GOLD COAST — After 22 years as a city-run event space, the legendary interior that once housed Maxim’s de Paris restaurant inside the Gold Coast’s Astor Tower will be revived as a private neighborhood-centered social club.
The City Council Wednesday approved the $680,000 sale of the former restaurant to a couple who lives in the tower. The city owned the restaurant’s space since 2000, when it was gifted by the family of famed architect Bertrand Goldberg.
The club sits beneath a spray of lightbulbs and down an ornate spiral staircase tucked into the bottom of the Goldberg-designed tower at 1300 N. Astor St.
Down the staircase is a series of lush rooms clad with organic shapes and curving lines, served among a backdrop of mirrors, wood trim and burgundy walls. Maxim’s de Paris, the first franchise of the famed 19th century French restaurant, was known for its Art Nouveau interior and high end gastronomy. It was designed by Bertrand Goldberg and owned and operated by his wife, Nancy Florsheim Goldberg.
Bertrand Goldberg’s work has helped define Chicago’s architectural identity, with the iconic “corn-cobs” of Marina City being among the most widely recognized Chicago buildings in the world. His innovative designs for hospitals like Prentice Women’s Hospital, demolished in 2014, organized patient rooms into clusters, allowing doctors and nurses to better distribute care, while residential projects like the Hillard Towers Apartments provided Chicago Housing Authority tenants a place to live with dignity.
Maxim’s de Paris served French haute cuisine and fine wines to an audience of food lovers, politicians and celebrities from 1963 to 1983. That included Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. Its twenty-year run introduced Chicago to the art of classical French cooking and gave the city its first discothèque.
Its new owners, Astor Tower residents Adam and Victoria Bilter, will reopen it as the Astor Club, a private social club.
“It’s nice to see how much people love Maxim’s” said Victoria Bilter. “We’ve heard from a lot of neighbors who thought this would make a great private club.”
Adam and Victoria were living nearby when “24 East Goethe,” the address painted above the entrance to Maxim’s de Paris, sparked their curiosity.
“We are interested in historic places in the Gold Coast, so we did some research,” said Adam. “We loved the Art Nouveau of Maxim’s when we saw the place, which is kind of our style, but we also loved that the building is so modern.”
The Bilters then began the process of buying Maxim’s from the city while also engaging in an extensive years-long undertaking to engage with the community. During that process a penthouse unit in Astor Tower came up for sale, and the Bilters became residents. “We joke that we have a 28 floor commute,” laughed Adam.
In 1959, Bertrand Goldberg began designing a strikingly modern high rise for Astor Street, juxtaposed by the surrounding classical revival townhouses and apartments. The Astor Tower featured a structural center core of poured concrete upon which twenty-four residential floors were hung, and further supported by twelve parameter columns. The core and columns rise for a full five stories before the residential floors begin, giving the building the shape of an “ice pop.”
This innovative design required Bertrand Goldberg Associates structural engineer Bert Weinberg to revise the building’s structural calculations, requiring three more stories to be added to the design, delaying the start of construction. Meanwhile, Marina City had broken ground beside the Chicago River in 1960 and was constructed as scheduled, with its first residents moving in to the finished first tower in 1962, a year prior to the opening of the Astor Tower Hotel.
In need of a restaurant for the Astor Tower project, Bertrand Goldberg turned to his wife Nancy and her mother Lillian Florsheim, an artist and art collector, who suggested replicating Maxim’s de Paris. Bertrand then set out to replicate the famous French institution. The Goldbergs visited Paris to study the food and the famous dining room.
While Bertrand Goldberg is known for his architectural work, he was also a versatile designer of functional and artistic objects, from prefabricated freight cars to furniture. This versatility was useful as the Maxim’s concept developed, with Goldberg leading the design of many of the functional objects for the restaurant, including silver flatware manufactured by Cristofle, crystal by Baccarat, custom made plates in gold and blue from Limoges, chairs, and even the doorman’s uniforms. Original Alphonse Mucha posters were acquired from France. Above Maxim’s, the Astor Tower Hotel suites would feature custom-made French-inspired décor with a contemporary flair, courtesy of interior designer Ann Henderson Youngren.
As the opening loomed, Maxim’s found itself without a manager. With no restaurant experience, Nancy Goldberg stepped in, owning and operating the business for the next twenty years, developing into a world-renowned restaurateur and tastemaker.
“My mother became extremely knowledgeable about food,” said Geoff Goldberg, principal of G. Goldberg + Associates, and the son of Bertrand and Nancy Goldberg.
Born in 1922, Nancy was the daughter of Irving and Lilian Florsheim, founders of Chicago-based Florsheim Shoes. Nancy studied philosophy and mathematics at Smith College in Massachusetts. After graduating, Nancy wished to join her father in the family business, but he declined.
“Very bright women did not have the best place in the mid 20th century because of societal expectations,” added Geoff. “My mother was an unusual individual. She was a businesswoman. I came home as a child and saw her drawing lines in a ledger book. She said, ‘I’m working.’ She was graphing bond yield curves.”
Maxim’s de Paris opened in December 1963 with “Les Secrets de Maxim’s,” a show starring Jean Pierre Aumont, who sang songs from the 1958 film “Gigi,” accompanied by models in sky-scraping beehives dressed by Marc Bohan at the House of Dior. Guests sipped champagne at the mirrored L’Imperiale bar, and mingled in the Bagatelle, an intimate room with unusual wooden ribs and buttresses on the ceilings. (The Bagatelle would later become Disc de Maxim’s, Chicago’s first discothèque.) The inaugural meal was a replica of one served to King Edward VII in 1900.
Nancy Goldberg visited France each year, often returning to Chicago with chefs to cook in Maxim’s kitchen, many of whom would continue their careers elsewhere, growing the French culinary scene in Chicagoland as they opened their own restaurants.
“I honestly don’t mind them leaving when I feel that they are progressing,” Nancy told The Chicago Tribune in 1973.
Nancy found innovative ways to obtain ingredients for dishes if they were not widely available, including raising trout and growing hydroponic herbs for Maxim’s. “We would go out to the airport to meet salmon flown in from Scotland,” said Geoff Goldberg.
After twenty years in business, Maxim’s closed in 1982, but was purchased back by Nancy Goldberg when subsequent restaurants in the space failed. Nancy died in 1996, and Bertrand died a year later. In 2000, the Goldberg family gifted Maxim’s to the City of Chicago, and it became Maxim’s/Nancy Goldberg International Center.
“For some time, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events tried to rent out the space for special events. But that was never very successful,” said Bob McKenna, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development, as reported by Fran Spielman in the Chicago Sun-Times.
An easement was put in place when the space changed hands in 2000, protecting the interior of Maxim’s de Paris from alteration for ten years. Yet despite meeting multiple criteria for landmark designation, neither Astor Tower nor Maxim’s are Chicago landmarks.
While Astor Tower is located within the geographic boundaries of the Astor Street Historic District, it is a non-contributing building, meaning it is inside the district, but not protected from demolition, as the building was only thirteen years old when the district was created, and did not match the late 19th century historic revival styles that define the district’s character.
“Despite their inclusion in a landmark district, Astor Tower and, more specifically, Maxim’s de Paris are deemed non-contributing, which means they have no protection against alteration or demolition,” said Max Chavez, Director of Research and Special Projects at Preservation Chicago. “It is dangerous to assume that without landmark status, Maxim’s legendary interiors will remain as-is forever.”
The Bilters do intend to preserve the interior in advance of the opening of the Astor Club, slated for 2022. “We hope to restore as much as we can,” said Victoria Bilter.
In 2013, Brendan Sodikoff, founder of Chicago-based Hogsalt Restaurant Group, proposed buying Maxim’s and opening a full-service restaurant, but the location proved too complicated.
“We talked to Brendan when we evaluated all of this,” said Adam Bilter. “I really think it was a matter of this being a residential neighborhood [why the plan fell through]. We’ve lived in the neighborhood, and we live in the building, and with the private club approach, there won’t be a big impact.”
The Astor Club will feature live music, internationally influenced food and drink offerings, and special events like cooking classes and art shows — events not far afield from those offered at the original Maxim’s de Paris.
“We are going to bring chefs, sommeliers and mixologists in from around the world,” said Victoria, who was born in Ukraine and lived in Bellagio, Italy before coming to Chicago, and where she met and got engaged to Adam.
“We are looking to offer something unique for our members,” Adam said. “We’ve gotten quite a bit of interest, with most of our members living in the surrounding blocks.”
With the revival of the Maxim’s de Paris space, an aspect of Gold Coast history is revived, and so is the legacy of Nancy Goldberg, who not only influenced Chicago’s culinary scene but was instrumental in the success of Bertrand’s Goldberg’s career as an architect, providing him with crucial advice and feedback.
“Bertrand did not have the career he had without her,” said Geoff Goldberg. “She helped steer him on a path.”
Elizabeth Blasius is a Chicago-based architectural historian and co-founder of Preservation Futures. She is the former midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, and has also had her writing on architecture and historic preservation published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Bloomberg CityLab.
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