Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicago Athletic Association
 by: chicago designslinger

[Chicago Athletic Association (1893) Henry Ives Cobb /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Today many young people, and a few not-so-young people, often go out clubbing from midnight and into the wee hours of the morning. Clubs run the gamut - from former warehouse spaces packed with hundreds of partiers swilling bottles of water - to sleek, expensively tricked-out, Vegas-style venues piled-high with bottles of Veuve Clicquot. A hundred years ago, and for a  hundred years or two before that, clubbing usually happened in buildings sealed-off from the general public. This version of club life was peopled by a select group of well-connected businessmen and social elites who used these very private gathering spaces to do business, relax, or work-out, in a much more rarified, and definitely more sedate atmosphere.

  [Chicago Athletic Association, 12 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1890, the high-collared businessman's version of club life was at its peak. At the very top of this social networking ladder in the great Midwestern capitol stood the Chicago Club, and from that group, in May of that year, sprang the Chicago Athletic Association. A few Chicago Club members with some very recognizable names of the times - McCormick, Armour, Hutchinson, Fairbank, Spaulding - decided it was time to construct a club building that would provide members with a place to work those arms, abs and heart muscles as a component of the Chicago's elite membership roster. The facility had to include space for swimming, boxing, weight-lifting, tennis, racquet ball, saunas, dining rooms, as well as overnight accommodations, and the organizers selected one of their own, Henry Ives Cobb, a founding member of the Association, as their architect.

  [Chicago Athletic Association, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Cobb had come to Chicago from Boston in 1882 to design the Union Club, where his brother Albert just happened to be the treasurer. The 22-year-old had studied architecture and engineering at MIT and Harvard and was working for Boston architects Peabody & Stearns when he headed west, and he was able to convince an office cohort Charles Sumner Frost to join him in setting-up an architectural practice in the Windy City - a partnership that lasted until 1888. Cobb married into a prominent New York family and used his family's pedigreed New England roots, and his knack for understanding his clients needs and desires, to maneuver his way into the upper echelons of Chicago society and a steady stream of work. On January 11, 1891 when the Chicago Tribune announced that the recently formed Chicago Athletic Association would be building "A New Gymnasium" on Michigan Avenue, it came as no surprise then that the "Venetian-style-inspired" structure would be designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb.

  [Chicago Athletic Association Building, Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As the lacy Venetian screen rose up and over Michigan Avenue, passersby were mesmerized by the intricate stonework. There was nothing like it on the street, or for that matter in the city. Then on a cold day in early November 1892, just as the finish work was being completed inside, a pile of lumber caught fire which caused extensive damage to the interiors of the upper two floors. Since the inferno did not destroy the entire structure, the building garnered a lot of nationwide, headline-grabbing press coverage, heralding the project as a testament to Chicago's strict fireproof construction standards and the use of terra-cotta tiles as an effective flame retardant. The members decided to pretty much gut the interior and start over. Cobb's reworked interior rooms were ready for occupancy by December of the following year - worthy of any Venetian prince, and certainly fitting for Chicago's Doges.
The Athletic Association held on into the early part of the 21st century, but like many of  its Chicago contemporaries, changing times and tastes resulted in the club's closure in 2007. After 5 years of big plans and a foreclosure or two, a new group of investors recently announced their intention to convert Cobb's Venetian fantasy into a boutique hotel.

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