John Macsai, who designed Lincolnwood’s famed Purple Hotel and also graceful Lake Shore Drive high-rises, died Friday at his Evanston home after a long illness, according to his family.
Mr. Macsai, 91, a native of Hungary, was a Holocaust refugee who toiled in work camps where he “built airfields, cleared forests and starved,” according to a 2002 interview coordinated by the Art Institute of Chicago.
Though he was an architecture professor at the University of Illinois from 1970 to 1996 and the designer of the Harbor House condominiums at 3200 N. Lake Shore Dr. — as well as 1110 N. Lake Shore Dr., 1150 N. Lake Shore Dr. and 1240 N. Lake Shore Dr. — he was best known for the now-demolished Purple Hotel at 4500 W. Touhy in Lincolnwood. He created the lavender building, which initially was called the Hyatt House and opened in 1962, for A.N. Pritzker of the Hyatt family.
In a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Macsai recalled, “I planned to use a warm, gray brick, and he [Pritzker] said, ‘Can’t you come up with something a little livelier?’
“So I made a great mistake for an architect. Instead of just bringing back some samples, I brought him the whole color palette. He said, ‘I want something lively like that purple.’ You don’t argue with a guy who could borrow $12 million on his signature only.”
Mr. Macsai called it “a very good modern building.”
“I had no regrets,” he said. “Everybody loved the purple. Some of my colleagues said it was a bit strong.”
The Hyatt Lincolnwood was a cheery modernist splash at Touhy and Kilbourn and a destination where people used to go to hear entertainers like Barry Manilow and Perry Como.
But, in its later years, it fell into disrepute. It became known for hosting swingers’ parties. And mobster Allen Dorfman was gunned down in the parking lot in 1983.
Mr. Macsai was born in Budapest to Margit and Ferenc Lusztig. His studies at Polytechnic University in Budapest were interrupted by the German invasion of Hungary in 1944.
He and his father wound up in a labor camp. Later, they were forced on a death march to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. When his dad injured his foot and couldn’t go on, Mr. Macsai “had to choose whether to stay with his father and face certain death, or keep going,” according to a family history. “He chose to keep going.”
After liberation in 1945, his immigration to America came about in part because of his artistic skill, when “a man of influence saw him sketching a caricature on a napkin, was impressed by his artistic talents and made room for one more in his scholarship group,” according to the family history.
In 1949, he got his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Miami University of Ohio.
On a blind date that same year, he met his future wife, Geraldine Marcus, a graduate of the University of Chicago. Even though he was in a full body cast from a car accident, “They were engaged three months later and married on May 7, 1950,” the family history said.
He worked for several Chicago firms, he told the Art Institute, including Holabird & Root, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, PACE Associates, Hyland Builders and Raymond Loewy Associates. He partnered with Robert Diamant, Raymond Stermer and Robert Hauser. And, in 1975, he opened John Macsai and Associates.
Mr. Macsai thought his best work was the Harbor House at Belmont and Lake Shore Drive.
A prolific painter of watercolors, Mr. Macsai loved animals — especially cats — and enjoyed puns and off-color jokes.
He was blunt-spoken on his distaste for developers, once telling the Sun-Times they were “cheap bastards. You can quote me on that. I don’t need them anymore. They just want a big bargain.”
He devoured books on World War II and participated in amateur archaeological digs in Israel.
A compulsive list-maker, he “would write an already-completed item on his to-do list, just for the gratification of crossing it off,” according to his family history.
In addition to his wife of 67 years, Mr. Macsai is survived by daughters Pamela Baumgartner, Dr. Marian Macsai and Gwen Macsai; a son, Aaron; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Beth Emet Synagogue, 1224 Dempster St., Evanston.