Walk into the lobby of Uptown’s Lawrence House and you enter a work in progress.
Following a reported $15 million renovation, the lobby at 1020 West Lawrence Avenue is supposed to be the beating heart of the redeveloped building, vibrant enough to convince tenants it's okay to live in a microapartment if the building has enough other amenities and proximity to public transit.
Right now, though, the lobby only hints at what’s to come. The low, black ceiling directly behind the entance’s revolving door gives way to a vibrant refurbished art deco skylight over the main portion of the lobby. The big, white open space resembles a college library with long tables of millennials pecking away at MacBooks.
A lobby bar sits to one side, waiting for a liquor license from the city so it can begin operation. Walls are covered with vintage photos that harken to the former hotel’s glory days. A hip coffee shop is open near the front door and a health food store will be in operation soon, as will the restored elevators that still sit behind a construction wall at the lobby’s far end.
“A lot of people want to live in the city and they want to pay $1,000 or less” in monthly rent, says Mark Heffron, a partner at Cedar Street Companies, whose Flats brand specializes in renovating old buildings into microapartments like those at Lawrence House, which stands two blocks east of a Red Line stop and the historic Aragon Ballroom and just a few blocks west of the lakefront.
The smallest studios measure just 235 square feet, almost the equivalent of two Chicago parking spaces; the smallest one-bedroom units are 410 square feet. The studio apartments resemble large dorm rooms, although much better appointed, with a washer/dryer unit in every unit and full kitchens that include retro-looking Smeg refrigerators.
Rents start at $925 for a studio and $1,400 for a one-bedroom. Utilities add another $65 or $85, respectively. Pet owners face additional fees.
That's a bit high for the neighborhood, even for rehabbed units. Around the corner, 655-square-foot one-bedrooms at the Sheridan-Gunnison Apartments start at $1,100, and a 550-square-foot junior one-bedroom at the luxury Covington Apartments can be had for $1,150.
But not every building has amenities like a massive 7,000-square-foot, two-room basement gym with everything from a boxing ring to rows of exercise machines. The hotel’s original pool also has been restored in its own basement enclave.
Go up to the roof or to a ground-level backyard and the building offers well-appointed party spaces, and a rooftop deck that provides sweeping views of the city and the lake.
One studio variation features a loft bedroom that makes the entire unit resemble the ubiquitous tiny houses now featured on a variety of TV shows, so that should appeal for those looking for simple yet funky.
Is Chicago ready for New York-sized microapartments? Flats is betting it is, and I could see how someone just starting their professional life could easily feel at home here. I wouldn’t, but I’m far from the target demographic. On the other hand, I could imagine my now 27-year-old daughter living here, as she did in a similar-size place in Brooklyn after she finished school.
Built in the late 1920s and designed by the same architects as the nearby Aragon Ballroom, Lawrence House was once a luxury hotel. According to Jazz Age Chicago, rooms in 1928 rented for as much as $160 a month, or about $2,200 in 2016 dollars.
In recent years, however, the building fell into disrepair and catered to low-income residents. Indeed, local community groups have criticized Cedar Street for displacing those residents, but Heffron says that when Cedar Street bought it in 2013, the building had been a mess, with dozens of building code violations. The options were either to tear it down or do a complete renovation, he says.
Jennifer Ritter, executive director of One Northside, a community group that was a vocal critic, remains unhappy with what’s been done. Flats “didn’t help former residents all that much,” she says. Heffron disagrees, saying “the assistance was real.” About 60 percent of the former 250 tenants got some assistance in relocating, he says, and Lawrence House has 22 units set aside for low-income tenants.