The Sutherland: Restoring a Jazz-Era Gem
Some buildings are designed with apartment living in mind. Their rooms get rented, repainted, and spruced up over the years. Tenants come and go, and eventually, these properties nestle comfortably into their neighborhoods without much fuss. But more often than not, Hyde Park’s apartment buildings are much more than meets the eye! Take The Sutherland, located on the corner of South Drexel Boulevard and East 47th Street. Today it may be filled with studios, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units, but it experienced several dramatic identity changes before turning into the sleek modern apartments our residents live in and love today.
Built in 1917 and originally dubbed the Cooper-Montah, it morphed from a luxury hotel to a WWI military hospital and back again, before joining the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and receiving a stunning facelift from Mac Properties. Though it has evolved to fit the varying needs of the neighborhood, the building’s historic charm and original rhythm remain very much intact.
The Sutherland serves as a microcosm reflecting North Kenwood’s evolution from an upper-class Chicago suburb in the early 1900s to a vibrant venue for experimental jazz during the 1950s and 1960s. The Sutherland Lounge, situated on the north side of the then-hotel, wasn’t renowned for its interior architectural details but for its profound cultural significance. Once celebrated as Chicago’s best jazz venue, the Lounge welcomed performances from legendary jazz artists such as John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday, while fostering local talent, too.
As one of the first integrated hotels in the city – and one of the few still standing today – The Sutherland nurtured African American politicians, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists, embracing the surge in social activity and creative expression that emerged from Chicago’s south side.
Let’s venture back in time to see how it all began.
In 1917, Kenwood was a fashionable Chicago suburb which had been recently annexed by the City of Chicago. Catering to the upper class residents of the area, developer Sherman T. Cooper envisioned a high-end hotel on the corner of South Drexel Boulevard and East 47th Street. Christened the Cooper-Monatah Hotel, it was built seven stories high, featuring a limestone base and a body of red face brick. The exterior was crowned with Classical Revival terra cotta ornamentation, and inside, two L-shaped lobbies contained prominent marble staircases which both still exist today.
Unfortunately for Cooper, this grand vision was cut short as the United States entered WWI. In the fall of 1918, with a bare and half-finished interior, the Cooper-Monatah was commandeered and drafted into service as a military hospital. General Hospital No. 32 admitted thousands of wounded soldiers, and during the post-war years, it became a home for the US Public Health Service.
After serving a brief hospital stint, the structure’s original purpose was revisited. In June of 1925, it was snatched up by a hotel syndicate and named after the hotel director, William J. Sutherland. For the next quarter-century, The Sutherland Hotel permitted only white clients to stay in its rooms and enjoy its commercial spaces. The southern corner of the building originally housed a drugstore and the north end boasted a large café, which would later become the famous Sutherland Lounge.
According to print ads in the Hyde Park Herald, the “charming… large and sunny” rooms and “distinguished lobby” made the racially segregated Sutherland “as delightful a place as you could wish to live in.” But booking a room would finally become possible for both blacks and whites after racially-based restrictive covenants were ruled unconstitutional. This 1948 Supreme Court decision enabled African Americans to rent or purchase housing anywhere they chose, and many flocked to the no-longer-segregated North Kenwood neighborhood.
In 1950, The Sutherland found itself under new ownership by Maxwell Rubin, Lee Gould, and Samuel Cohen. Rather than faltering at the area’s shifting demographics, they made The Sutherland one of Chicago’s first integrated hotels.
A major investment of $300,000 (almost $3 million in today’s money) was made to update the historic property. New storefronts were added along 47th Street – a flourishing commercial corridor – to include a beauty parlor, barber shop, deli, physician’s office and a dentist. Advertised as “The Southside’s Most Progressive Hotel,” The Sutherland supported black business owners and provided meeting spaces for civil rights groups and local black politicians.
But the historic hotel is most famously remembered for what occupied the building’s north end: The Sutherland Lounge. From the 1950s to the 1960s, the vibrant Sutherland Lounge hosted brilliant black jazz performers and nurtured local talent, becoming a major destination lauded as the top jazz venue in the city.
It was a “swanky hangout” in its prime – spacious but intimate with great acoustics and an even greater reputation. Inclusive “black and tan” admission policies allowed black and white jazz fans to mingle and enjoy live music from the true legends of jazz. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Nancy Wilson, and Nina Simone, among others, performed in The Sutherland Lounge, while superstars like Etta James and Marvin Gaye stayed in the hotel.
A large open area with elegant square columns, sparkling chandeliers, and plush mauve carpeting, the Lounge often seated several hundred. The lower level housed a secondary performance space called the New York Room, and some say there was even a secret casino inside.
Despite widespread adoration for the performance space, by 1963 it was rapidly deteriorating and so The Sutherland Lounge closed its doors. Though it opened under new management the following year, it shut down again shortly thereafter due to financial struggles and continued decline. In 1982, The Sutherland Hotel was put to rest.
Seven years later, the vacant structure was secured by the Heartland Alliance and intended for affordable housing. A major rehab was done and the old hotel rooms were kitted out with updated amenities for apartment living. Additional fixes were made to modernize the building’s entrances, windows, balconies, and canopies, while the historic brick, limestone, and terra cotta façade was faithfully preserved.
Though the music had died years ago at The Sutherland, in 1991 a nonprofit called The Sutherland Community Arts Initiative was established by jazz trumpet player and upstairs resident Malachi Thompson. The neighborhood kicked off a new jazz festival, and a play named The Sutherland – written about a jazz trumpeter and inspired by the greats – hit the stage at The Victory Gardens Theatre in 1997. In the early 2000s locals started, but struggled with, a large-scale fundraising campaign: they dreamed of revitalizing The Sutherland Lounge for use as a performance venue once again.
Revitalization efforts were stunted when Malachi Thomson passed away in 2006, and the fundraising group’s vision never really came to fruition. The following year, the shabby structure was back on the market – bursted pipes, crumbling walls, and all. There was an uncertain future ahead for The Sutherland, despite the local community’s deep connections to the legendary space.
Though seriously neglected and requiring extensive renovation work, The Sutherland was welcomed into the Mac Property portfolio in 2010 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. The full restoration process soon began.
During The Sutherland’s 2012 transformation into a luxury apartment building, many of the original elements in the common areas were repaired and restored, modern amenities were added, and the units were opened up to take full advantage of the unique city views. During the rehab, our team uncovered the original cursive “Sutherland” sign and brought it back to life with neon tubing. Our designers also drew inspiration from the jazz era, incorporating playful patterns and high-contrast detailing, all evocative of musical rhythms and syncopation.
Today, The Sutherland’s design pays homage to the building’s rich history while preserving its character for the future. The original 1917 façade, elegant marble staircases, and beautifully restored lobby murals tell stories of the building’s hotel years, hospital stint, and jazz legacy to all who listen.
Inside the historic Sutherland, our residents enjoy sophisticated studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. Luxury finishes include granite countertops, European-style cabinetry, stainless steel appliances, and polished chrome faucets. The building offers a 24-hour fitness center, lobby concierge, onsite laundry center, a Wi-Fi lounge, parking, and a 24/7 maintenance staff. With close proximity to Lake Michigan and easy access to public transit, shops, restaurants, and museums, The Sutherland sits at the heart of a vibrant neighborhood with a rich cultural significance.
If interested in renting, please contact us at: 312-313-0638
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