Astor Tower Hotel: Goldberg in the Gold Coast
This is the first post in a series by guest author Susannah Ribstein
The Astor Tower Hotel is an architectural gem hidden in plain sight. Located at the corner of Astor and Goethe Streets in the Gold Coast, it is a physically prominent but historically under-recognized tower designed by one of Chicago’s favorite modernist architects: Bertrand Goldberg. Originally built as a high-end all-suite hotel, it played discreet host to all kinds of celebrities, from the Beatles to Bette Davis, before going condo in 1979. In the basement Goldberg designed a replica of the historic Parisian restaurant and bar Maxim’s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, under the management of Goldberg’s wife Nancy, Maxim’s was a hot spot for Chicago’s social elite. With its elegant modern design and history of famous clientele, Astor Tower is a reminder of the cultural, social, and architectural excitement that characterized Chicago in the 1960s.
Although Astor Tower was built at the same time as Goldberg’s most famous project, Marina City, it lacks the rounded features for which he is best known. But Goldberg never wanted a reputation as the architect who could only build in circles, and the absence of this trademark does not make Astor Tower a less important work. Indeed, it is one of Goldberg’s only major projects to display both the poured concrete structural innovations for which he eventually became famous and the rectilinear style reminiscent of his education with Mies van der Rohe at the original Bauhaus school in Germany.
Goldberg began working on Astor’s design just before that of Marina City, and called it the “structural prototype” for the later, more famous development. Astor was the first project for which Goldberg considered the concept of a round tower, but he discarded it because he decided it was not appropriate to the building’s surrounding “rectilinear environment” of boxy Art Deco apartment towers and Italianate mansions. Astor Tower was also the beginning of Goldberg’s distinguished career of engineering accomplishments; it was here that he hired his first full-time structural engineer and began experimenting with the complicated poured concrete forms that distinguish later projects like Prentice Women’s Hospital, located just southeast of Astor Tower on Huron Street.
Apart from its rectangular shape, almost every aspect of Astor’s design is a precursor to that of Marina City. Both have a poured concrete structural core that provides space for utilities and inter-floor circulation. Both also get supplemental support from a perimeter of smaller columns (which are integrated into the porch system at Marina and fully exposed at Astor).
And as at Marina City, Astor features a clever use of ground-level space for automobile circulation. The concrete core is exposed up to the fifth floor, clearing room on its small lot for cars to pull up to a tiny glass-enclosed lobby. The site was zoned for a limited amount of square footage and Goldberg knew that the lower floors of the tower would be relatively undesirable for living purposes because of the lack of views anyway. So he picked the first four stories of the building up off the ground and perched them at the top of the 28-story tower. The result is a clever solution that lends the building a wonderful physical elegance, with its glassy box of living floors suspended on a spindle-like core.
Originally, Astor Tower also featured a remarkable system of exterior window louvers, controllable by residents from inside their rooms (not unlike those on the small Keck Gottschalk Keck apartment building by fellow Chicagoans Fred and William Keck, built in Hyde Park in 1937). These “exterior blinds” were intended to allow each resident to control the amount of light in their rooms – ranging from a full black-out to wide open views – and to limit wear on the windows from weather and dirt. When used on such a large scale they made Astor Tower’s simple glass façade come alive – a feature that Goldberg described as “a happening.” Unfortunately, the shutters were removed in a 1996 remodeling of the building.
Goldberg called the Astor Tower Hotel “the rich man’s Marina City.” It was intended to provide understated but impeccable luxury, with suites appointed in a French theme with custom-designed furnishings, paintings, and textiles. Its entrance is glam minimalism at its best: cars pull up to a grove of impossibly slender white columns surrounding the building’s perimeter, and residents enter through a stainless-steel-and-glass revolving door set below a sweeping concrete canopy studded with white light bulbs in stainless steel fixtures. The lobby is a gleaming prism of steel and mirrors. But perhaps Astor Tower’s most exceptional feature was the jewel box restaurant and club hidden away in its basement: Maxim’s de Paris.
Maxim’s was like the Next Restaurant of its time – at the grand opening on December 14th, 1963, guests were served a “1963 version of a dinner served in 1900 for King Edward VII of England.” It was a place to see and be seen. On the weekends it was packed with “debs and their dates from the Social Register,” eager to be transported from the shores of Lake Michigan to Edwardian Paris. The white-tie events staged to celebrate its opening were the talk of the Chicago Tribune society pages for months, culminating in breathless descriptions of the lavish parties: a gala benefit party for the Chicago Boys Club, a musical revue called “Les Secrets de Maxim’s,” and the first American visit by Marc Bohan, head designer at Dior, who came with a selection of a dozen couture dresses to be modeled for lucky Chicago ladies.
The Astor Tower Hotel and Maxim’s were a beacon of the city’s growing reputation for sophistication, attracting the likes of Liza Minnelli, Rod Steiger, Woody Allen, Rudolph Nureyev, and Audrey Hepburn. In 1965 the Disc de Maxim’s opened, becoming Chicago’s first discotheque.
Maxim’s was closed in the 1980s and the space bequeathed to the city of Chicago in 2000. The city now runs it as The Nancy Goldberg International Center, and its preservation as a stateside holdout from the Belle Epoque has made it a popular choice for movie sets, including Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Woody Allen’s Oscar-nominated Midnight in Paris.
Next time you find yourself at the corner of Astor and Goethe Streets, look up, then look down. The Astor Hotel’s soaring tower and its basement Parisian-style club are a study in contrasts: the poured concrete structure is both sleek and rough, while the building’s glamorous style is modern upstairs and old-fashioned downstairs. The entire building is an idiosyncratic reminder of the cultural and architectural environment of Chicago in the 1960s. Forward-thinking architects like Goldberg were on the leading edge of international design, but just like today, the public’s standards for luxury often came from the past.
Betty Blum, Bertrand Goldberg Oral History, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992.
John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.
Michel Ragon, Goldberg: Dans La Ville, Paris: Paris Art Center, 1985.
Zoe Ryan, Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2011.