Penthouse buyers willing to pay more for views, refuge
Next time you spot a PH button in an elevator, give a nod to Elisha Otis, whose successor companies took his lift designs from the mid-1800s to rarified heights in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The gearless traction electric elevator doesn't sound glamorous, but without it there'd be no romantic view from the Signature Room at the John Hancock Center, thrills on a transparent ledge at the Willis Tower or prestigious properties called penthouses on the top floors of buildings all across Chicago.

Much like skyscrapers, penthouse living began as an American dream. Native Illinoisan and cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton was among the first of the uber-wealthy to believe in living in a mansion in the sky. In 1925, she added a penthouse to her collection of residences when she commissioned a 54-room, triplex at the top of a 14-story building on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Like today's penthouse buyers, Hutton wanted input on the floor plans. She reportedly specified a wine cellar, a cold storage area for her furs and to hold fresh flowers plus a room to house the family silver. To entice the Huttons to move in, the building management provided a private elevator and the services of the property's concierge.

Chicago-area real estate developers and sales executives meet discerning buyers not unlike Hutton whenever they unveil plans for a new building that includes penthouses. Privacy tops the wish list for today's penthouse buyer. Other criteria include great views, space on a high floor and luxurious amenities.

"It is important to pre-sell this type of a purchase so customization can be extended (to the new homeowner)," said Joel M. Carlins, co-chief executive of the Magellan Group, which is developing Lakeshore East between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. "In some cases, we will leave (a floor) empty so the buyer can bid it out for construction," he said.

"People pay more for a penthouse because it offers exclusivity and to (be able to) have a larger unit even on the same floor plate," Carlins said. Eight of the nine penthouses offered on the top two residential floors at Aqua were sold from plans. Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang designed the 82-story Aqua. Part of Lakeshore East, it is in the 200 block of North Columbus Drive.

Aqua penthouses average 3,000 square feet with 100-foot balconies that roll in undulating curves from the sides of the building. Penthouse balconies on the 81st floor are the highest in the city and sport views of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River and Millennium and Grant Parks.

The balconies at the Mallinckrodt in the Park restoration in Wilmette are at the opposite extreme. Nonetheless they caught Eileen Paull's attention. She and her husband, Matthew, purchased on the top floor of the five-story rehab in an age-restricted condominium development that overlooks a 14-acre public park.

Paull likes the idea of living in the treetops. She envisions gatherings on the balcony when the summer concert series begins in Mallinckrodt Park, part of the grounds of the convent that was originally associated with Loyola University. The balcony has western exposure too, so she is looking forward to the sunsets.

Before relocating to the North Shore, the Paulls lived in a condominium in the former American Furniture Mart, which is the building located at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive. The Mart was built in 1926. "The lobby had spectacular architectural features," she said, adding that the Mallinckrodt unit does as well. A round, stained glass window, original to the convent, is a focal point in her new living room.

Ted Pickus, who leads the Mallinckrodt sales team, says units at Mallinckrodt meet the criteria of a penthouse: privacy, top-floor location and exclusive amenities. "Some [units have] vaulted ceilings in excess of 15 feet. Many include original corbels.

"Buyers like the location," he says." "When you mention looking at a penthouse, there's an excitement. It sets a tone of prestige that is associated with nicer, larger homes." At Mallinckrodt, a 3,000-square-foot condo with a two-car garage lists at $750,000.

Location was important to Robert Archer who relocated back to the Gold Coast after living in a historic home in Lincolnwood. And so was privacy.

Like the Paulls, the opportunity to create an original floor plan was too tempting to pass up. At 50 East Chestnut, a 39-story building positioned as an all-penthouse building, Archer recreated the floor plan of the house in Lincolnwood. "I didn't realize it until they [the contractors] were way into it," he said. "With only one unit per floor, living here is like living in a separate home, but in a high-rise building."

That reaction is what Charles Huzenis had in mind when Rush-Chestnut LLC developed the building. Huzenis is a partner at Rush-Chestnut.

"Buyers coming out of a single-family home are accustomed to individual space and are not as comfortable with others living on the same floor," he said. At 50 East Chestnut, each floor offers a private elevator foyer and, with its trapezoid-shaped floor plan, windows with 270-degree views. Units range from 3,845 to 3,904 square feet and are priced from $2,871,900 to $3,359,900. Parking is available for $65,000 per space.

Archer and his wife had lived in the Gold Coast 35 years prior, that time at 201 E. Chestnut. "We joke that it took us 35 years to move 11/2 blocks," says Archer.

Jane Shawkey, who heads up sales at Rubloff Residential Properties for The Ritz-Carlton Residences, says construction continues at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Erie Street. "Although the schedule is always moving, we are looking to deliver toward the end of 2011," she said.