, The Kimpton Gray Hotel opened in 2016.
While many such makeovers maintain the original lobby look but revamp corridors completely, the Kimpton Gray has maintained the marble wainscoting in the corridors on the guest room floors, preserving the same feel – with some upgrades to carpets, etc., of course – that office tenants would’ve enjoyed across the decades.
The marble and mosaic work in the building was executed by Davidson & Sons, which was founded in Milwaukee by Scottish immigrant John Davidson and his sons, Alexander and John Andrew, and relocated to Chicago by 1878.
But the Davidsons maintained ties to Milwaukee, where the sons built the 1890 Davidson Theater and Hotel, which burned the same year the New York Life building opened, claiming nine lives.
There are coffered ceilings in the building, decorative plaster details, tile mosaics, brass elevator doors and grates, and Georgia gray marble everywhere.
There are also some Art Deco details, like like fixtures and handrails that survive in remnants of a staircase that is now blocked off. These are believed to be from the 1920s.
What is now the hotel’s main lobby, on Monroe Street, was the secondary lobby, in the 1898 addition. The building originally had a LaSalle Street address and the lobby on that side is simply incredible with its enveloping marble staircase, soaring ceiling height and stunning details.
The carved newel posts on the stairways are some of the most intricate and beautiful I've ever seen.
“We work with local partners to restore our buildings and bring them back to life so that what you see on the outside translates into an entire new world on the inside, essentially, creating different pockets of experience in the buildings,” then-General Manager Nabil Moubayed told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“To take a building from 1894, built by the father of this type of architecture and be able to bring it back to life, we’re honored to be the company that could do that.”
Of course, there are the amenities you expect at a great hotel, including a fitness center, and the offices are now guest rooms and public areas like the lovely “living room” area and Vol. 39 bar, whose spaces were previously home to an architectural firm, which was the last tenant to leave the building so that conversion could begin.
The bar’s name, incidentally, comes from the row upon row of legal books that line the shelves, as well as the original address, 39 S. LaSalle St. Those books were abandoned in the building by a law firm when it moved out.
The top floors have meeting and ballrooms – the roof was elevated a bit to accommodate these spaces and you can see the expansion inside the ballroom – and the Boleo, South American-inspired restaurant, which has a skylight roof that opens creating an incredible open-air, rooftop vibe, when weather permits.
Up there are a few exposed supports that give a little insight into how the building was constructed, which is an interesting feature.
A lovely staircase connecting the top two floors was added as part of the renovation.
The guest rooms are modern and well-appointed and some have incredible soaking tubs. All have giant globe lights are that are unique and beautiful.
Whenever I stay in an adaptive reuse hotel like the Kimpton Gray, I can't help but wonder who occupied the space over the years when it was an office and what transpired there.
The “living room” has comfortable seating, free coffee, tea and hot chocolate in the mornings and a free wine happy hour in the afternoon.
When I visited, my guest and I whiled away a few hours playing chess alongside the expansive windows, enjoying the space and view out over other lovely old Chicago buildings. There are also board games here.
“It's certainly a big part of the design element and the guest experience within, no matter the size of the Kimpton,” says Kimpton Gray Director of Sales & Marketing Joel Contor.
“This living room, as you are enjoying it, is available 24 hours a day for guests to enjoy. It’s really just a place for everyone just to kind of meet, relax and use.”
Contor says the lobby and the bar and rooftop restaurant have all become destinations for the neighborhood.
“You can feel you're in the heart of the financial district,” he says. “There is a great little happy hour and especially as we get into this season, it's kind of little cozy. Everyone's coming out from the financial district and this area, the deals are going down. It's got a really wonderful charm about it.”
But the real star of the show in the building is that Georgia gray marble that is quite literally everywhere and is really, really beautiful.
“It is a really, really lovely touch,” Contor agrees. “And that beautiful marble carries on throughout the elevator landings. That Georgia gray is where our name comes from. It's got a little sense of opulence to it.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.