The Palmolive Building in Chicago

Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz
Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz
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Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz
Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz
Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz
Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz
Photo of The Palmolive Building in Chicago, Illinois
Photograph © Wayne Lorentz

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The Palmolive Building
Formerly:919 North Michigan Avenue
Formerly:The Playboy Building
Formerly:Palmolive Building

919 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, Gold Coast 60611
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One of Chicago's most magnificent examples of art deco architecture, The Palmolive Building has changed with the times and adapted as the city modernized around it. But the building remains as classic Chicago as runny eggs at a Loop diner, or a fedora hat worn on LaSalle Street.

The Palmolive Building presents a narrow side to the winds of Lake Michigan, while broadly looking over the heart of Chicago. Its setbacks have setbacks and the whole thing looks vaguely reminiscent of those shiny, stylized steam locomotives that only seem to exist in French poster art of a certain age.

The building began life as the headquarters of the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet company. Its placement was an important visual cap to mark the end of Michigan Avenue at a time when the boulevard was a fairly uniform collection of posh shops and apartment houses.

Like so many companies that got their start in Chicago, Palmolive would move on. It left for New York in 1934 but the building kept the Palmolive name until a publishing company called Playboy Enterprises moved in in 1966 and give its name to the skyscraper. As the publishing industry collapsed at the turn of the 21st century, Playboy moved to smaller offices in the neighborhood and this building once again became known as the Palmolive Building.

As the decades passed, the city grew up around The Palmolive Building. Today, the art deco tower provides an important visual and stylistic link in a progression from the historic Drake Hotel to the still futuristic John Hancock Center. Though it once stood proudly as a sentinel over North Michigan Avenue, today The Palmolive Building is lost in the city's skyscraper forest.

As its neighbors grew taller, they also grew more demanding. The Palmolive Building's historic aircraft beacon was snuffed out when the residents of neighboring high rises complained about the light.

In the 1980's, the Chicago architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill renovated the lowest floors into better retail space. From a shopping standpoint, it was a success and works well with the rest of Michigan Avenue. But the result is divorced enough from the tower above that one can walk right past The Palmolive Building and not realize it's there.

And then in 2004, the process began to turn this office building into residences. The conversion by architect Laurence Booth was successful, with little visual impact on the building. In fact, the building is somewhat more interesting today as the people who live in The Palmolive Building have installed art, plants, and even putting greens on the art deco setbacks they've turned into open-air patios. Conversions of so-called "vintage" buildings into residences are rare for such tall buildings. But the units generated are often sought after as pieces of art, themselves.

Quick Facts
Timeline
  • August, 1930: The Lindbergh Beacon was installed at the top of this building.
  • 1942: The beacon was turned off for fear that it might be used for navigation by invading forces during the Second World War.
  • 1944: The beacon was turned on again.
  • 1966: Playboy Enterprises moved into this building, changing the building's name to The Playboy Building.
  • 1968: Metal shields were erected to keep the beacon from lighting up apartments in the neighboring John Hancock Center at night.
  • 1981: The Lindbergh Beacon was turned off.
  • 1988: The Lindbergh Beacon was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
  • 1989: Playboy Enterprises moved out of this building, and the building's name changed to 919 North Michigan Avenue.
  • 1989: The building was renamed 919 North Michigan Avenue.
  • 1990: The beacon was replaced by a globe with a soft glow.
  • 1999: This building was named a City of Chicago landmark.
  • 2001: This building was sold to Draper & Kramer which restored the building's name to The Palmolive Building.
  • 2001: The Lindbergh Beacon was briefly illuminated, but further testing was canceled due to the complaints of neighbors.
  • 2002: The Lindbergh Beacon was briefly illuminated, but further testing was canceled due to the complaints of neighbors.
  • 2005: The retail space in this building was sold for $57,000,000.
  • 2006: Actor Vince Vaughn bought a 7,880 square foot penthouse encompassing the 36th and 37th floors for $12,000,000.
  • July 4, 2007: The Lindbergh Beacon on top of this building was illuminated from 8pm until midnight. Instead of rotating fully, its beam was directed in an arc over Lake Michigan to keep from annoying the neighbors.
Notes
  • Business address: 919 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611
  • Residential address: 159 East Walton Street, Chicago, Illinois 60611
  • Residential conversion developer: Draper & Kramer
  • The original beacons atop this building were said to be the brightest in the world at 2,000,000,000 candlepower. The current beacon is 18,000 watts.
  • This was the location of the first Playboy Club.
  • This building is sometimes referred to as "919 North Michigan". The entire building is correctly named The Palmolive Building. 919 is the retail and office portion of the building.
  • The Lindbergh Beacon was donated to the City of Chicago for use on this building by Elmer Sperry, the inventor of the gyroscope.
Did You Know?
  • The tall mast on top supports what was once called the Lindbergh Beacon. It was turned off when nearby skyscrapers grew taller than the beacon.
  • The beacon at the top of this building is not original equipment. It is World War II surplus and is rated at 18,000 watts.
  • There were originally two aircraft beacons at the top of this building. One rotated to guide aircraft to Chicago. The other was stationery and pointed the way to Chicago Municipal Airport (now Midway Airport).
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The Palmolive Building in Chicago.  Photo by Dex Panthenol
Photograph courtesy of Dex Panthenol