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Gold Coast and the Magnificent Mile | Neighborhoods | Chicago by 'L'

Gold Coast

Gold Coast and the Magnificent Mile

The grand homes of North Astor Street back up to the high rises that line Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast. Photo: Meredith Francis

The Story of Gold Coast and the Magnificent Mile

While the area north of the Chicago River stretching up towards North Avenue now has a glitzy retail corridor and equally glitzy mansions and residences, it was once relatively isolated from the Loop. The isolation from the bustle of the city may have been part of what drew hotel and retail magnate Potter Palmer and his wife Bertha, the presiding royalty of Chicago society, to begin constructing a mansion along the lakefront near Oak Street Beach in 1882. It cost approximately $20 million in today’s money and contained a three-story, glass dome-topped central hall, among other opulent touches.

The Palmers were followed by other wealthy residents, many from the city’s exclusive addresses along Prairie Avenue on the South Side, which was being overtaken by railroads and a nearby a red light district. Along with the mansions eventually came luxury apartment buildings and fancy residential hotels, such as the Drake and the Ambassador East. Along with the socialites there was also Hugh Hefner, with his original Playboy mansion.

From the mid-1960s through 1989, Playboy’s offices could be found in the Palmolive Building on the Magnificent Mile, the shining stretch of Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to the river. According to the Magnificent Mile Association, this corridor was proposed by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett in their seminal 1909 Plan of Chicago, which called for a grand boulevard like Paris’s Champs-Élysées.

The decade following the opening of the Michigan Avenue (now DuSable) Bridge in 1920 saw an economic boom for the north side of the river, with elaborate buildings in a variety of styles : the Wrigley Building (neo-classical), Tribune Tower (neo-gothic), and the McGraw-Hill Building (art deco). The historic Water Tower was already there, having survived the Chicago Fire of 1871; the John Hancock Center (now 875 N. Michigan) was built in 1969. Developer Arthur Rubloff coined the name “Magnificent Mile” in the 1940s and began renovating and developing new properties along the avenue, development that continued through the end of the century. New transformation is on the way, as the Tribune Tower is converted from commercial to residential use.

The Clark/Division Red Line stop falls near the Gold Coast, while the Grand/State Red Line stop is just off the Magnificent Mile. Both are part of the Near North Side community area.

The Pump Room

The Pump Room served up lavish meals for many years. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

Neighborhood Spotlight: The Pump Room

For decades, the Pump Room was Chicago’s place to see and be seen. Opened in 1938 by hotelier Ernie Byfield in his Ambassador East Hotel at State Parkway and Goethe Street, its legendary “booth one” – the first seat off the entrance – counted numerous stars among its regulars: Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and many more. Crowds flocked to spot them and dance to the live music – and to enjoy the extravagant food and service, which included elaborately costumed waiters cooking tableside or serving flaming pieces of lamb on swords.

In 1976, Rich Melman acquired the Pump Room, the first fine-dining restaurant in his growing Lettuce Entertain You group. He helped revitalize the restaurant, which had faded over time, then sold it in 1996. Since then, it has struggled. Eventually, the hotel and the restaurant were revamped in 2010, with a menu by renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Lettuce Entertain You bought the restaurant back in 2017 and named it Booth One; that closed in mid-2019. But the glamor lives on in the photographs throughout the hotel of celebrities who dined there.

Things to Do

Stop in at one of the more unusual museums in the city, the International Museum of Surgical Science, located in one of the Gold Coast’s historic mansions. If that doesn’t slake your appetite for museums (or your actual appetite), head to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and eat at its acclaimed café, Marisol.