Hidden secrets of 112 South Michigan
by Russell Gottwaldt
To some students, the idea of a drained forgotten swimming pool in the basement of the Michigan building is as farfetched and enticing as a forgotten underground city. Many refuse to believe in an inactive tiled cavity beneath the ground, while others steadfastly proclaim the existence of the mysterious ruin.
SAIC does have an unused pool in the second basement of the Michigan building—a leftover from the building’s former identity as the Charlie Club and Fitness Center. Charles Vavrus, an Illinois farmer turned land owner and businessman, purchased the building 21 years ago (which was initially erected as the Illinois Athletic Club between 1907 and 1908) and spent $25 million renovating and adding six floors to the building over the course of a year.
The club was just one of many in the Loop for wealthy socialites. The Charlie Club had two restaurants and squash courts, evident from the still-present wood planks and painted boundary lines in what is currently room 1306.
The Charlie Club featured one of Chicago’s very own frontrunners of house music, Joseph Welbon (a.k.a. Joe Smooth), as a head DJ coordinator competing with the many other urban city social clubs in the Loop. The University Club at 76 East Monroe, Union League Club at 65 West Jackson, the Buckingham Athletic Club at 404 South LaSalle, and many similar institutions were designed to entertain the upwardly mobile and provided a place to schmooze with Chicago’s business savvy.
But if SAIC tried to resurrect the Charlie Club’s classy 70,000 square-foot fitness center and reactivate the pool, it would be dangerously expensive for a small, currently in-debted art school. Executive Director of Operations Larry Fahey said, “Anybody who has a pool has very high liability issues.” Additionally, the overhead costs of a pool renovation could get added on to tuition costs. So, any SAIC students hoping to dip into a community pool in the near future shouldn’t get their hopes up. “What the school is most interested in now is education,” said Fahey. “More studio space, more classroom space—that’s been the priority,” which is why the fourth floor studio space in the Sharp building and other parts of SAIC’s campus have been recently remodeled.
Large business schools like Harvard or Yale make enough money through their endowments to build recreation centers or gymnasiums. Both schools’ endowments make up about 31 percent of their total income, while SAIC’s endowment makes up only 7 percent. This is, sadly, not enough to recreate the carefree Chicago-style club atmosphere of the Charlie Club pool area.
Due to financial problems and a lawsuit, Charlie Club Inc. put the 112 South Michigan building up for auction. The lawsuit, which was settled three years after SAIC had purchased the Class C hotel property and renovated it into the school’s first dormitory in 1993, was a precedent-setting case that is now referred to as Hill vs. Charlie Club Inc. A woman was attacked and raped in an empty Charlie Club conference room after being lured from the street into the building by a customer who was already known for prior theft and assaults in different athletic clubs in the same area.
What made the incident precedent-setting was that Chicago police had notified a Charlie Club employee to watch for the assailant because of known prior attacks. The case ruled in favor of Charlie Club Inc. stating that in part because of the plaintiff’s negligence, familiarity with the assailant, and that the plaintiff wasn’t a patron of the Charlie Club and Fitness Center, she was not guaranteed protection.
But any intoxicated art student running on a pool deck, swimming while inebriated, or jumping in the pool too soon after eating, would be a liability to SAIC and a huge expense to the parents who pay their tuition. Maybe students will rally for an open bar where Taza used to be instead.