In 2006, the Waterman Building received the dubious honor of being included on Blair Kamin’s short list of the most “unsightly structures” in the Loop which he describes as “structures that make you cringe every time you see them — gross architecture, grotesque decoration, hideous materials.”
His description was as follows. “- BEEF ‘N BRANDY (WATERMAN BUILDING), 127 S. STATE ST. The original elegance of this seven-story commercial loft building, designed by the distinguished Chicago firm of Holabird & Roche and finished in 1919, has been grotesquely obscured by three levels of facade paste-ons, including a faux New England front with clapboard and shutters. With the adjoining Palmer House Hilton due for a major fix-up, this eyesore will really stand out.” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/26/16)
Fortunately, the San Francisco-based boutique hospitality chain Sonder and the building owners have recognized its intrinsic value and hidden beauty and have signed a long-term lease to create a boutique hotel. The building owners are Shai Town Realty Group and GW Properties with design work from NORR Architects. The seven-story building was originally designed for L.E. Waterman Company, a leading manufacturer of fountain pens, by the distinguished architectural firm of Holabird & Roche in 1919. Waterman Company occupied the building until 1938.
The historic Waterman building originally included “an elaborate ground floor storefront decorated in some 500 shades of encaustic mosaic. Once you passed through the doors and into the store shoppers entered into an exquisite retail showroom that rivaled the interior of Waterman’s flagship location in New York City. The upper floors were designed to be used as pen assembly and stock rooms, and the architects provided astonishingly wide, natural light producing window spans outlined in slim, Gothic-inspired, decorative terra-cotta.” (ChicagoDesignSlinger.com, 3/1/2015)
According to “American Stationer” from May 8, 1920, their ground floor show room was described as “one of the most artistically correct and magnificent display rooms to be found anywhere.” Additionally, “the panels in the front of the Waterman Company’s new Chicago building are decorated with Encaustic Mosaic. It is the first building in the world on which this material has been used. Encaustic Mosaic is the name given by its inventor to a new material which both facilitates and enlarges the scope of the art of mosaic. It is a colored cement which has literally been baked in wax, hence the name encaustic. It is made in some 500 tints and shades of color and many be applied in any size or shape desired. The use of this material gives the Waterman Building a distinctive and attractive appearance.” (The American Stationer And Office Outfitter, Volume 86, Page 31, May 8, 1920)
The proposed adaptive reuse will convert the upper five floors of the historic office building into a 41-room boutique hotel; floors which have been largely vacant for over 30 years. Successful Sonder hotels are located in Rome, London, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Montreal with apartment-like accommodations that seek to combine the convenience of a hotel with the comfort of home. The lower floors have been vacated by the restaurant Beef ‘N Brandy and new tenants are being sought.
In September 2018, Sonder opened a 30-room hotel in the Chicago Landmark Plymouth Building at 417 S. Dearborn Street where it leases all 12 stories of the building from LG Development. The Plymouth Building was designed by Simeon Eisendrath in 1899, who had previously been a draftsman for Adler and Sullivan.
Sonder also signed a long-term lease deal to open a 39-room boutique hotel on the top six floors of the Chicago Landmark Jewelers Building, originally known as the S.A. Maxwell & Company paper-goods store located at 19 S. Wabash Avenue by Adler & Sullivan dating from late 1881-82. The sale and renovation of the Jewelers Building to a venture of Peerless Development and Honore Properties was reported in April 2018, but Sonder’s involvement was not disclosed at that time. (Ori, Chicago Tribune, 11/26/18)
“There are some really great historical details in all these buildings, which makes it feel like you’re staying in a place with character,” said Sonder Chicago general manager Ellen Schulz. “They’re all adaptive reuse buildings that have maintained their historical charm.” (Ori, Chicago Tribune, 11/26/18)
“We see a huge demand for our product,” Schulz said. “We’re looking to grow in Chicago, and we are actively pursuing more deals.” (Ori, Chicago Tribune, 11/26/18)
Sonder, Shai Town Realty Group, and GW Properties represent a new generation of owners, developers and operators who increasingly recognize the inherent value of Chicago’s historic buildings. The growing recognition within the Chicago real estate community of the inherent ability of historic buildings to drive greater profits has been confirmed by the strong success of the London House Hotel in the London Guarantee Building, the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel in the Chicago Athletic Association Building, Chicago Motor Club Hampton Inn, St. Jane Hotel in the Carbide and Carbon Building , The Alise Chicago in the Reliance Building, the Ace Hotel, and the Kimpton Hotel Gray in the New York Life Building.
Preservation Chicago applauds Sonder’s adaptive reuse of historic office buildings as boutique hotels. We welcome them to Chicago and wish them great success. We also encourage them to continue to expand other historic Chicago buildings which require reinvestment and reactivation.
Perhaps elements of the original showroom splendor will be rediscovered during the renovation and the historical research below might be a source of inspiration for the design team. According to “Hardwood Record” from September 25, 1920, “Another superb evidence of the popularity of American Black Walnut is to be found in the fixtures and furniture of the magnificent new Waterman Building, 129 South State Street, Chicago which was opened on May 10. All the fixtures and furniture are of black walnut, the sales and display room, offering a particularity fine example of the decorative possibilities of figured walnut veneers. An examination of the photograph of the interior of this room, looking towards the entrance, will discover the beautiful effect that has been secured with matched panels of walnut veneer on the show case bases and the wainscoting.
“The L. E. Waterman Company, the producers of the famous Waterman Fountain pen, spared no expense in decorating the showroom and the unique feature of it is that over 5,000 drawers of walnut, faced with figured veneer, are ranged along the sides of the long room, for the storing and quick handling of fountain pens, and walnut was selected by the architects because the company wanted drawers which would not shrink or warp and would under no circumstances stick. A device has been introduced enabling one to lock or unlock one hundred drawers at one operation. The five thousand and more drawers, together with the wainscoting and display case bases, are finished with a wax finish, four coats of shellac preceding the application of wax. The finish displays the natural figure of the walnut veneers to great advantage.
“The Waterman Building is the first building erected in the Chicago “Loop” since the beginning of the war and embodied all the ultra-modern improvements in construction and convenience. The exterior of the building is blue terra cotta with interesting encaustic mosaic panels in red, black and gold, establishing a new architectural feature in Chicago business buildings. There is no feature of the building inside or out, however in which John N. Marley, the Chicago manager, takes more pride than the walnut furnishings. The architects are Holabird and Roche.” (Hardwood Record – Veneer & Panel Section, Volume 49, Page 31, September 25, 1920.)
Column: San Francisco-based company bringing hotels to three historic Loop buildings, Ryan Ori, Chicago Tribune, 11/26/18