Sailboats scud across Lake Michigan whitecaps that mirror the clouds rambling through the sky. On shore, tourists on horseback trot along lakefront paths. Towering above the scene is the Shoreland, its pennants snapping in the breeze, a wedding-cake fountain burbling on its front lawn.
This, of course, is not a scene from the Shoreland’s recent history. Indeed, to see this portrait of a more gilded time in the building’s life, one would have had to visit the Shoreland on the evening of Wednesday, September 30, a visit that also entailed enduring the building’s current reality–abandoned, crumbling, its halls echoing with whispers of a glorious past. On that night, Antheus Capital, the Shoreland’s owner held a meeting in the former hotel’s Crystal Ballroom to discuss its plans for the building. The hosts projected images of the Shoreland’s halcyon past as they spoke. Aside from the scene already described, found on an old postcard, there were images of Amelia Earhart arriving at the hotel in an open car; rooms where Al Capone, Jimmy Hoffa, and Elvis Presley slept; and newspaper headlines about Mrs. So-and-So’s gay afternoon of bridge and idle chatter.
Until last spring, the Shoreland served as a University of Chicago dormitory, and while beloved by students, its years hosting undergrads were not its finest. The college life left the Shoreland decidedly shabby. Antheus hopes to change that by converting the hotel into a space with about 350 high-end rental apartments and an upscale restaurant, a project for which it will need city approval. And for the city to see Antheus’ plans, Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) must sign off on the proposal. Antheus had been preparing for the meeting by offering tours of the Shoreland in the preceding weeks, hoping to build public support before showing Hairston its plans.
The meeting lasted for nearly two and a half hours, largely because of objections over parking. As Hyde Park resident and 1980s UofC graduate Kathy Kelly said, “Everything in Hyde Park comes down to parking.” The most vocal of the parking objectors were the residents of the Shoreland’s neighboring building, 5490 South Shore Drive, who were concerned that a new Hyde Park attraction would worsen the neighborhood’s already cozy parking situation. At one point, a member of the 5490 group delivered a statement asking Alderman Hairston not to approve the project until a suitable parking situation could be worked out, her voice cracking with emotion.
Antheus President Eli Ungar acknowledged these complaints, saying, “Is this a perfect solution? No. Is it the best solution available? We think so.” The Antheus plan calls for the creation of roughly 230 additional parking spaces in the Shoreland’s basement space. The only way to increase this number, Ungar said, would be to replace the Crystal Ballroom with parking, a move that Antheus, which says it is committed to preserving the Shoreland’s historical elements, opposes.
After the 5490 bloc had quieted down, those in favor of the plan became more vocal, saying they favored the additional foot traffic the project would bring and pointing out that the alternative–the Shoreland sitting vacant for years to come–was far less attractive than any additional parking headaches. If Antheus’ plan falters, it seems unlikely that the Shoreland will be renovated any time soon given the state of the economy. Antheus says funding for the project is available and hopes to complete the Shoreland project in three years.
At the Wednesday meeting, Ungar tried to align Antheus’ interests with the community’s, saying he doubted many people want the Shoreland to remain vacant. Antheus representative Peter Casell said the company has “a strong desire for a vibrant neighborhood.”
It’s hard to disagree with Antheus’ plans, for the best argument for their proposals is the building itself. Walking out of the Shoreland over bits of plaster and beneath old university banners, accompanied only by the sound of your own footsteps, you start wanting the things Antheus wants, too.