Lake Shore Athletic Club: 850 Lake Shore Drive – A battle of Olympian proportions

If you have ever wondered how buildings get preserved in Chicago, the lsac2answer is political leadership. Case in point is the successful effort that saved the former Lake Shore Athletic Club from almost certain destruction.

Located at 850 North Lake Shore Drive and opened in 1927, the LSAC was designed by Jarvis Hunt.  The first five stories of the Georgian exterior are faced in terra cotta, exhibiting eye-catching ornamentation that stands in striking contrast to the neighboring Mies Van Der Rohe buildings across the street. Early on, the club established itself as a major center for athletic activities. In fact, Olympic trials for the 1928 Olympics were held at the club. Johnny Weissmuller (“Tarzan” in the movies) participated in these trials and swam in a number of other swimming matches held at the club.

The building was renamed the Lake Shore Center in 1977 when it was acquired by Northwestern University for use as graduate housing. However, after 30 years of deferred maintenance, Northwestern University vacated the structure in 2007 in anticipation of its eventual demolition for condominium redevelopment.

Then currently locked in a battle for his political life, Alderman Burton Natarus (42nd) seemingly had sided with Northwestern University over concerned residents who wanted to see the building preserved and rehabilitated. As the election drew nearer, Alderman Natarus put the issue on ice, to be resolved after the election.

However, in May of 2007, Alderman Natarus lost to newcomer Brendan Reilly who, as one of his first major decisions as alderman, would determine the fate of the Lake Shore Athletic Club.

Preservation Chicago took action later that spring by organizing a June 3, 2007 street demonstration. Approximately 150 protesters crammed the sidewalks, waving picket signs and shouting chants in the hopes of saving it from demolition.

Passing Lake Shore Drive traffic slowed to a crawl, “Honking for Preservation” and giving the thumbs-up to marchers pleading, “Landmark This Architectural Gem!”, “Alderman Reilly: The Ball’s in Your Court!” and “Mayor Daley, Save an Olympic Legacy!”

However, the most surprising turn of events was the presence of newly-elected Alderman Brendan Reilly, who attended the rally in person to witness the outpouring of support for the preservation of the building. Inspired by what he saw, the alderman engaged a thoughtful and deliberate process to determine if the building was worthy of preservation and, if so, what adaptive reuse options were available. Over the next few months, Alderman Reilly met with community leaders, developers, architects, officials within the city’s planning department and many others before he rendered his decision.

In 2008, the alderman announced that the building would be preserved and that the facility would be adaptively reused as senior living center.