What’s Oprah’s connection to the Eastland? The answer is simply, Harpo Studios. The building at 1058 W. Washington Street has a long and fascinating history here in Chicago.
Harpo Studios was originally a cold storage warehouse used, at the time of the Eastland in 1915, as an armory for the Second Regiment National Guard. According to George W. Hilton in his book, Eastland, Legacy of the Titanic, after the capsizing, corpses fished from the Chicago River were taken to the SS Theodore Roosevelt (the second ship scheduled to depart for the Western Electric outing that day), the overflow then moved to the basement of the Reid-Murdoch grocery warehouse directly across the river from the Eastland.
Hundreds upon hundreds of drowning victims quickly piled up and it became apparent to the city that they needed a much larger facility. The 88,000 square-foot Armory was suggested as a temporary morgue, and by the afternoon of the disaster, the majority of bodies were transferred to that site. While a few bodies were taken directly to mortuaries, in the end, a total of 749 corpses were identified and processed through the 2nd Regiment Armory.
Oprah.com reports that the armory remained a cold storage warehouse until the 1940’s when it was converted to the Roller Bowl roller rink. In the 1950’s, the building was converted again, this time into the Fred Niles Studios. They filmed commercials and movies there as well as the Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom!
Urban legend has it that the building is haunted by the ghosts of the Eastland victims. In March of 2009, Ryan Smith reported in an article for the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye that the most infamous apparition is a spirit called the Gray Lady who has been spotted in the facility wearing her vintage dress and hat. Her image has supposedly been caught on security cameras. Harpo employees have also reported hearing the sounds of children laughing, old-time music, the thunder of multiple footsteps, and the clinking of glasses. Doors have slammed shut on their own. There’s even rumors of a mysterious scent of lavender perfume lingering in the air. The Gray Lady’s perhaps?
Crain’s Chicago Business reported in March of this year that Harpo Studios would be sold to Sterling Bay Company. I hope the new owners realize the historical significance of this very unique building. Maybe someday, the city of Chicago will make the building a Historical Landmark.
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