New Merion Ballroom: ‘Like night and day’

Born in an era of grand luxury residential hotels in Evanston, the former North Shore Hotel had fallen on hard times when purchased by the Horizon Realty Group in 2012.
Jeff Michael, one of the principals of the group, along with his father, Danny, recently talked about finishing a $10 million makeover of the onetime hotel, and also discussed some of the challenges faced in transforming the building, now named The Merion, at 1611 Chicago Ave., into a luxury senior rental community.
Q. Jeff, you’ve said before you faced some challenges taking over the building. Can you talk about your priorities and the approach you took?
A. The first priority was to preserve the building so it would last another 100 years. When we first started it was in serious neglect and needed not only the basics to keep it operating safely, but also needed the amenities – the conveniences we’ve come to expect in more modern structures or apartment buildings. It didn’t have any of those things.
Q. Can you expand?
A. As you may know it was originally built [in 1920] as a hotel so several of the units were simply hotel rooms. They didn’t have kitchens in them; some had extremely tiny rooms; so first and foremost our mission was to de-convert and combine units so each apartment was a full apartment – had a fully functioning kitchen, bathroom and living space. From there it was about tacking on the amenities you would want in a senior living apartment community – your community space, a beautiful dining room, the lounge, the library, a computer room, a card room, fitness room, indoor swimming pool. So that was our approach to it.
Q. One of your concerns was about the existing food service.
A. When we took over the building, the food service was institutional in nature, meals were cooked from mostly frozen products and served banquet style. We spent close to a million dollars on reinventing the kitchen, putting in all new equipment, and reconfiguring it so that it lays out properly and could quickly and efficiently serve residents and catered events. We entered into a new contract with a highly established and reputable dining services partner and their focus, like ours, was on serving freshly prepared custom-made meals. We make our own soup stocks, dressings and sauces from scratch. We don’t even carry frozen foods, except ice cream. I think our residents have come to appreciate that we are able to offer not only healthy foods, but also foods that people enjoy. We also completed elevated the level of service in the dining room to that akin to a country club environment.
Q. I know the ballroom, where your father Danny and mother Martha were married 47 years ago received special attention. You recently completed the makeover there – how did it turn out?
A. Amazing. We even surprised ourselves with how the ballroom came out. It is like night and day. Before we did the renovation, it was dark and dank, it just had a very depressing feel to it.
Now when you walk in it luxurious, it’s bright, it’s clean, it’s contemporary.
One of our missions was to restore it to its glory and really put it back on the map, so to speak, bringing back functions there – weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, celebrations, etc. There are a lot of people who have stories tied to that ballroom, not just my family. So we’ve been pleasantly surprised. We have our first wedding coming up this month and we have five or six that have already been booked for the balance of 2014 and early next year, so we’ve gotten a very positive response.
Its also been a plus with the business community. We’ve hosted a couple of business meetings. It’s now outfitted with WiFi, hard wire data connections. We’ve got two 10-foot projectors on either side of the room where you can do video displays; so in addition to external use for businesses and people in the community, it’s also been a great amenity for our residents.
“We’re doing things like first run movie nights, we’re looking at doing a Super Bowl party, we can’t wait until March Madness and Oscar Night, so we’ve got great ideas for a whole host of events coming down the road for our residents.”
Q. How did you balance the need for renovation with minimizing the impact on residents, some longtime.
A. We’re happy to say the worst is behind us. We’ve tried to be accommodating – shuffling people around from apartment to apartment. I think we’ve reached a nice stabilizing plateau.
Q. Some City Council members, even recently, admitted to a quandary on such projects, mentioning the North Shore specifically, where buildings are badly in need of fix ups, but the renovations could price out longtime residents.
A. As owners of the project, we’re making concerted efforts to keep pricing in line with comparable market pricing and remain extremely sensitive to the fact that seniors are on controlled budgets. When we acquired the former North Shore Retirement Hotel, we contemplated the possibility of adaptive reuse of the property, but we ultimately decided to keep it as a senior rental community because of our desire to avoid displacing some of our local seniors. We are sorry to see that some have chosen to move elsewhere for various reasons, but we are confident that our pricing is in line and even below the competition when comparing full service to full services offered. We believe that The Merion offers units for those on limited budgets and those that can afford more.
Q. Where did the new name, the Merion, come from?
A. My great-grandfather immigrated from Europe on the SS Merion in 1911. My father learned this as he was doing research on his autobiography that he is writing. We were going through the process of rebranding the building and thinking of a new name and a light bulb went off in both of our heads. Using the name of the ship just made sense. There is probably a very similar immigrant story for a lot of our residents living at the North Shore.
Q. That original feeling of sentiment, restoring a building where your parents were married, how has that affected your approach.
A. Once you get into these renovation projects and get deeper and deeper into it – the real estate, the bones of the project – you want to do it and do it right. So it kind of morphs into something even larger than you ever anticipated. For us, this is not just another project. It is our baby. It’s coming along great and we’re starting to see some of the results, and getting good responses about the units and how they turned out. We will make sure that it is a success.