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Architect explains why the Purple Hotel is purple

The Purple Hotel is set face wrecking ball later this year but bricks will be for sale public Lincolnwood Fest

The Purple Hotel is set to face the wrecking ball later this year, but bricks will be for sale to the public at Lincolnwood Fest Aug. 1 and 4. | Sun-Times Media Files

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Updated: June 17, 2012 8:21AM

If there is a famous building in Lincolnwood, it is, to that suburb’s chagrin, the decrepit Purple Hotel at 4500 W. Touhy. It opened in the 1960s as a Hyatt and has not aged gracefully.

The property was sold last week for $8.3 million in an auction run by Sheldon Good & Co. The buyers want to renovate the hotel, add retail and a banquet hall around it, and update the facade while preserving its purple hue.

The place has a history.
First, it was perfectly respectable, with celebrity guests and upscale dining. But after new hotels took its market, it became known as the location of a mob hit and later “swingers’ clubs,” drug parties and complaints about rodents and mold. The owners closed it in 2007 before village health officials did the job for them.

But there’s something people have always wondered: Why purple? The former owner said it was because of a brickyard’s mistake.

However, 85-year-old John Macsai of Evanston knows the real deal. He was the hotel’s architect, working for A.N. Pritzker, scion of the wealthy family. His Hyatt Corp. built the hotel and Macsai visited him one day around 1960.

“I planned to use a warm gray brick and he said, ‘Can’t you come up with something a little livelier?” Macsai said.

“So I made a great mistake for an architect,” he said. “Instead of just bringing back some samples, I brought him the whole color palette. He said, ‘I want something lively like that purple.’ You don’t argue with a guy who could borrow $12 million on his signature only.”

The story about a brickyard’s error may have been a distortion of what actually happened. Macsai said the purple bricks “spalled,” or broke apart, during construction. “Architects always get the blame for these things,” he said, so he found photographic evidence that the bricks were left out in the snow when specifications called for them to be covered.

Despite early misgivings, Macsai said he liked how the purple turned out. “I had no regrets. Everybody loved the purple. Some of my colleagues said it was a bit strong,” he said.

Over the years, local opinion became divided, although evaluations of the architecture have been skewed by the hotel’s fall from lodging grace. Some wanted the place torn down years ago, but there’s also a “Save the Purple” movement with a Web page and Twitter account.

“I’m delighted that they want to preserve the building,” Macsai said. “Not just because it’s my building. It has to be cleaned up a lot, but it’s a very good modern building. And I think the area could use a good hotel.”

Macsai worked for years at the firm Hausner & Mac­sai and designed several notable high-rises in Chicago, including 1110, 1150 and 1240 N. Lake Shore Drive. His best work, he said, is the Harbor House condo building at 3200 N. Lake Shore Drive.

He remembered Pritzker as a “decent, good man” and worked for him on the former Water Tower Inn in Chicago, which was torn down for today’s Park Hyatt. Macsai said he always wished he had gotten more work from the family, but that when the Pritzkers bought a company, they didn’t do a lot of new construction.

As for other clients, Macsai doesn’t have such fond memories. “We are not the most respected occupation, especially by developers. Developers are cheap bastards. You can quote me on that. I don’t need them anymore. They just want a big bargain,” he said.


The familiar “Santa Fe” sign atop the 224 S. Michigan building is coming down because the building’s new tenant, Motorola Solutions, has gotten city permission to put up a “Motorola” sign in its place. But what will happen to the old sign, a throwback to Chicago’s roots in rail?

The Illinois Railway Museum in Union has spoken up for it. So has the city of Santa Fe, N.M. A source said the Museum of Science and Industry has expressed interest, as have a couple of unidentified museums.

The building’s owner, Hamilton Partners, has deputized management company Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. to find a suitable recipient. A Jones Lang spokesman said the sign, a familiar part of the landmark Michigan Avenue district, will be donated and not sold. It will come down sometime over the summer.

Fred Ash, treasurer of the Illinois Railway Museum, said it would be a great addition to its collection of neon signs. But he said the museum would need funds to properly display it. Ash said it has the old Union Station sign that was removed from that building years ago. While it is safely stored, the museum doesn’t have the money to exhibit it, he said.

ON THE MOVE: Congratulations to Bonnie McDonald, the new president of Landmarks Illinois. She has been executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, based in St. Paul, and starts her new job June 18.

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