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John Macsai's architecture by accident

Forget the Hancock: The overlooked jewels of Chicago's skyline have one man in common.


The elegant curve of 1150 N. Lake Shore Drive was supposed to be replicated in another building across the street, but the owner couldn't secure the lot for purchase. - DANIELLE SCRUGGS
  • Danielle Scruggs
  • The elegant curve of 1150 N. Lake Shore Drive was supposed to be replicated in another building across the street, but the owner couldn't secure the lot for purchase.

When I think back on my childhood, what first comes to mind are buildings that no one seems to care about. My mom would drive up and down Lake Shore Drive, ferrying me to the few places I went when I wasn't home. She'd get off at the Belmont exit and I'd fixate on the kooky tapioca-colored high-rise on the corner of Belmont and Lake Shore Drive; she would coast on Marine Drive, two blocks north of Irving Park, and I'd consider the strangely narrow apartment building with a disproportionately large white stone awning; she'd take LSD all the way up to Hollywood, turn right on Sheridan, and glide past the shoreline towers with their ostensibly gauche, outdated designs, and ridiculous, escapist names—the Tiara, El Lago—then turn onto Devon and proceed right into the heart of the assembly-line two-flats where my Orthodox Jewish psychologist still lives.

I would sit in the backseat of the station wagon, resting the curve of my head on the window, and gaze out at the buildings we passed. At first it was just scenery, the quotidian backdrop of the city. But over time, the architecture was subtly grafted onto my memory.

I moved to New York in 2001, then returned to Chicago eight years later. When I came back, I spent a lot of time driving around, this time on my own. As I drove, I found myself admiring not Chicago's most famous architectural landmarks—the Sears Tower, the John Hancock, Marina City—but the buildings that never seem to attain any recognition. I became curious about their provenance. Who made those weird midcentury-modernist high-rises on Lake Shore Drive? What about the Tudor homes in West Rogers Park and Lincoln Square, Jefferson Park and Old Irving? And all the elegant apartment buildings in the Gold Coast—who built their knockoffs on Sheridan Road?

Chicago is known for its architecture, but I've come to believe that the buildings that define the city and give it its unique character are not the iconic skyscrapers we all know, or even Cloud Gate or some other foofaraw; it's the clunky high-rises along Lake Shore Drive, painted salmon or chartreuse or burgundy; the "tacky" outer-city hotels with their old signs and rusting metal; the restaurants that look like hideous collisions of insurance offices and burger stands. I've found some of these structures to be not just alluring in their strangeness but legitimate architectural marvels. And I discovered that the ones I loved most of all had one thing in common: a man named John Macsai.

A postcard for the Purple Hotel, printed around the time it opened in 1960 - SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE
  • sun-times archive
  • A postcard for the Purple Hotel, printed around the time it opened in 1960

Macsai is most famous, or perhaps infamous, for a hotel—a purple one. And not indigo or plush, wine-colored purple—it was lavender. A lavender hotel. Michael Jordan stayed there, in the lavender hotel, his first night in Chicago. Because when a future megastar athlete arrives in Chicago for the first time, he has to stay in the best place the city has to offer. In 1984, that was a lavender hotel.

I saw the lavender hotel. It was on Touhy Avenue in Lincolnwood, right near the very northwest boundary of Chicago. My mom or dad would drive by it on the way to New York Bagel & Bialy, which was a little bit farther west, near the expressway. Even then, the building struck me as odd but engrossing. It was rectangular and long, with thin white support beams that held it off the ground, like the pasty toothpick legs of a cartoon hippo. With mind-shattering transparency, it was called . . . the Purple Hotel. I'd often wonder—before I knew about its celebrity guests—who stays at this hotel? Why would anyone stay at the Purple Hotel? Because it's purple? Because it's in Lincolnwood? Because life is a comedy?

The Purple Hotel was never meant to be purple. Macsai initially set out to construct it in a midcentury-modern design that was, in fact, fairly innovative: the Purple Hotel had big windows, which let a ton of light into the rooms, and as the architecture critic Lee Bey has pointed out, Macsai put the structural supports on the outside of the building, which allowed for fat, open spaces on the inside; in between the windows was brick, which, like the structural beams at the base, was an outward expression of the construction process.

In its earliest incarnation the building was a Hyatt Hotel—the first one in the midwest. The person who commissioned it, A.N. Pritzker, of the incomprehensibly wealthy family of entrepreneurs, was based in Chicago and wanted to make a splashy local debut for the family's new national hotel chain. Macsai intended for the brick on the "Hyatt House" to be gray, but Pritzker dismissed it as "dull." As Macsai would recall later on the design-focused podcast 99% Invisible, he made the mistake of showing Pritzker 35 or 40 color samples. Pritzker picked purple, "And you don't argue with A.N. Pritzker . . . , " Macsai said.

It turns out that Macsai had made a similar error not too long before. In the 1950s he also designed a rather famous high-rise apartment building, 1150 N. Lake Shore Drive. The tower is elegantly arched around the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Division, in the tony Gold Coast neighborhood. Today, the high-rise is cream-colored, but when it was completed it was blue. "What a terrible mistake," Macsai told Betty J. Blum in a lengthy 2003 interview for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project. "Thank God they painted it. The owner wanted the building to stand out, OK? And wanted to see some brick samples. And like an idiot . . . we brought along a catalog of glazed brick samples. And the owner loved it. And that was it."

That wasn't the only blunder. The building has been commended for its elegant curved shape, but in fact the project was only half completed. The client, John Mack of Lakeshore Management, wanted to buy the north corner of Division as well—he intended to have two curved buildings that mirrored each other. The walls of this concrete-and-glass vagina would serve as a gateway into East Division Street's birth canal of old money and mansions. But Mack couldn't seal the deal on that north corner, so while 1150 W. North seems like a quirky, innovative fixture of Lake Shore Drive's gallery wall of apartment buildings, it's actually the unfinished result of an architect's vision.

How must that feel to an architect, to have an incomplete project be perceived as your original intention?

Or to be thought of as the person who foisted a purple monster on the benighted populace of Lincolnwood?

For that matter, who is John Macsai?

John Macsai circa 1972 - SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE
  • Sun-times archive
  • John Macsai circa 1972

Macsai was born John Lusztig in Budapest, Hungary, on May 20, 1926. As a child he enjoyed going to museums and, taking after his mother, who painted, loved to draw. His drawings impressed people, which encouraged him to enroll in the Atelier Art School, now the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. He graduated in 1944 and was primed to become a successful illustrator or designer.

But then the Germans came to Hungary, and Lusztig had to put down his pencils so he could work in a labor camp and be shot at by Nazis. In 1945 Lusztig was liberated by the American army. He enrolled at the Polytechnic University in Budapest to study engineering, which included architecture as a discipline. But anti-Semitism was still prevalent in Hungary, and after his experiences during the Holocaust, Lusztig no longer wanted a German name. So he changed his surname to Macsai (pronounced MAX-eye), a rough approximation of "Macsa," the Transylvanian town of his ancestry.

The architect Bob Diamant, then a classmate of Macsai's, told him about the Hillel Foundation, which offered scholarships for Jewish-European students to finish their higher education in the U.S. Macsai applied and was eventually accepted; seeing the specter of communism slowly overtaking Hungary, he decided to make the journey west. He went to Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, an institution that, as Macsai pointed out to Blum, is a "double lie," because "it's not Miami, Florida, and it's not Oxford, England."

Right out of college, Macsai got a job at Holabird & Root, the Chicago architecture firm known for the kind of simultaneously classy and colossal buildings you see in old movies, like the Board of Trade and the original Soldier Field. He then quickly jumped ship to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Macsai told Blum that, at the time, "the younger crowd . . . really wanted to be part of the zeitgeist, the modern architecture, which SOM was doing . . . " He stayed for four years, then worked short stints at various other firms, doing renderings and side projects all the while.

In 1955, the architect Ray Stuermer offered Macsai a 20 percent partnership in a new firm he was starting, and Macsai accepted. When he walked into the office, he saw "Stuermer, Hausner and Macsai" written on the glass. When Macsai asked who Hausner was, Stuermer replied, "I decided we need him, too." "Him" was Bob Hausner, and by the end of the year there'd be no Stuermer. "He liked me, I liked him," Macsai told Blum. "After a while, we realized that we don't like Ray anymore."

From 1955 until 1970, the firm of Hausner & Macsai was responsible for many buildings all over the Chicago area. In fact, it's Hausner's design that currently wraps around 1150 N. Lake Shore Drive. Even though it's only half of their intended project, the tower won the duo an award from the American Institute of Architects. Nevertheless, Macsai said that whenever someone would point out a screwup, "My standard answer was 'I didn't design it, it was my partner's design.' That's what you need partners for . . . to take the blame."

There were quite a few boo-boos in the history of Hausner & Macsai, but many of them ended up being the chief reasons the buildings stand out today. Take Harbor House, that funky tapioca-colored high-rise on Belmont and Lake Shore Drive that I loved as a kid. It has three narrow towers that are all connected to each other by a lobby and three elevators, and the rooms have windows with protruding, rounded-square borders, which gives the facade a warped, bulbous appearance. On the second floor, the frames on the windows stretch even farther out. It seems like an eccentric filigree, but the design is quite deliberate.

The boxes that jut out of the second floor of Harbor House, on Belmont and Lake Shore Drive, were added to correct a surveying oversight. - DANIELLE SCRUGGS
  • Danielle Scruggs
  • The boxes that jut out of the second floor of Harbor House, on Belmont and Lake Shore Drive, were added to correct a surveying oversight.

Hausner and Macsai initially thought they'd be allowed to build all the way to the property line on the back side of the lot to the west. However, the surveyors had messed up: they didn't account for a ten-foot easement on the west side of the property, which had to be left in place so that residents in the adjacent building could get out. Unfortunately, that meant businesses on the second floor of Harbor House would lose ten feet of the space they'd been promised. "In order to squeeze in the beauty shop and whatever was on the second floor," Macsai told Blum, "we had to jut out." The second-floor "shadowboxes," as Blum calls them, the ones that give Harbor House its unique visual character, are the result of a bunch of fuckups.

This scenario made me wonder: Would things have been different if the Purple Hotel hadn't been purple? If a different decision had been made about the color of the brick, could the oddball block on Touhy have been viewed as a modernist masterpiece, the toast of Lincolnwood? This thought occurred to me after reading about another Macsai building, a high-rise that I'd always found appealing and offbeat: the Waterford Condominiums, on Marine Drive just west of Montrose Harbor. The tower is narrow but stretches out pretty far west; from the front, it's a slim brown-and-white rectangle extending upward, with two distinctive rectangular white-stone canopies on the front entrance.

And this is yet another example of a building that didn't turn out the way that Macsai initially intended. In her oral history interview, Blum asks if the red brick is a reference back to Macsai's Miami University days. He replies, "Whatever," then explains that the black handrails and the light-pink balcony edging were supposed to be white. "When it was freshly repainted," he said, "it reminded me of a high-rise bordello."

"It's changed totally in character," Macsai told Blum. "The concrete was not painted originally; it was just exposed concrete. The stupid manager . . . Had they called us, we could have prepared a color scheme and would not have charged them."

It's easy to overlook how many players shape a building beyond the architect: there are contractors, developers, construction workers, and especially residents, who frequently make adjustments without consulting any of the people who created the structure in the first place.

And architecture here has an additional, quintessentially Chicago wrinkle: aldermen. In Blum's interview, Macsai rants about his clients and "their swindling, their charms, their ability to work with the Daley machine, the payoffs, all that." But his diatribe was not rooted in personal enmity—rather, it stemmed from his own deep-seated and crystallized views on architecture. "The issue is that decisions in architecture are not made on a rational basis," Macsai tells Blum, "which would be the best for the neighborhood, for the community, and including the developer too, but they are made on bases which would make your hair stand up . . . The alderman, who usually is paid off—every alderman is a crook in the city of Chicago.

"It's almost a miracle when it all works out," he said.

If the construction of a random lakeside high-rise is miraculous, then what does that mean for a contemporary architectural masterpiece, like, say, Jeanne Gang's Aqua? Were there similar mistakes, accidents, or bureaucratic chicanery that helped form a building like that? If there were no calamities or oversights, and the process was faultless from design to completion, then that would constitute something beyond a miracle. It would be downright supernatural.

But then, isn't it even more miraculous when everything goes awry and the resulting building is somehow still a beloved landmark?

Maybe that's what distinguishes the architecture I'm drawn to: it's the by-product of caprice and unpredictability. As with an independent film or a great lo-fi album, it's the blemishes and malformations that give these buildings their singular identities.

The Malibu East on Sheridan: what a Jeanne Gang building might look like if it were designed by a TI-83 graphing calculator - DANIELLE SCRUGGS
  • Danielle Scruggs
  • The Malibu East on Sheridan: what a Jeanne Gang building might look like if it were designed by a TI-83 graphing calculator

Another implicit virtue of Macsai's architecture is its relationship to the past—it's a relic of another era. My favorite Macsai building isn't particularly well-known or well regarded—at first glance, it seems pretty mundane. At 6033 N. Sheridan there's a condominium tower called Malibu East, which is conjoined with a separate high-rise on Sheridan simply named the Malibu. The two structures are bridged by a ground-floor crosswalk commercial area known as the Captain's Walk. Like the Waterford, the Malibu and its Malibu East cousin have a brown brick exterior flanked by two white-walled columns on the street-side facade. White balconies line the sidewalls, and the way the bannisters are constructed gives the illusion that the apartments tilt diagonally upward. It kind of looks like a Studio Gang Architects building as designed by a TI-83 graphing calculator.

Macsai made sure the Malibu East had no windows on the west side of the building—that way every single apartment has a lakeside view, whether it's from the north, south, or east. In that respect the complex is somewhat unique among northeast-side high-rises, many of which contain multiple apartments with west-side views. But everyone at the Malibu East gets to live on the water.

I adore this building not just because of its design, but because of its concept. The condo tower has a recreation center, an outdoor tennis court and swimming pools, plus a number of bonus features in the Captain's Walk: a dry cleaner, a salon, a convenience store, and even a dentist's office. None of these are very up-to-date—they all look like relics of the 1960s and '70s. I'm amused by the notion of this residential building as a self-contained but outdated community, with amenities so old that they would hardly strike most people as "amenities" at all—it seems they exist merely to keep a group of people connected to another time, in a retro cocoon that shields them from the contemporary world.

Robert Powers, who runs the blog A Chicago Sojourn, has somewhat mockingly and somewhat affectionately labeled this stretch of Sheridan between Hollywood and Devon the "Cubic Zirconium Coast," wherein the owners of these apartments try to re-create the posh lifestyle of the Gold Coast on a much smaller budget. But the buildings are in keeping with the spirit of a lot of Chicago's far north side, much of which is relatively untouched and charmingly bizarre. Like the Lighthouse Tavern, a waterside Rogers Park dive bar with a vaguely nautical theme (much of the far-north lakefront seems to bear this fake-naval aesthetic), or Moody's Pub, which looks mock medieval, with its castle-tower imagery and dim, innlike wooden interior.

Looking up these buildings, and discovering Macsai, answered my original set of queries about the creators of these strange but crucial pieces of Chicago's architectural landscape. But when I found out that Macsai was still alive, I decided I had to talk to him. For some reason I felt like he might have answers to questions I didn't even know to ask.

So on a recent Monday morning I traveled to Macsai's apartment, near downtown Evanston. He'll be 90 soon, and I was warned in advance that his health had declined, and that I might not be able to get the answers I sought. I went anyway.

Of course, the building where Macsai lives is outlandish. It looks like a turn-of-the century mansion was converted into condos, with a random section in the middle that's almost faux Tudor. There are weird midcentury flourishes, most notably random patches of white stone that stretch up the side of the brown brick walls, which taken together resemble a misshapen and incomplete chimney. The complex overlooks a small park and has a heavy wooden door that Macsai's wife, Gerry, jokes, "is there to keep out ISIS." It also has a bronze plaque in front that indicates the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. What makes it so important? Gerry says the structure was an early co-op, and is more than 100 years old—which explains why the bricks on the eighth floor of the south facade fell off last June.

The Macsais' apartment is bright and long, and the walls are filled with John's paintings. They're expressionistic, colorful, and tend to depict natural settings: tree-filled landscapes; lakefronts with sailboats and rowboats; the view from a window in what looks like a French or Italian village; there's even an aerial view of the park that the Macsais' residence overlooks, with a compass rose and the surrounding buildings viewed from the front rather than from above. My favorite painting was an arrangement of geometric shapes—intersecting horizontal bars of various colors with some orange half circles, a fractured sunset that channels the same quirky warmth found in Macsai's designs.

In his interview with Blum, Macsai sounds wily and feisty, with a quick wit, a silver tongue, and a tendency to swear. When I met him, he was gentle and still, dwarfed by his wheelchair. He was neatly dressed in black pants, a clean blue-and-red plaid button-down shirt, and a zip-up black sweatshirt.

As soon as I sat down he said, slowly, "Life is not easy as an architect."

Why not easy?

"Because it's a field where everybody talks into," he said. "In this building [that he lives in], we have the biannual meeting of this organization, and I used to be the president, and now I'm just an onlooker. I'm just amazed at how ignorant people are about buildings and, more importantly, how active they're involved in making decisions about something [for which] they have very little knowledge."

It took him a while to get this answer out, then there was a long pause. He said, "What can you do? That's the way life is."

I tried to ask him questions, but didn't get very far. Sometimes he would trail off and the answer would be incomplete; other times he'd reply with one or two words, and if I tried to get more details he'd ask a question: What did you study? What do you do at work? Prior to answering, he'd sit silently and glance to the side, out the window that looks on to the sunny park. Before I could finish inquiring about a quote I'd read in the interview with Blum, he jokingly interjected, "I lied!"

He said that Harbor House is his favorite work. When I mentioned the mistakes that led to its ultimate design, he said, "If you would know how to make accidents work, you would know how to put buildings together."

I asked him if he thought anything got lost between the time he and his peers were designing buildings and the architecture of today.

"What was good, that never got lost."

What never got lost?

"Basic building design and the response to needs," he said, "human needs, functions, never really changed."

He looked out the window, his gemlike blue eyes lit up by the daylight. I recognized that look—I had seen it before. It reminded me of my grandfather. I visited him not long after he had a stroke, and he had the same soft stare. It wasn't vacant or sad; it was fragile. It was the delicate, liquid glare of wisdom.

I chatted with Gerry for a bit and then started getting ready to leave. As I was packing my bag, Macsai said, totally unprompted, "Your living space is not defined by your real needs. It is defined by your economic situation." And that was the last thing he said to me.

The ground floor of 1150 N. Lake Shore Drive - DANIELLE SCRUGGS
  • Danielle Scruggs
  • The ground floor of 1150 N. Lake Shore Drive

At the time, I thought this statement was pretty depressing: where you live and what your home looks like is defined by what you can afford. But later on I came up with another take: Architecture is complicated. It's a series of decisions and mishaps and arguments made not in the interest of aesthetics, but of necessity. People need homes, or parks, or offices. The spaces we inhabit are confluences of negotiation and concession, which are the nuts and bolts of human drama.

Before I left I searched the walls and mantels and saw pictures of Macsai and his family, children and grandchildren, everyone laughing and smiling. And I realized that what I treasure about Macsai's buildings, and screwy north-side architecture in general, is that they remind me of my family. They're the Chicago I know because I associate them with the people who mean the most to me. I love these buildings because in an ineffable, metaphysical way, they are my family.

I took the el downtown, in a bit of a daze. The Purple Line train snaked through Evanston and eventually past the wonky apartment buildings in Rogers Park. We whizzed alongside the graveyard in Uptown, on to the east side of Wrigley Field, then proceeded around the cozy homes of Lincoln Park before launching straight through River North. As I looked out the train-car window, staring at these various high-rises, I thought about a verse from one of my favorite albums: Van Morrison's 1974 LP Veedon Fleece, produced not long after a trip that Morrison took to Ireland, his homeland, right after his divorce. It's the first verse of the first song, "Fair Play":

Fair play to you
Killarney's lakes are so blue
And the architecture I'm taking in with my mind
So fine.   v

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