The Chicago Motor Club building.

photo by: John W. Iwanski/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

April 6, 2016

Saving a Relic of the Early Days of Car Ownership

  • By: Filip Mazurczak

When a historic building is adapted for a new purpose that marks a stark departure from its original function, preservationists often rightly worry whether its unique architectural features will be preserved. Recently, Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture transformed the Art Deco masterpiece that is the Chicago Motor Club building into a hotel. In the process, the firm uncovered and restored many elements that make the century-old building look much more like it initially did before the restoration efforts were initiated.

In the early 20th century, motor clubs sprung up across the United States to cater to a growing number of drivers. These organizations promoted motor vehicle ownership, lobbied for the construction of safe motorways, and distributed travel information. The Chicago Motor Club, founded in 1906, was such an institution.

Chicago Motor Club tile

photo by: Patsy McEnroe Photography

The Chicago Motor Club was one of many motor clubs, reflecting the explosive growth of car ownership in the early 20th-century United States.

From 1929 to 1986, the Chicago Motor Club building served as the seat of the local branch of the American Automobile Association (AAA). Afterwards, it housed a variety of commercial tenants. Starting in 2004, however, the Art Deco building was vacant, and the specter of the wrecking ball constantly hanged over it.

At least until last year, that is. In 2015, Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA), a firm experienced in successfully completing challenging adaptive reuse projects, worked on converting the historic building into the Hampton Inn Downtown, which involved building modern amenities such as a rooftop restaurant, while preserving its original elements. Given the Chicago Motor Club building’s rich historic detail, this was no small feat.

The lobby of the Chicago Motor Club building.

photo by: Patsy McEnroe Photography

Three decades before the Eisenhower administration, there weren't too many motorways in America, but they were enough to inspire this historic mural.

Although today we take cars for granted as a mundane, unexciting part of everyday life, in its early days the car inspired the imaginations of artists. In Italy, for example, the Futurists wrote poetry praising the horizons that would be opened up thanks to the new invention.

The architectural design of the Chicago Motor Club’s headquarters similarly reflects the artistic creativity cars inspired. Built by the Holabird & Root architectural firm, the building includes many motor vehicle-inspired features. For example, on both the building’s interior and exterior there are sculpted eagles to suggest the fast motion that cars brought. The recently reinstalled light fixtures resemble clouds, another symbol of fast motion. Meanwhile, the lobby floor patterns resemble road lane lines. The lobby is decorated with a nature motif including mountains, water, and highways, which was supposed to suggest going outside for a joyride.

However, the most spectacular car-related motif in the building is the mural in the lobby. This cartographic mural, painted by Chicago artist John Warner Norton, shows a map of the United States crisscrossed with 1920s-era transcontinental highways.

The Chicago Motor Club building had been renovated many times. HPA decided to restore the building to its former glory and make it look as much as it had originally. In doing so, the lobby mural was cleaned.

“We discovered that the walls in the lobby area had been painted over many times,” Paul Alessandro, a partner at the firm who worked on the project, says. “We quickly noticed that the mural was really a part of the architecture and that the lobby area’s color scheme was initially the same as that of the mural.”

Thus the original paint scheme on the lobby walls was restored, as was the plaster ornamentation, much of which is silver leafed, revealing a nature motif with leaves, birds, and geometric patterns.

Several of the Chicago Motor Club building’s initial features that had faded away over time were brought back to life. These included the original spiral staircase with a nickel railing. Meanwhile, 1920s light fixtures found in a rooftop mechanical room were reinstalled.

At the same time, the 1928 limestone exterior’s masonry and windows were cleaned and repaired. The decorative ornamentation of the building entrance was fixed, recoated, and reinstalled, while a new entry canopy was added to replace the original that was removed many years ago. HPA’s work is an inspired example of adaptive reuse, because it preserved the Chicago Motor Club building’s unique architectural elements and brought back many that had been forgotten by history and seemed destined for oblivion.

Guests will be drawn to the Hampton Inn Downtown for its convenient location and high standard. But they will also undoubtedly be attracted to a painstakingly restored Art Deco architectural gem that hearkens back to a time when the car, now as banal an invention as electricity and running water, could inspire truly breathtaking art.

An exterior shot of the Chicago Motor Club building.

photo by: Patsy McEnroe Photography

An Art Deco masterpiece, the Chicago Motor Club was restored to its original vision before being converted into a Hampton Inn.

Filip Mazurczak

Filip Mazurczak was an editorial intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He previously worked as a freelance journalist, translator, and editor. He is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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