Making the transformation: The delicate work of turning the Chicago Motor Club building into a boutique hotel

The lobby of the new downtown Chicago Hampton Inn.

The lobby of the new downtown Chicago Hampton Inn.

by Dan Rafter

The 17-story Chicago Motor Club building in downtown Chicago has long been considered one of the finest examples of Art Deco style. And the building has an impressive pedigree, having been designed by famed architecture firm Holabird & Root.

But that didn’t mean that the building was safe from demolition. The skyscraper had served as the home for the AAA-Chicago Motor Club from its opening in 1929 until 1986. That’s when the motor club moved to the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines.

The 89,000-square-foot building remained active after the motor club’s move, serving as a general office building for a variety of tenants. But in the early 2000s, the building fell out of favor. Tenants sought larger floor plates than the old motor club building could offer.

The result? This Art Deco star had been vacant since 2004, and faced the real possibility of demolition.

Fortunately, the building is safe now, serving as one of the newest hotels in downtown Chicago. MB Real Estate bought the building, and that company’s chairman, John Murphy, had a vision of creating a boutique hotel in an ideal location in the heart of Chicago.

Walsh Construction hired Chicago architecture firm Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture to design the transformation of the skyscraper into the Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown.

And judging by the slew of five-star reviews on rating site TripAdvisor, the conversion has been a successful one.

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Saving an historic place

Paul Alessandro, a partner with Hartshorne, said that he felt protective of the space during the building’s restoration.

“It is a unique space,” Alessandro said. “There is nothing like it in the city. There were an enormous amount of buildings built before the stock market crash. This was basically the last one that got built before everything stopped. The building represented a new kind of thinking in high-rises. Gone were the days of the highly plastic terracotta design style. This was a modernist design, an early streamlined Art Deco building.”

The lobby of the building especially enchanted Alessandro. He and the entire team at Hartshorne worked hard to preserve it.

“That lobby had a real function, to encourage people to get into their cars and drive somewhere,” Alessandro said. “This lobby was a place to arrive at and a place to depart from.”

When the building served as the home of the motor club, travelers would arrive at the lobby, gather their travel maps, pick up information about national parks and get tips about the many other scenic areas to visit across the United States.

Alessandro said that the lobby is still serving this same kind of purpose. It serves as the home base of travelers who have come to stay in and explore Chicago, he said.

“People arrive there with their bags,” Alessandro said. “They can come back and sit down, have a drink, enjoy the amazing mural that’s in the lobby. There are still people coming and going. That’s what that lobby was designed for, to serve people who are coming and going. It was never meant to be a lobby that just served people coming into their offices to work. It was a lobby designed to serve people who were coming and going, people taking and planning their own trips.”

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A stunning view

The centerpiece of the now-Hampton Inn’s three-story lobby remains a massive mural by Chicago artist John Warner Norton. This piece of art highlights 1920s-era transcontinental auto routes. During the building’s restoration, Hartshorne uncovered both the original paint scheme of this mural and brought back to life the patterned black-and-green terrazzo floor.

The firm also directed the delicate cleaning of the many architectural elements throughout the lobby and the repair of the space’s nature-themed plaster ornamentation, much of it silver-leafed, that depicted stylized foliage, birds and geometric patterns. During the transformation, a set of original 1920s-era light fixtures found in a rooftop mechanical room were reinstalled.

Hartshorne also restored the building’s original spiral staircase. These stairs take guests to the mezzanine level.

The architecture firm spent plenty of time, too, transforming the Chicago Motor Club’s former executive offices on the building’s sixth floor into larger guest suites with restored beamed ceilings, leather doors, maple paneling and herringbone maple floors.

The most significant part of the renovation, though, was the rehabilitation of the 1928 limestone exterior. Hartshorne guided the cleaning and repair of the masonry and windows. The entrance’s cast-iron decorative ornamentation, weighing 34,000 pounds, was also repaired, re-coated and reinstalled with new anchors.

“The real trick, our goal, was to find a purpose for this magnificent property, to modernize it and make it relevant for today’s lifestyle,” said Jim Plunkard, partner and co-founder of Hartshorne.


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