A Brief History of 339 W. Barry Avenue
Chicago’s First Condo Tower


High-rise condominium living came of age when 339 W. Barry received its first unit owners during Labor Day weekend in 1964. This 26-story residential tower in the East Lake View neighborhood four miles north of Chicago’s Loop provided the beginning of a lifestyle that successfully competed with high-quality rental and co-op apartment buildings. It actually pre-dated the wave of conversions of rental structures that swept through the lakefront area, making the word “condo” a familiar description in every realtor’s vocabulary.

Early efforts to adopt the condominium concept of space ownership in a shared building or complex had been restricted to low-rise townhouse-style structures that first appeared in Chicago’s far north side in the early 1960s.These were the modestly-priced developments led by Dunbar Builders. Responsibility for breaking the mold can be claimed by the Hoffman-Rosner organization led by Jack Hoffman, the son of suburban Hoffman Estates’ developer. This company took the plunge in its announcement in 1962 to build a contemporary high-rise apartment building that would identify itself to buyers as “your luxury condominium home in the sky,” thereby linking luxury and high-rise living with the concept of unit ownership.

Built on the site of an earlier symbol of luxury—a greystone mansion-like home—on a side street east of Sheridan Road two blocks south of Belmont Avenue, the 26-story tower was designed in the style of Mies van der Rohe. This minimalist architect was best known for his iconic unadorned skyscrapers on Lake Shore Drive north of Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile” that translated modern office buildings into residential towers. 339 Barry could be thought of as either a tribute or a knock-off, depending on your level of purist admiration.

Perhaps more significant were the construction details. The foundation was said to be substantial enough to support a much taller building and the original central heating-air conditioning system was identical to some of those in downtown office buildings. Window walls in all four directions (although most of the west-facing glass covered solid walls) brought the outside in, so to speak, augmented by open-air balconies. A higher level of sound-proofing than found in similar-size rental buildings also supported the claim for quality features that would appeal to prospective buyers.

When completed, the building had both a reception lobby and an interior lobby adjacent to the elevators. For 19 of the 24 occupied floors, the layout provided for a two-bedroom unit at the north and south ends of the structure with a one-bedroom unit tucked between the two. On each of the five other floors, two apartments filled the space and were sold as three-bedroom units adaptable to four bedrooms at the time of original purchase. Since then, several of the three-unit floor layouts have been modified by having a two-bedroom owner acquire either the adjacent one-bedroom apartment or even that plus the other two-bedroom unit on that floor. 

The two-bedroom apartments are mirror images of each other and they, along with the three-bedroom units, offer an impressive entrance feature. It’s a 20-foot gallery leading from the doorway and ending as a “T” that allows access to the living room, second bedroom, and a large suite. Accessed via a sliding door in every unit, either in the living room or a bedroom, the balcony is fully open with a protective railing and backed by east-facing windows. As a limited common element, there are restrictions as to usage and decor, but cooking is permitted via use of gas-fired grilles.

In tallying the plus and minus features, there are some amenities now common in many high-rises that are not found at 339 Barry. This condo cannot boast having an exercise room, a game room, swimming pool, or even a hospitality suite. But the developer’s intent was to create a home-like environment rather than that of a resort or spa facility—in other words, a quiet place with privacy being a paramount attribute. However, there is a large storage room within each unit as well as private lockers in the basement which share space with an up-to-date laundry room facility. The building also has been fully wired for cable TV reception.

As a final note, returning to the early years of occupancy, the selling efforts by Hoffman-Rosner included a substantial newspaper advertising campaign and distribution of colorful brochures to entice renters in the immediate area and beyond. While many came to visit the model apartments, only a small percentage of prospects actually bought. In 1964, the condominium concept was new and skepticism prevailed.

Mortgage departments at leading banks were not fully convinced that purchase of a condo unit would be as good as (or better) than buying a co-op. It therefore was not uncommon for first buyers to turn to the developer’s own financing source—a savings-and-loan association—to find a mortgage solution. And it wasn’t until the summer of 1966 that enough units had been sold to achieve the percentage needed to transfer control of 339 Barry to the fledgling homeowners association and also close out the operating functions that had been handled by the developer’s chosen management firm.

© 2010, Richline Services