In a normal summer, I’d be on the deck of a green-trimmed boat on the Chicago River, a microphone in hand. I’m a docent volunteer at the Chicago Architecture Center, and I don’t need to fake my enthusiasm for the city’s architectural gems. But there’s one spot on the river where things get choppy and I have to be proactive to stifle the booing before it can bubble up: Trump International Hotel & Tower.
As a docent, I focus on design and keep politics out of architecture. (If you want to know my political views, just explore my previous posts.) But passengers on the boat can’t miss the name “TRUMP” writ large: the back-lit stainless steel letters are 20 feet high. And for some passengers, that’s like waving a red flag before a herd of bulls.
I distract them with, and by, design. Architect Adrian Smith led the design team for the building at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and today runs the doubly eponymous Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Trump Tower the Building isn’t egotistical; it celebrates nearby buildings with its massing. The tallest setback lines up with the top of AMA Plaza (take a bow, Mies); the middle setback gives a wave to Marina City; and the lowest says hello to the Wrigley Building.
Trump’s beautiful curves — I’m still talking about the building, folks — weren’t in the original design. That design was linear and angled and much taller, at 150 stories, which would have made it the tallest structure in Chicago. Today it’s #2. What happened? The original design was presented on Sept. 11, 2001. In an instant, a residential tower of that height became a white elephant. The curves were introduced in the scaled down redesign.
Although I can praise the building’s design, I have to be upfront about its legal troubles. Yes, Trump is a lawbreaker — I’m still talking about Trump the Building here. In 2018 then Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the management over multiple violations of clean water laws. Trump is one of 13 buildings that use cooling water from the Chicago River in their mechanical systems. In fact, Trump sucks big time: 20 million gallons of water each day, making it the second largest user in Chicago. Buildings that take advantage of that resource must adhere to federal and state guidelines to prevent fish from becoming pinned against intake screens or cooked by sudden changes in temperature.
Trump is also, alas, a liar. Trump — I am talking about the president here — has lied about his height. He claims to be 6 feet, 3 inches, but a photo of world leaders at the 2019 G7 summit shows the president to be shorter than 6 foot, 2 inch Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The height of Trump the Building was recalculated just after it opened in 2009 to a height of 98 stories. Previously, its height was measured from the tip of its spire — an architectural cheater to begin with, like wearing shoes with lifts — to its main entrance on Wabash. But it was allowed to grow from the bottom, adding 27 feet by calculating its height from a rarely used Riverwalk entrance that was supposed to welcome shoppers, even though no retailers have set up shop.
Not to confuse the building with the president, but who really owns Trump? It’s not easy to dig up financial information on Trump properties, so I called a friend who lives on the 64th floor of the Chicago tower. He explained that there are three residential sections, further complicating the ownership question: hotel rooms; hotel condominiums; residential condos.
The residential condos start on the 29th floor, so the Trump Organization doesn’t own at least two-thirds of the building, although the condo owners pay management fees to the Trump Organization. In 2018, when other Trump properties emancipated themselves from the organization — the Panama tower became a JW Marriott — Chicago’s condo owners accepted a 20 percent discount in management fees. They earned it. Their units are worth 45 less than at their high. “The name is poison,” said my friend, who loves living in the building and praises the staff.
The hotel condominiums have proved to be even worse investments. In July the Chicago Sun-Times reported that management fees can run to more than $2,000 per month per unit, and during a pandemic rooms aren’t renting out.
So that leaves the hotel portion, struggling like all hotels now, as the only part of the building owned by Trump. A 2016 article in the New York Times lists the debt on the building as $45 million. A 2019 article in Mother Jones reports that on Trump’s financial disclosure forms he said he owes more than $50 million to a mysterious LLC owned fully by Trump. New York’s attorney general is leading an inquiry into the finances of Trump Organization properties, including 401 N. Wabash, looking into a 2010 debt restructuring in which Fortress Credit Corporation forgave $100 plus million in debt.
So how much of Trump is owned by Trump? That’s hard to say, because I couldn’t find any meaningful accounting for the value of the hotel portion or the total debt on it. But I do know how to instantly inflate the value of one of Chicago’s most beautiful buildings: take the sign down.