Archive for October, 2022

Three Terrifyingly True Tales from the Loop

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This month, in honor of Halloween, we’re bringing you three terrifyingly true stories from our very own portfolio. Amongst the glamor and glory of Chicago’s business district is the very real and very sinister past that lurks beneath the surface. So sit back, grab your favorite cider, and settle in for three tales that will chill you and thrill you.

The Cursed Past of 819 S Wabash

Our first spooky story comes from the South Loop, at the now-revered Loftrium building. Today, this brick and timber loft is notorious for its wide-open feel, its natural aesthetic, and its proximity to multiple universities and colleges. But its roots run rotten and deep into a long, tragic history full of grief and mystique. The story begins with a familiar Chicagoland namesake:

The Gurnee family settled in Chicago to establish a saddle-and-whip store. The latter quickly gained influence via political connections, and achieved success through real estate developments across the state. In 1869, Amelia Gurnee married Joseph Armour, the owner of a massively successful grain merchant company. In the years following the Great Chicago Fire, however, their marriage fell apart, and Amelia died of an undisclosed cause. Shortly thereafter, the widower Joseph began to develop a mysterious illness and spent much of his time receiving extensive treatments at local spas.

A few years later, Joseph married his widow’s sister, Carrie, and quietly moved back to Chicago after a quick European wedding. Joseph’s health continued to decline, and a series of illness began to plague the Gurnee-Armour family. In rapid succession, Carrie’s father, her son, and her husband all passed away.Carrie was the sole inheritor of $3 million cash and bonds, as well as her late husband’s share of his company. Two years later, she became acquainted with and married Charles Munn, who had strong business connections with the Dows and their extremely successful freight brokerage and grain commission company. The Dows company and Munn family had worked together in New York not long after the Munns immigrated from Ireland, and became close even after the latter moved to Chicago.

Carrie and Charles Munn had two children and quickly worked their way up the social ladder with the help of the Dows. Their family frequented Newport, New York City, Mancester, St. Augustine, and Palm Beach. With their success came mansions, vacations, and exclusive access to the famed Chicago Club and Union Club. But even legendary wealth couldn’t protect them from tuberculosis, which unexpectedly killed Charles at age 50. During the Gurnee-Munn’s time in Chicago, Carrie had become acquainted with the son of a supreme Court justice and “Chicago’s first lawyer,” Arthur Caton. Caton’s wife had famously maintained a lengthy affair with Marshall Field, whom she later married. Caton had died of unknown causes during their marriage, and Field, too, dropped dead just five months after his wedding to the former Mrs. Caton.The Gurnee-Munn children often held playdates with the Caton children at the White House, where the eldest Munn befriended Robert Todd Lincoln. Through a series of high-society teas and meetings, Carrie successfully commissioned the construction of the Munn Building at 819 S Wabash. She also financed a nearby building which was regarded as “the world’s largest music house.”

During their time in Washington D.C., Carrie’s daughter and namesake became close with Ethel Roosevelt and spurred rumors that she was due to be engaged to Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. She instead married Reginald Boardman of Boston, but stayed close with the Roosevelt family.

Carrie Munn suffered a stroke in 1912 and was confined to her Washington home, where her children stayed by her side for months. Carrie survived the stroke, but was killed in a tragic car accident when her limousine inexplicably crashed into a telephone pole only a year later. Her estate was carried out by her children, at which time S. Karpen & Bros signed a 99-year lease at 819 S Wabash. The building has since changed hands several times over the past century, and at one point ironically hosted a coffin factory. But today, the building boasts almost all of its original charm: namely, a massive central atrium whose light reflects off every surface, not unlike its original creator. The Gurnee-Munn family continued to make headlines for their luxurious lifestyles, with one Munn child becoming one of the first people to film their wedding day. The others went on to be fashion icons, developers, and eventually retirees — some settled in their former vacation towns, and others’ fates were lost to time.

The once-gilded age of the Munns trickled slowly into grit, and then was again revived in the mid-20th century when the South Loop underwent revitalization efforts by developers and played host to dozens of major film companies. Another handful of decades later, yet another transition attempted to rebrand the area into a desirable location for professional service firms. The only remnant of its glitzy and glamorous past is the pale, haunting ghost signs boasting colorful, flashy ads across its facade. Its rich history may be buried, but 819 S Wabash stands strong over 100 years on.

The Tragic Origins of 117 N Jefferson

Our next story is a lesser-known chapter of an infamous tale: the Haymarket bombing. At 117 N Jefferson currently stands a modernized office building, another brick and timber remnant of the previous owner’s glitzy and glamorous lifestyle, now home to a host of professional service tenants none of the wiser about its true origins.

On May 4, 1886, a group of pro-union activists organized to protest the tragic death of several workers during a labor lockout the previous day. Speakers stood over the crowd and shared ideas for improving working conditions, ways to prioritize safety and improve work-life balances for those with families, and other vital issues the government had yet to address. 

The protest was relatively peaceful – sure, participants were rightfully riled up by the injustice, but the environment was one of mourning, and of hope for a better future. It was also significantly smaller than intended – only 2,500 people attended rather than the expected 20,000, and only 200 remained when police began storming the meeting despite the fact that Mayor Harrison had given explicit permission for the meeting to occur. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a bomb exploded. 

To this day, no one knows who threw it. No one knows why. No one has ever claimed responsibility. But the bombing resulted in dozens of deaths, with only one directly attributed to the bomb itself – the others were solely from the chaos that occurred as a result. Many prominent men in the labor movement were scapegoated and eventually killed for their supposed participation in the protest, and conspiracy theories abounded regarding the true identity of the bomber. 

Chicago’s underground anarchist community consisted of more than just laborers, they included individuals from all tax brackets, and many witnesses went on the prove that none of the convicted men had been the one to throw the bomb. At the trial it came to light that a detective had infiltrated an anarchists meeting and falsely testified that the group intended to cause destruction and violence. Six months later, as one of the activists stood at the gallows moments away from his death, his final words rang out: >”There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Some speculate that an anti-labor movement counter-protester was the one to throw the bomb, and although this individual has never been found, his ghost – and the spirit of all those who suffered at his hands – still walk those West Loop streets, waiting, still, for justice.

The Woeful Beginnings of 226 S Wabash

Our final story takes place along a wide stretch of Wabash avenue, starting with 226 S Wabash. Here stands one of three office buildings called the Wabash Trio, which attract tenants for their wide open layouts and efficient floor plates. At the base of 226 is a casual pub famous for its pizza…but also for its sordid history. 

Above the bar and tables is a brothel that has long been sealed off from view, accessed only by a tiny cramped crawlspace on the second floor. An underground tunnel system winds underneath the building and is rumored to have acted as a stashing place for Al Capone’s bootlegging business. Further down Wabash, just down the road from several of our South Loop buildings, is the site of the original Four Deuces. This building at 2222 S Wabash played host to multiple gambling circles which often devolved into violence, and even murder. A secret passageway allowed saloon patrons to enter one way and brothel patrons to enter in the other. Some historians believe that there was once a trap door and basement where rival gangsters and thieves were taken for nefarious purposes. The concrete remains of the Four Deuces can still be seen crumbled under the L tracks, and 226 S Wabash still stands tall and proud among its slightly-more-innocent sisters. Capone’s mark on Chicago permeates deep into the city’s blood, and some say the spirits of his loyal followers stalk the length of Wabash to this very day.

For more haunted history and true tales about downtown Chicago, subscribe to our newsletter and check out our podcast at the links below. 



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The ABCs of DEI in CRE

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In the business world, there are a few buzzwords that regularly make their rounds in corporate conversation. Words like “synergy.” “Circling back.” “Putting a pin in it.” “Tabling it.” “Seamlessness.” “Frictionless.” “Collaboration.” And for the most part, these words hold little water. They’re just filler that’s meant to make you sound smart. But there are other words, too — words like diversity, equity, inclusiveness, accessibility. Those are thrown around with relative weightlessness, but they’re some of the heaviest and densest topics of conversation that a business can have. Most of us like to believe that we’re self-aware and in tune with the controversial goings-on in the communities around us, but the truth is that even the most empathetic, pure-hearted person can often miss what’s right in front of them. When the conversations do happen, they’re often limited to hypotheticals and theoretical discussions — we should  be doing this, we plan on doing that. And in fairness, we can’t solve inequality overnight. Frankly I’m not sure if we can ever solve something like that. Even now, I’m certain that this episode will miss much of the nuance involved in tackling racial, social, and physical inequality, despite my best efforts to be inclusive. So I hope you’ll take the following with a hearty grain of salt and understand that I’m coming from a place of my own privilege, and that sometimes there are no easy answers.

DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. You’ll see it a lot in think pieces from real estate firms, many of which have created presentations and workshops for executives to take stock of their implicit biases and work to enact meaningful change. A lot of us would like to believe that DEI is at the forefront of our minds, but let’s be honest — when we sit down at our desks with our mugs of coffee and about a hundred unread emails, the last thing we’re contemplating is the socioeconomic complications stemming from centuries of oppression and violence. That’s because DEI is really, really complicated. It’s incredibly overwhelming even if your entire job is to promote inclusion and accessibility. Jessica Edgerton from Leading Real Estate Companies of the World said it best when she described DEI as not a sprint nor a marathon, rather, a constant journey forward with no specific finish line. And although Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu preceded Jessica by over a thousand years, he too laid the foundation for change in real estate when he said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. With that in mind, let’s take the first step.

One of the most important things we can do for DEI as commercial real estate professionals is to actually get people in the room who can provide insight on issues surrounding inclusivity. There really is no such thing as colorblindness — it’s undeniable that our modern society is at the mercy of centuries of systemic oppression for non-white folks — but some proactive change can come from blind review practices. One example is using a  software system that hides candidates names and emails from their application to ensure that recruiters aren’t being affected by unconscious bias when reviewing applicants. Studies show that candidates with Anglo-Saxon, Americanized names tend to receive nearly 50% more callbacks than those with, quote, “black-sounding” names. Some companies even use voice-altering software and AI to mask candidates’ gender and racial presentation, which can help ensure that opportunities are being presented to the best possible candidates, regardless of how they look or sound. Perhaps there’s room to extend this to RFPs, so that minority-owned businesses are given unbiased consideration for leasing a space as their white counterparts. Commercial real state is predominantly white and male, with fewer than 1% of executive jobs going to women of color. Men of color fare only marginally better at 1.3%. Only 0.7% of real estate investment firms are owned by women, and only 2% are minority-owned. To help combat this disparity, CRE firms and training institutes should be going out of their way to recruit at historically black colleges and universities, getting in front of networking groups for non-white professionals, even designing scholarships and mentorship programs specifically for non-white students interested in CRE to shadow experienced peers in the industry. Furthermore, training courses should reconsider the language used in their materials — how many property law hypotheticals about married couples include the traditional structure of a man and woman? It may not mean anything to some of the people in the room, but LGBTQIA+ students will benefit from seeing themselves represented, even if it’s just a few questions on the broker exam.  We should be seeking out alternate perspectives from people not currently in the boardroom, not just waiting until there’s controversy or an unfavorable audit. 

Next, let’s talk accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that retail businesses must provide access for people with disabilities when constructing new facilities. When we hear that, we tend to conjure images of wheelchair ramps and handrails for staircases, but it goes so much deeper than that. Smaller tenants with fewer resources will not always have the budget to make their spaces compliant. When presenting a space to a prospect, accessibility should be top of mind, not an afterthought. How high are the counters in the space? Will people with mobility limitations be able to navigate the current buildout? Can the bathrooms accommodate not only wheelchairs, but people with joint or balance issues? What about the conference room? And what about the lighting? People with sensory sensitivities may struggle with overly bright lights or floors that creak with every step. When we show offices, are we giving any consideration to designating space for nursing mothers, or assuming they’ll just have to nurse in a public bathroom or storage closet? And when was the last time you evaluated your marketing and business materials? Certain fonts and colors can be difficult to see for people with visual impairments, and sometimes screen-readers can’t interpret the words on the page. In your promotional videos, use closed captioning and provide a transcript whenever possible. Websites should be designed with modulation and functionality in mind, meaning pop-ups, flashing content, and drop-down menus should be easily navigated and hidden when needed. Web developers should ensure that pages can be accessed via the tab button rather than needing a mouse click.  Photos and videos of spaces should be brightly lit with color contrast, and size dimensions should be included whenever possible. You don’t want to wait until your client shows up for a tour to discover that they physically can’t fit their assistive equipment through the front door. You don’t have to advertise the fact that you care about accessibility — in a perfect world, that will shine through and be apparent without having to draw additional attention to it. 

Two or three steps into a thousand-mile journey may not seem significant, but if it makes a difference to even one person, then it matters. There are no downsides to making people feel heard and represented. There are no downsides to allocating funds towards uplifting underrepresented individuals with in and outside of your firm. Identifying disparities in the way you conduct business can be intimidating and even embarrassing, but it’s absolutely essential for creating a more equitable environment and attracting top talent to your firms, and high-quality businesses to your offices and retail spaces. Businesses which contribute to the beautiful, diverse, ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-resilient landscape of this city.

In addition to the minority-focused commercial real estate nonprofits we’ve listed below, we wanted to give another important cause the spotlight this month. The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago needs our help to support their mission of the 3Rs for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona: that’s Rescue, Relief, and Rebuild. Additionally, the Red Cross of Chicago is mobilizing its volunteer groups to send relief efforts to Florida, where Hurricane Ian has caused record-breaking devastation to tens of thousands of people. These deadly storms are only going to continue as climate change ravages the world, so we ask that you also consider donating to the Chicago Community Climate Partnership, which aims to tackle climate crises through community partnerships and educational workshops. We all have a responsibility to look out for each other and to step up in times of desperation. We know money might be tight right now , so each of these orgs have volunteer opportunities that cost nothing and mean everything. 

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