When veteran developer Michael Supera passed on earlier this month, the city lost one of the great lions of apartment rehab and condominium development.
At one time Mickey Supera owned more than 3,000 rental apartments in Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View and other North Side lakefront neighborhoods. In later years, Supera’s S&Z Development built posh condos overlooking the lake in the Lincoln Park and Sreeterville neighborhoods.
But let’s imagine a time after World War II, when Supera was a young boy and he was learning the real estate business from his father, Louis Supera, and Supera’s development partner and family mentor, David C. Ruttenberg.
The year was 1947. There were no condominiums in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and a six-room apartment at Armitage and Cleveland rented for $33 a month. You could ride the Halsted streetcar for a nickel, and take in a double feature at the Biograph Theater for a quarter.
Rent control was in effect, and the concept of investing and rehabbing in turn-of-the-century buildings was unheard of in the blue-collar Lincoln Park neighborhood.
In 1999, this writer interviewed Ruttenberg who then was a 90-year-old attorney, art lover and the patriarch of a three-generation real estate investment and development family.
“I never envisioned Lincoln Park growing into what it is today,” said the late Ruttenberg.
Nearly 70 years ago, just after the end of World War II, there was a housing shortage in Chicago, and Lincoln Park was an aging ethnic melting pot, of Germans, Italians, Jews, Polish, Slovaks, Serbians, Romanians and African Americans.
North Avenue—with its beer gardens, saloons, lodges, German-language movie theater and family-owned shops—was known as “Bavarische Himmel,” or Bavarian Heaven.
Back then, Lincoln Park’s European flavor and a budding Old Town artist and writer’s colony attracted Ruttenberg. His father, Abraham Isaac Ruttenberg, immigrated to America from Neustadt, Lithuania, near East Prussia.
“I thought Old Town and Lincoln Park could become the Greenwich Village of Chicago,” Ruttenberg said. “Our Crilly Court Apartments in Old Town already were considered an intellectual center of writers and artists.”
In 1947, Ruttenberg and his partner, the late Louis Supera, purchased a rooming house at 2741 N. Pine Grove and remodeled it into one-bedroom sleeping rooms.
The venture was profitable. In 1950, the novice investors placed a $10,000 down payment and purchased a run-down 20-unit red brick apartment building at 500 W. Armitage for $40,000.
“A Serbian immigrant named Ali Ba-Ba lived there. He paid $33 a month for a steam-heated, six-room apartment,” recalled Ruttenberg, with a wink through thick, horn-rimmed glasses.
In the early 1950s, rent control ended. A 2-bedroom, 1-bath apartment—with a fireplace in the living room, and dining room divided by pocket doors—leased for $60 a month.
While thousands of Chicagoans, and their friends, were fleeing to tract-built houses in the cornfields of suburbia, Ruttenberg and his wife, Sarajean, decided to stay in the city. They purchased a cooperative apartment on the 2400 block of North Lakeview, and raised two sons.
Ruttenberg was one of the first knowledgeable investors to realize that the Lincoln Park neighborhood eventually was going to be one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States.
“When everyone moved to the suburbs in search of the American Dream, my father wisely started purchasing and rehabbing vintage properties in Lincoln Park,” recalled David W. “Buzz” Ruttenberg, David’s son and founder of Belgravia Group.
Meanwhile, David Ruttenberg and Louis Supera began upgrading and rehabbing their apartments with new electrical service, plaster and paint. Black paint was applied to exterior window trim and porches, instead of U.S. Navy-surplus battleship gray, which was cheap and popular after World War II. That was the first of many innovations by the rehab team.
“We refinanced our buildings, took the money and bought more buildings in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Ruttenberg recalled.
A cockroach-infested rooming house at 2230 N. Cleveland was purchased for $20,000 and de-converted to a 3-flat. “A third-floor hallway in the Victorian 3-flat became an art gallery crowned with a skylight, and the 2-bedroom apartment with fireplace and double master bath rented for the then outrageous sum of $250 a month,” Ruttenberg said.
Six row houses on Grant Place and Cleveland were purchased for $65,000 and rented to a group of artists, designers, architects and professionals.
One day, an architect who was director of the Illinois Institute of Technology asked Supera if he could strip the plaster off the wall and expose the bare brick. “At first, we thought he was crazy. But Supera said: ‘Look at the money we’ll save. We won’t have to paint,’” Ruttenberg chuckled.
At the time, Ruttenberg and Supera didn’t realize they were starting another trend—exposed brick walls—that would continue into the loft condominium boom of the 1990s and beyond.
In the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal swept through the Lincoln Park neighborhood. “Urban renewal was a hot issue,” Ruttenberg said. “While some developers razed Victorian buildings, or changed their architectural character, we worked inside to renovate our properties.”
Between 1960 and 1977, the city's Department of Urban Renewal demolished 606 buildings in the area bounded by North, Halsted, Webster and Lincoln Park. However, concerned neighborhood groups such as the Lincoln Park Conservation Association fought to save many historic buildings.
The Old Town Triangle area was designated a Chicago landmark district in 1977 and in 1984 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Old Town still retains some if its original cobblestone streets and antique street lights.
Ruttenberg and Supera took some of Lincoln Park's urban renewal cobblestones and built a 7-foot-high wall to enclose a courtyard in front of a group of row houses they purchased in the 400 block of West Webster.
“Today, you see walled front courtyards all over Old Town and Lincoln Park, but we were the first to create this private, secure space in front of buildings,” Ruttenberg said.
Ruttenberg recalled that one of his biggest deals—the purchase of the two-square-block Crilly Court complex—never would have been consummated without the help of his son, Buzz Ruttenberg.
In the early 1970s, the late Arthur Rubloff, a legendary developer, sold the Crilly Court complex—bounded by Wells, Eugenie, North Park and St. Paul—to Ruttenberg to raise cash for a giant high-rise development he planned across the street at LaSalle and Eugenie.
“Buzz and I decided to take a crack at the Crilly Court complex. We needed $500,000. Rubloff offered to co-sign on a loan, but we turned him down,” Ruttenberg said. “Instead, Buzz coaxed a mortgage banker he knew from the Standard Club basketball league to provide the necessary financing.”
The 120-unit Crilly Court Apartments, 30 of them on North Park Avenue, plus 10 commercial units, were purchased along with a dozen row houses on the west side of Crilly Court.
Ruttenberg sold the row houses on the west side of Crilly Court for $70,000 each. Today, they are valued at $1.3 million to $1.5 million each, depending on condition and finishes, noted Sara Benson, president of Benson Stanley Realty. The apartments on the east side of North Park were sold later as condominiums.
And the Crilly Court Apartments, including commercial storefronts in the 1700 block of North Wells, were extensively rehabbed with all new electrical, appliances and new furnaces and kept as a rental investment property.
Known for its large rear decks and landscaped courtyard accented with modern sculpture, the vintage Crilly Court Apartments was recognized as one of the premier residential rehabs in Old Town. In 1999, monthly rents for 1- to 4-bedroom apartments ranged from $820 to $1,675.
Buzz Ruttenberg sold the 90 apartments on the east side of Crilly Court and on Wells Street and in 2006 they were converted to condominiums. Today, the units are reselling in the $280,000 to $660,000 bracket, depending on size and number of bedrooms Benson said.
Buzz Ruttenberg and his partner kept the ground-level stores on the 1700 block of North Wells. Recently, he requested a community vote that would allow liquor sales in the commercial spaces.
“Interest rates soared in 1973, and Rubloff never did get financing for his high-rise development on LaSalle and Eugenie, although he did raze existing properties on the block,” the late Ruttenberg said.
Developer Tom Rosenberg of Capitol Associates later bought Rubloff’s land for the Eugenie Terrace high-rise development at LaSalle and Eugenie and sold acreage to S & Z Development (headed by Michael Supera, Louis Supera’s son) for the construction of luxury townhomes as part of the development.
Looking back on a half-century of real estate investing, renovation and apartment rehab in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, the late Ruttenberg said: “It came about because of my love for the arts. I'm a frustrated artist.”
In 1999, Ruttenberg still was spending time dabbling in the arts as a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. His avant garde collection of 3,000 black and white and color photographs once were displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
David C. Ruttenberg died at age 93 in 2003. But hundreds of creatively renovated apartments, row houses, condominiums and shops remain as his artistic North Side real estate canvas.
Belgravia Group went on to develop hundreds of residential properties, retail centers, mixed-use properties office buildings, and boutique condominiums. Only last week, the company announced plans to build a 17-story high-rise with 45 luxury condos on top of a parking garage at 403 N. Wabash in the shadow of Trump Tower.
For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.