David Lowe’s Art Deco Chicago






Editor’s note: Through a fictional visit in the 1930s by a New York couple to Chicago, noted Chicago art and architecture historian David Garrard Lowe leads us on a magical tour of Art Deco Chicago. 




Jane Bridge grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. She now lives in Darien, Connecticut, where she is a leading interior decorator. Her husband, Bill, is a rising banker in one of New York’s leading financial firms. Both are 40 years old and have long wanted to visit Chicago together. The opportunity for such a visit arises when each one must travel to the West Coast on business. Of course, all trains stop in Chicago. The visit takes place in the 1930s. While the story and characters are fictional, and some liberties have been taken with chronology, the places they visit are real.

In those happy days, one traveled between Chicago and New York on the super luxurious Twentieth Century Limited. The trip took about 16 hours from Grand Central Terminal to the LaSalle Street Station. The Bridges have reserved a room at the Stevens Hotel (now the Hilton), boasting 3,000 rooms. Their first evening there, they dine in the sensational Boulevard Room designed by Joseph Urban.


Twentieth Century Limited.


The Stevens Hotel dining room.

The following morning, William kisses Jane goodbye to hurry to a meeting at the new Board of Trade Building. He is very interested in having his firm, JP Morgan, build new, contemporary offices. Bridge had also looked forward to seeing the new Daily News Building by Holabird & Roche, where he has an appointment for placing an advertising campaign. His next appointment takes him to the Laramie Savings Bank by Meyer & Cook with sensational exterior decoration by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. Though not in the center of the city, this particular building made quite an impact on the American business community because of its striking moderne design.


Board of Trade Building.


Ceiling detail of the Daily News Building.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bridge, who has longed for a new fur coat, decides to take advantage of the summer sales. She sets out for State Street, with the greatest array of department stores in the world. She is immediately drawn to a window, which features mannequins in exquisite furs and, as a backdrop, a striking Art Deco Christmas tree designed by John Wellborn Root. “I must have one of these trees for the apartment I am finishing in the Waldorf Towers,” she says to herself.


A decidedly Deco display for Christmas.

Walking north on Michigan Avenue, she comes to the Chicago River. On its north side are two skyscrapers, which form a spectacular gateway to the luxurious North Michigan Avenue: the Renaissance-inspired Wrigley Building on the left and on the right, the Tribune Building, a Gothic fantasy by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells. Just beyond this gateway, Mrs. Bridge becomes almost giddy with the prospect of seeing the Michigan Square Building. Its interior is an Art Deco masterpiece by John Wellborn Root. Illustrations of the stunning interior have appeared in every design magazine in America. Mrs. Bridge enters and is, it is not too much to say, awestruck. There before her is the breathtaking Diana Court. Its sense of being a great space on a docked ocean liner strikes her at once. Its gold leaf ceiling, its soaring marble piers, and its bold terrazzo floor form a brilliant composition. All is centered on the golden statue of Diana by Carl Milles.

Feeling a tad peckish, she is delighted to spot the Socatch Bakery, with its harlequin façade, and she treats herself to a lemon tart. She has been wanting to buy a new book, since she had finished the one she brought with her on the trip, and is pleased that the Walden Book Shop is right next door. “New York needs a book shop designed like this on Madison Avenue,” she muses.


Socatch Bakery, at left, and Walden Book Shop.


Woman’s Athletic Club.

Mrs. Bridge feels a desperate need to get off her feet, and is happy that her next stop is the Woman’s Athletic Club. She loves this Art Deco masterpiece by Philip B. Maher. Here she’s greeted by her old friend Tootie Edwards, who announces, “Let’s go up to the Roof Deck and take some time out for a chat.” Mrs. Bridge has always adored Tootie, who is fashion editor of The Tribune, and knows everything and everybody in Chicago. “I think this is the best club for women in the world,” Mrs. Bridge says. “I love the fact that the design is so à la page.” “Let’s have lunch,” suggests Tootie, and Mrs. Bridge is more than willing to be led to the Club’s chic dining room.


The roof deck.

After a delicious lunch of salmon and Chablis, Mrs. Bridge bids her friend goodbye and heads to a nearby beauty salon recommended by Tootie to have her hair done. “I desperately need a wash and set,” she tells the pleasant receptionist. “I’ve been traveling, and I must look a fright!”

“Oh, dear, you’re anything but a fright, but I will give you to one of our finest hairdressers.” Mrs. Bridge is relieved because she has a rather glamorous evening ahead of her.

Freshly coiffed, she sets out to meet her husband. Her route takes her past Saks, where she spies the most darling chapeau in the window. “I must have that!” It’s a Lily Daché with a daunting price tag, but she feels that this new hat would be perfect because there is a society photographer waiting for her at the La Salle Hotel. She knows she‘s done the right thing when Mr. Bridge exclaims, “Darling, you look sensational.”

“I can’t wait to see The Hangar,” she says. They step into an elevator and are whisked to the hotel’s roof. The scene that meets them is astonishing. The brilliant team of Holabird & Roche has recreated an airplane hangar atop the hotel! It had been designed to celebrate the end of prohibition. “What a good looking crowd,” Mrs. Bridge exclaims. “It’s as smart as any in New York, London, or Paris.”


The Hangar.

“Everybody seems to be here,” she remarks to her husband. “There’s Helen Swift and there’s Marjorie Goodman.” The Maître d’ shows them to their table, and they enjoy perfect martinis before dinner.

The Bridges’ only son Carleton is in his final year at Northwestern. His letters and phone calls home have been filled with pleas for an automobile. The next morning Carleton meets his parents at their hotel, and they head to a Studebaker showroom. They chose that because Studebaker is based in Indiana, and the Studebaker family has long been prominent in Chicago. Once there, Carleton falls in love with the new Skyway model. It appears to be sturdy and is within their agreed-upon price range. “You will be careful,” Mrs. Bridge pleads with her son the whole time the paperwork is being completed. “The car is handsome, indeed,” says Mr. Bridge.


The Studebaker Skyway.

Since Carleton is scheduled to begin teaching at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, they decide to go with him to see the new school. When they come upon the handsome streamlined design of the building, which had been featured in half the architecture magazines in America, Mrs. Bridge is impressed.

Before coming to Chicago, Mrs. Bridge had written to her old friend Mrs. Lester Armour asking for permission to view Mrs. Armour’s new house, which was designed by the prominent architect David Adler. While the exterior is very much in Adler’s version of Georgian, the interior holds a surprise that Mrs. Bridge has longed to see. Photos had been published in both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. It is the powder room, a masterpiece of a mirrored Art Deco chamber. “I’m doing an apartment on Park Avenue, and this is the sort of thing I will create.”


The powder room.

The Bridges are very much looking forward to an evening at the recently completed Civic Opera House. With its coral and red color scheme and its moderne sculptures, the opera house lives up to every expectation. The evening concludes with a dazzling party given in the Bridges’ honor by Harold McCormick at the Camellia House in the Drake Hotel. The décor by Dorothy Draper forms an elegant and sophisticated setting for a superb soirée. Everyone is there: Palmers, Fields, Cranes, and Brosses. “What a glorious finale to another perfect Chicago day,” Mrs. Bridge remarks to her husband as they speed back to the Stevens in a taxi.


The Camellia House.

The next morning, they realize they have only one day left to cover the itinerary they had so carefully drawn up before leaving Darien. Mrs. Bridge had long been an admirer of the work of the Chicagoan Andrew Rebori, so their final day begins with a visit to Rebori’s unabashedly moderne Fisher Studio Houses complex on North State Street, with its subtly curved exterior wall, its subtle use of glass brick, and its open passage. Mrs. Bridge turns to her husband and says, “This could be a model for one of those branch banks you would like Morgan to build.”


Fisher Studio Houses.


Madonna della Strada Chapel.

Another Rebori masterpiece they just have to see is the Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University. “How wonderful that the students worship in a contemporary structure rather than in a musty copy of a European cathedral,” Mrs. Bridge exclaims.

Since she is currently engaged to design the interiors for a new cinema in Beverly Hills, Mrs. Bridge is most anxious to see the Esquire Cinema on Oak Street. She is pleased to discover that the Esquire offers a matinee, so after lunch, they walk over to the theatre and buy their tickets. The ticket window alone proves to be a stunning masterpiece of modern design. The lobby, minus ornate chandeliers and fussy antique furniture, is a stunning eye-opener, as is the magnificent auditorium. To their great delight, the feature film is Shall We Dance.


Inside the Esquire.

After naps and freshening up at their hotel, they set out to visit A Century of Progress, whose striking streamlined design has made it the talk of the nation. They know many of the famed designers who have made A Century of Progress such an extraordinary achievement. “I can’t wait to see it,’ Mrs. Bridge says.


Art for A Century of Progress.

As they drive towards Lake Michigan, the fair appears like a shimmering creation emanating from Aladdin’s lamp. Their first objective is the Chrysler Pavilion by Holabird & Root. Its high rectangular pylons and circular exhibition areas create a dynamic design combination. The wonderful effect of the building at night is due to the brilliant lighting in silver and gold, designed by Joseph Urban.


The Chrysler Pavilion.


The Federal Building.

Moving on, Mr. Bridge is particularly taken by the Federal Building, designed by Arthur Brown and Edward Bennet. Its high concave towers make it one of the most dramatic compositions of the fair. “I am in negotiations with Brown & Bennett to do a new bank for me in San Francisco,” Mr. Bridge remarks to his wife.

Everything about the fair excites the Bridges. It did, indeed, seem to celebrate at once the past 100 years of the city’s life and to look forward to many, many more notable years. It was woven into one complete whole by Joseph Urban’s masterful lighting.

Alas, it is time to leave the fair and head to the Tavern Club on the 25th floor of 333 North Michigan Avenue. Once settled in to an intimate dining nook, set off with silver tassels, blue draperies, grey banquettes, and matching blue cushions, Mrs. Bridge orders her favorite late evening supper, Chicken à la King. Mr. Bridge chooses the lamb chops. The Tavern’s unabashedly avant-garde design by Johns Hopkins is enhanced by furniture designed by Winold Reiss, iconic French posters, and other striking Deco touches. Looking out the windows on the north side of the club, the Bridges see the soaring Palm-Olive Building, topped by the Lindbergh Beacon, sweeping the nighttime sky.


The Palm-Olive and its beacon.

The next morning, after checking out of the Stevens, they go to Dearborn Station to board the Super Chief and are delighted to find a considerable farewell party waiting to send them off. In addition to their son, Carleton, there’s John Welborn Root, Harold McCormack, and the glorious English actress Bea Lillie, who is also travelling to Los Angeles on the Super Chief. As the train pulls out of the station, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge take up positions in the rear observation car to catch a last glimpse of the Windy City. “Chicago is a swell place,” Mrs. Bridge observes to her husband. “I can’t wait to return.”