Preserving the memory of Chicago’s Tower Club

by Dan Rafter

For nearly 100 years, Chicago business leaders, celebrities and politicians drank martinis on the 39th floor of the city’s Civic Opera House. That floor was the longtime home of the Tower Club, a social club founded in 1916 by Samuel Insull, a noted opera buff and, some say, the inspiration for Rich Uncle Pennybags. You might know Pennybags better as Mr. Monopoly, the mascot for the iconic board game.

The Tower Club provided the perfect setting for three-martini lunches until late December of 2011. That’s when the club served its last drink. A bad economy and changing times — those boozy business lunches aren’t as commonplace today — spelled the end for the Tower Club.

But a local software company is making sure that at least the style of the Tower Club will live on.

That software company, hybris, which builds e-commerce applications for companies that sell goods or services online, recently purchased the 39th floor of the Civic Opera House. In the fall of 2014, the company will move into the space, preserving the former Tower Club’s large fireplace and massive wooden bar in the process.

“This place has so much history,” said Doug Gaffney, director of professional services with hybris. “There’s this huge old wooden bar. There are ornate wood frames around the windows. There are stained-glass shutters. You can just envision people drinking scotch and smoking cigars up there.”

The right home

Once hybris moves its employes to the 39th floor, the software company will actually occupy two floors of the iconic Civic Opera House building at 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. The company in August moved onto the building’s 29th floor. It will occupy both floors after moving part of its operations to the former Tower Club location.

What brought hybris to the Civic Opera House? Gaffney says that the owners of hybris — the company’s headquarters are in Munich, Germany — wanted the Chicago branch of their firm to be located in a building with character. This led the company’s leaders to immediately reject the first round of proposed locations that hybris’ Chicago staffers suggested.

“They wanted something with more of a traditional flair,” Gaffney said. “But we didn’t want to leave the center core of the city. We wanted it to be easy for our workers to commute. It came down to two buildings, the Merchandise Mart and the Civic Opera House.”

The opera house made sense. The building’s new landlord wanted to modernize the building’s tenant base, which was largely made up of attorneys and accountants. The new landlord also wanted a tenant that would take up large chunks of space. Too many of the opera house’s tenants needed only small spaces, resulting in some floors that would have eight tenants or more apiece.

“The location worked for them and it worked for us,” Gaffney said. “They were looking for something more tech-centered and modern.”

Crews are now working on the 39th floor. But workers have specific instructions to not wipe out the history of the Tower Club.

Crews, then, will keep the old fireplace, though they will move it to a new location. They will also keep the oak bar. Crews are also refinishing the space’s old wood floors.

“This will be one of the more creative office spaces in Chicago,” Gaffney said. “The goal is to retrofit some of that club history into an office concept.”

Once the work is finished, 175 hybris employees will work on the 29th and 39th floors of the Civic Opera House.

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