Standard Oil of Indiana Headquarters, 910 S. Michigan Ave. (1911-Present)
The Chicago-based Karpen Brothers Furniture Company was the largest upholstered furniture company in the world in the early part of the 20th Century, and in 1911 they commissioned a headquarters for their offices and manufacturing at 910 S. Michigan. The nine Jewish immigrant brothers from Prussia had taken over the former location of the opulent Richelieu Hotel at 318 S. Michigan Avenue and converted it into their main factory in 1899. The Richelieu was famous for bringing fine dining to Chicago, but had lost money since its opening in 1885, and went into recievership in 1895. But by 1911, the Karpen Brothers had outgrown their six-story building just south of the Art Institute.
Also in 1911, the federal government broke apart John D. Rockefeller's powerful Standard Oil Trust-- which held 80% of market share in the growing oil industry-- into several smaller companies, one of which was Standard Oil Company of Indiana. In 1927, the Karpen Brothers sold the 13-story building, designed by Blackstone Hotel architects Marshall & Fox, to Standard Oil. Seven more stories were added to the building by architects Graham Anderson Probst & White in 1927, about the same time as the completion of the massive Stevens Hotel, just two blocks north on Michigan Avenue.
In the 1920s, oil companies became even more powerful with the boom in personal automobile ownership after World War I. On November 17, 1921, a group of wealthy and politically connected oilmen met in a hotel room in New York City to orchestrate what would eventually become the Teapot Dome scandal. The group included Colonel Robert W. Stewart, chairman of the board of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana. The group set up a dummy corporation in Canada, called the Continential Trading Company, which made a $3 million profit of which Stewart got $760,000.
When the scandal became known, Stewart at first escaped to Cuba, but returned to stonewall a Senate investigating committee. He was eventually tried for contempt of the Senate and perjury, but was acquitted both times. Under pressure to punish Stewart, the Rockefeller family-- with a 15% stock interest in Standard Oil of Indiana-- forced Stewart out of his $125,000 per year job with Standard Oil of Indiana, but Stewart ended up with a golden parachute pension of $75,000 per year.
Through the 1950s the roof of the building supported a 70 foot by 76 foot Standard Oil logo facing Lake Shore Drive. In 1956 the sign was touted as the largest neon emblem in the United States. In the mid-1950s, the Standard Oil Company had nearly 2000 daily employees working in the building, served by 14 elevators with 17 elevator operators. A restaurant at the south east corner of the ground floor served over 3000 meals per day.
In 1973, Standard Oil moved their headquarters to the 82-story Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center) at 200 E. Randolph, leaving their former home to struggle to find office tenants at a low point in South Loop development. The State of Illinois used the building for several years through the 1970s and early 1980s as offices for the Department of Employment Security. But by 1986 the building was nearly vacant.
Villas Development Corporation purchased the building in 1994 as the surrounding neighborhood was near bottom, and attempted the largest office-to-residential conversion in Chicago real estate history. After many false starts, delays and difficulties, the building was opened as loft condominiums with commanding views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan in 2000, under the name Michigan Avenue Lofts. One of the most attractive atributes of the building is the south-facing 65-foot by 65-foot light court. A $1 million wood-paneled lobby was installed to give the building some much-needed warmth.
The residents of the building are a proud and tight-knit group of urban pioneers. On June 4, 2011, more than 100 residents, neighbors and members of the Karpen family gathered in the building to celebrate the building's 100th anniversary with speeches, music, and a gala dinner.
Sources: Emporis, AIA Guide to Chicago, American Heritage.com, Wikipedia, Chicago Department of Landmarks, SKarpenFurniture.com, New York Times; January 29, 1899, Helene Gabelnick, John Taylor, Chicago Journal.
Photos: John C. Thomas, Library of Congress.