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Sunday, 2 August 2009

Wasn't that Karroll's?

Junto Photos: Richard Carreno
Now the Hotel Burnham

By Richard Carreno
Junto Staff Writer
On a recent visit to Chicago, I slept in a old friend's men's clothing shop in the Loop. Man, was I surprised!

Let me explain.
Innocently enough, I checked into the Burnham Hotel, in the old Reliance Building at the southwest corner of State and Washington. I like old buildings with worth and pedigree, and the Reliance, a glass-covered, 15-floor early 'skyscraper,' is one the best in Chicago. The building's construction, completed in 1891, was overseen by the inimitable firm of Daniel H. Burnham, arguably Chicago's pre-eminent architect during the city's resurrection in the aftermath of the 1871 fire.

My hotel stay was great. My room, on the 15th floor, looked north, past the old Marshall Field, toward the Chicago Theatre and beyond to the River.

The hotel itself, now managed by the Kimpton chain, is a marvel in restoration and renovation. It's like living in early 20th century office building -- with a touch of luxury. (I don't know on what floor, but Al Capone's dentist had his office in the Reliance. Can't you hear it? 'Al, Al, this is goin' be painless....')

Back to my friend, his men's clothing shop, and my weekend visit at the Burnham.

The Walgreen's next door gave it away. Yes, I was sure. Wasn't the Karroll's Men Store at this very same corner?

Indeed, it was until.... Well, I don't know. Until my visit last month, I hadn't been in Chicago in about 10 years, and the Reliance had been renovated, thanks largely to funding by the city, in 2001.

I remember Karroll's from that late 1960s, when I first learned of the place by Jon Karroll who was one of my room-mates in a flat he and I shared (with Ray, Terry, and a rotating crew) on West Fourth Street in the West Village. (We were all NYU undergraduates at the time).

Though parents lived near Chicago, I had never heard of Jon's Chicago shop, owned by his family, of course. (Back in the day, I was strictly Blooks Blothers). But whenever in the Loop, I'd pop in at Karroll's, and in the summer, I'd meet up with Jon when he was helping his Dad, and learning something about the rag trade.

Jon was never a good friend. He held to kosher rituals, and, frankly, living with him was a drag. I could never get a hang of what was what, or right, kosher-wise, that is. Also, I didn't care.

In those days -- I was in and out of Chicago frequently for more than 20 years -- Karroll's, on the southwest corner of Washington and State Street (that 'great street') was at the hub of downtown Chicago.

There used to be a saying that if you waited long enough, you'd bump into everyone you know at that very same corner. (Of course, they used to say the same thing about Piccadilly Circus, as well). Anyway, at the corner of Washington and State, I met Karroll's and Walgreen's. That was sort of my Chicago ritual. If I had also looked up, I would have encountered the Reliance Building.

Thanks to a book by Jay Pridmore, published by the Chicago Architecture Foundation about the building, my memory was jogged. Now where the hotel restaurant is located was Karroll's street-level space. If it hadn't been a photo in the book, I wouldn't have known otherwise. Back then, I wasn't paying enough attention. I knew the Monadnock and the Rookery. But I wasn't looking up -- a pre-requisite.

The great Burnham and the conversion of the Reliance in to a great hotel is a combo not to miss. The hotel is also pet-friendly, serves free vino every afternoon, and, if your timing is right, you can also pick up free ice-cream cone most afternoons. And, yes, the Walgreen's is still next door on Washington. Quite handy, actually.