The Laundry: Still Fresh at 40

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By Laurie Petersen
In January, 1976 the Winnetka Talk featured the surprising headline, “Doing the Laundry can be fun.”

This was because a large commercial laundry building in the middle of the Village would no longer be taking in dirty clothing—it would instead offer elegant new apparel for sale. It would also have stores offering scarves, gifts and artwork, as well as cookies… and ice cream cones, and a restaurant to serve lunch and dinner.

The redeveloped building opened in November of that year. Forty years later, the Laundry mall continues to house a successful restaurant and a variety of shops and services, including one of the original tenants (can you guess which one?).

The Nelson Brothers and the North Shore Laundry, Winnetka’s first commercial laundry was founded in 1896 by Swedish immigrant brothers Eric and Gustaf Nelson. In 1900 they moved into a building designed for their business by Frank A. Windes (later the engineer for the Village of Winnetka.) Located on the south side of Elm Street between Chestnut Avenue and Green Bay Road, the North Shore Laundry was also known as Nelson Brothers.

Eric and Gustaf Nelson raised their families in Winnetka and were founders of another local institution: the Winnetka Bible Church. In 1904 they led their Swedish-immigrant Bible study group to establish the First Scandinavian Church of Winnetka. The church has always been at the same location, but acquired its current name in 1937. Nelson Hall was constructed to house Christian education activities in 1958.

The brothers were astute businessmen, and the company ran out of space at their hemmed-in location. They bought land at the corner of Chestnut and Spruce, and moved a small wooden house to a nearby lot on Elm Street (now demolished).

The June 1925 telephone directory features a full-page ad illustrating the “new home” of North Shore Laundry, “A laundry service for every family.” It shows a simple but handsome structure little changed from the one we see today: a single-story, symmetrical red brick building with a two-story central section and urns dotting the parapet. The tall chimney belches smoke in a sign of prosperous activity, and another two-story section at the back conceals a water tank for the boilers below.

The architect was Lewis E. Russell of Chicago, who designed residential, industrial, warehouse and automotive buildings. Several of his structures are still standing, including the six-story Plymouth Court Self Park in the South Loop. Russell’s last employment was as engineer for the Chicago City Council Traffic Committee.

The North Shore Laundry letterhead continued to display a drawing of the building, and the business stayed in the family for decades. Eric Nelson retired due to ill health in 1929. His sons worked for the company but never became executives. Gustaf was president of the company when he died in 1944, at age 71. His two sons, Stanley and Morgan, became co-owners. Morgan, like his father, was president of the company when he died in 1973, a decade after his brother’s passing.

New Life for the Laundry   

North Shore Laundry ceased operations in late 1975 and the building was put on the market. What was to be done with a large industrial building in this prime location? Fortunately, there were excellent precedents in San Francisco, and Evanston realtor Joe Hagee had seen them. The Cannery and Ghirardelli Square (both still drawing shoppers and tourists) had been converted from abandoned industrial properties to specialty shopping centers in the mid-1960s.

Joe Hagee told the Chicago Tribune in March 1976, “I walked into the building to appraise it and thought, ‘My God, you’ve got a Cannery sitting right at the corner of Spruce and Chestnut.’” He formed a partnership to purchase the property and convert it to a shopping mall.

Adaptive reuse of industrial buildings was a fairly new concept at the time. The first phase of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace opened in the same year as the Laundry, 1976. Such projects were generally found in decaying areas of major cities.     Project coordinator Ray Jump told the Winnetka Talk in January 1976, “What makes this enclosed specialty shopping center unique is that it’s never been done before on valuable land in an active, viable downtown suburban district.”

The concept has been carried through from the beginning: to maintain the building’s original character through exposed brick walls and rough timber posts, and subdivide the large spaces into specialty shops anchored by a large restaurant.

The architect of the 16,000 square-foot redevelopment was Ed Noonan, president of Evanston-based Chicago Associates. The primary work was interior cleanup and demolition, and creating new openings for windows and doors.  The restaurant has always been in the location occupied for the last six years by Avli Estatorio. The first restaurant was called The Monastery, and the fireplace in the main dining room still uses the original chimney that served the boiler room.

More food options offered at the Laundry were ice cream at Bresler’s 33 Flavors and fresh-baked cookies at the Country Cookie Company. The other stores carried a variety of gifts and apparel. Kangra provided “a unique experience in art” on the mezzanine level, displaying Far Eastern paintings and textiles. The Right Scarf stocked over 4,000 scarves. The one original tenant is Scissors Edge salon.

The novelty eventually wore off and the building began to look tired. In 2005 it was purchased by ADF Capital, and they undertook a $1 million renovation that was completed in 2012. When they sold it to a new owner in 2014, occupancy was at 100% and it remains so today. The laundry has been “done” for a new generation of Winnetkans.

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