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).
Forum Discussions Talk about this building with other architecture enthusiasts
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The Palmolive Building in Chicago.  Photo by Dex Panthenol
Photograph courtesy of Dex Panthenol
Your Thoughts

There are eight comments.

  I have a very clear memory from 1942 of the original Lindberg Beacon. I was six years old and WWII had recently begun. My father was in England in the Army Air Corps, as it was known then, and my mother, older sister and I lived on one of the "tree" streets -- I can't remember which one -- that first year while he was gone. My sister and I used to watch the Beacon from our beds at night when we were going to sleep. It was so reassuring in the dark and quiet night sky, comforting to go to sleep watching it turn. It was turned off while we were there because of the potential threat of air raids. We really missed it. I'm told it wasn't relighted til after the war. As an aside, something it's almost impossible to imagine today ... my mother used to walk my sister and me across Lake Shore Drive to the Oak Street Beach, holding our hands as we waited for a car or two to slow down and let us cross.

Barbara N. - Saturday, February 4th, 2012 @ 7:59pm  

  I worked for Playboy during the summer of 1967 and operated the beacon when the Hancock Building was under construction. As a 19 year old electrical engineering student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, it was quite a thrill to crank up the motor-generator set in the equipment room at the base of the tower and then ride the tiny one-man elevator up to a ladder that led to the open catwalk surrounding the beacon. The carbon rods that sustained the bright arc burned down in a while and I had to climb inside the beacon every two hours to replace them. It was scary as hell all alone up there on rainy nights! Great memories of the Chicago skyline from the top of the world!

Ron Singer - Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 @ 8:19am  

   I worked at the Payboy Club in the early 70s at this location. The club was magnificent and the memories many. The club was located on the 1st floor with additional floors located up staires. I was told the library contained the largest collection of books on the subject of "sex" at that time in the world. Origninally from Buffalo and living in Houston currently, I can safely say I never experienced a more exciting year in my life.

Frank Russo - Monday, January 10th, 2011 @ 9:48pm  

  The Palmolive Building (later Playboy and now just 919 Michigan) brings back memories. I remember it in the late 1940's when my mother would bring me here on the overnight train from upstate NY to visit her aunt and uncle on the (then still fashionable) south side of Chicago.It would be night when the train came around the bottom of the lake and I was always still awake in my Pullman bunk. The beacon on the top of the (as we called it) "Colgate Palmolive Peet Building" would twinkle across the lake and that was my first excited sign that we were almost here and I could soon have a streetcar ride from their apartment to the Museum of Science and Industry.The beacon on the Palmolive Building was then called the "Lindbergh Light" after Charles Lindbergh. I miss it. That wimpy glow-dome just doesn't do it for me.

Dex Panthenol - Wednesday, October 13th, 2010 @ 11:52am  

  My grandfather installed the terracotta at the top while working for Cold Spring Granit in the '20's. I walked past this building never knowing it until recently reading my dad's notes. Now to see if there are any pictures of the original construction that my grandfather may have taken.

Karl Kropp - Monday, November 26th, 2007 @ 9:57am  

  I love the Palmolive Building, very art deco!! I was born in 1989, so I was never able to see the Lindberg Beacon. I hope someday it will be turned back on!

kirby cruz - Thursday, December 7th, 2006 @ 8:33pm  

  is there anyone out there that can accurately identify the artist responsible for the art deco icons that run up the recessed panels of this grand old building when playboy gutted the first two stories of this building in the early 70's i was exiting a cab in front of the building and saved a phenomenal piece of art deco iron that was being cast into a dumpster. I beleive it was the work of hugh erris but cannot get any answers from anyone at draper kramer, palmolive or anyone affiliated with the recent restoration. i beleive i have one of the cornerstone cast iron colonettes that adorned the entrance of the building. the restoration effort has not addressed the missing nickle plated 2 ft X 2ftart deco icons, i have begun casting stone reproductions of this icon and would reward anyone who can produce any photos of the buildings 1st two floors that show the original artwork as it was on the cornerstones of this building the icons that run up the building every other floor are a generic version of the more detailed deco piece of iron that i have i beleive they are terra cotta.someone claim the reward so i can add providence to my fabulous piece of deco artwork that no one else can claim to have.

lloyd pearcey - Thursday, May 11th, 2006 @ 11:09pm  

  from 1950-1970 my family and I lived 15miles sw of downtown. many nights, when the weather permitted, my dad and I would sit outside and watch the Lindberg Beacon. brings back good memories for me.

mike margolis - Sunday, February 12th, 2006 @ 2:18am  

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