Episode posted February 7, 2021
Podcast Episode #8: https://cream-city-windy-city.simplecast.com/episodes/cocktails-in-the-clouds
Title: Cocktails In The Clouds
This is Cream City~Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore thought-provoking connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan. This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the histories and human stories of both cities.
Today we explore two particular restaurants at the top of two skyscrapers in Milwaukee and Chicago.
It was the era of Miesian architecture and new federal interstate highways, Jackie Kennedy style and JFK’s plans to reach the moon. Elvis made room for the Beatles and Leave It To Beaver was joined by I Dream of Jeannie. American skyscrapers embodied the optimism in the air.
At the top of Modern skyscrapers in Chicago and Milwaukee, two Stouffer’s restaurants made their debut: Chicago’s Top of the Rock in 1956 and Milwaukee’s Top of the Marine in 1962.
Just off of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue soared the brand-new Prudential Building. Completed in 1955, it was one of the first skyscrapers in the city to be built after the long hiatus of the Depression and World War II. Vertical strips of limestone and aluminum gave it a sleek, modern look. Designed by Naess & Murphy, it rose 41 stories, which made it the highest roof in Chicago. Only the statue of Ceres on the Board of Trade was taller. A WGN broadcast antenna reached from the rooftop high into the sky. The Prudential Building stood proud and, at that time, isolated on the northern end of Grant Park.
From the time it opened, the stunning views from its top made the Prudential Building a major destination. High atop the building were two places that you could visit: Stouffer’s Top of the Rock restaurant (named for the Prudential Insurance Rock of Gibraltar), and one escalator ride up from there, the glass-enclosed observation deck. After taking the world’s fastest elevators at that time to the 40th floor, you took the world’s highest escalators up to the observation deck. You could put a coin into telescope binoculars and, on a clear day, be able to see Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. At a time when most people didn’t fly and supertall skyscrapers were yet to come, this experience was a thrill for many. In the first year alone, the Prudential observation deck had attracted a staggering one million people. And many of those visitors made a stop at the Top of the Rock.
The Stouffer’s company got its start in 1920s Cleveland with a successful lunch cafe. They opened many more restaurants into the 1930s and 40s. Their food was so popular that people began to ask for it to go or frozen to enjoy at home. Stouffer’s thus founded their frozen food business, still going strong today. But they continued in the restaurant business, as well, expanding across the country through the 1950s.
By 1956 they had come up with a new concept: a group of modern fine dining restaurants that would be located at the top of skyscrapers, known as the “Top of” line, or simply, “The Tops.” In an early advertisement for this new ‘restaurant in the sky’ concept, their slogan was, “The Tops: Elegant Dining. Magnificent Views!”
Chicago’s Top of the Rock opened in 1956 soon after the Prudential Building was completed. Top of the Rock was at first a lounge only, known as a spectacular place to enjoy “cocktails in the clouds.”
New York was next in 1958 with its Top of the Sixes restaurant on the penthouse floor of 666 Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The restaurant was long a must-see with its breathtaking views of New York. A 1960 newspaper proclaimed: “Stouffer’s is a mecca for fabulous dining in both New York and Chicago, locations of its two ‘Top’ restaurants.”
Other Tops restaurants followed, all with incredible views, cocktails, and the famous Stouffer’s food. Atlanta’s Top of the Mart in 1961, Milwaukee’s Top of the Marine opened in 1962 (more about that in a moment). Detroit’s Top of the Flame in 1963, Denver’s Top of the Rockies and Cleveland’s Top of the Town in 1964, Boston’s Top of the Hub in 1965 as well as Pittsburgh’s Top of the Triangle, St. Louis’s Top of the Riverfront, and Philadelphia’s Top of Centre Square. Over a 23-year span, Stouffer’s had opened 16 Tops restaurants in all.
Along with the city views, each Tops restaurant featured an atmosphere of gracious leisure …with a theme. New York’s decor was French Provincial with a Parisian bar, complete with French paintings and antiques. Atlanta was a Southern garden. Cleveland evoked European port cities. Denver was a French ski resort. Boston was made to feel like the Far East and Detroit, Thailand. Chicago’s theme was Early American with some Old Chicago in the mix. Milwaukee’s decor was the Great Lakes with steamer ships.
Beyond the consistency of Stouffer’s quality food, each restaurant was unique, with its own style and its own menu. The spaces varied in size, as well. Chicago’s Top of the Rock sat 180 guests, Boston’s Top of the Hub, 200. New York’s Top of the Sixes sat 300 and Milwaukee’s Top of the Marine, the largest, accommodated nearly 400 guests.
When Chicago’s Top of the Rock was new, Chicago Tribune columnist Kay Loring wrote a review entitled, “Elegant Dining 41 Floors Up.” Of all the Stouffer’s restaurants in Chicago, she said, the handsome Top of the Rock was the most popular. And guests came from near and far: 32 states and 10 countries by that point. She described Top of the Rock as a luxury restaurant …with prices steeper than the other Stouffer’s in town, but worth it for the breathtaking views of the lake and the city. She reported that the cuisine was American, the waitresses were mostly Irish, the cooks were all women, and the kitchens were immaculate. She adored the old-fashioned country flavors of the food and the fresh bread hot from the oven.
Many a Chicagoan of a certain age reminisce about the Top of the Rock. This was THE place to take a date, or out-of-town guests, or to celebrate a special anniversary. Many proposals took place at the Top of the Rock over the years. Cocktails with night views of the city lights became an especially cherished memory for many.
90 miles north, in 1962 Milwaukeeans had an exciting new restaurant to visit: Top of the Marine. The Marine was the Marine Plaza building downtown at Wisconsin Avenue and the river, also completed in 1962 for Milwaukee’s Marine Bank. It was the first skyscraper to be built in the city in 30 years. Designed by New York architectural firm Harrison & Abramovitz, who also designed for the United Nations headquarters and Lincoln Center, this was the first glass curtain wall skyscraper in the city. At 22 stories it was the second tallest building after City Hall.
Marine Plaza was a wholly new urban experience in Milwaukee and received much attention. Its blue-green glassy facade along the Milwaukee River and the transparent pavilion opening on to a plaza were complemented by an airy interior filled with live plants, unheard of at the time.
But the idea of a restaurant at the top was especially exciting. Located on the 22nd floor, The Top of the Marine was designed with a luxury steamer theme. The entire decor evoked being on a turn-of-the-century cruise ship traveling the Great Lakes. And, of course, the restaurant featured dazzling views of downtown Milwaukee from a height most had never experienced. Like Top of the Rock, this was a restaurant fondly remembered for dates, proposals, and special occasions, good food, drinks, and a beautiful backdrop.
Stouffer’s stayed on until the early 1980s until another restaurant operator took over. The name was changed to Top of the Plaza. Marine Bank, which was one of Milwaukee’s oldest financial institutions, also had gone through numerous mergers and name changes. Marine Bank was acquired by Bank One, which was acquired by Chase Bank, whose name is on the building today. The Top of the Plaza, the old Top of the Marine, hung on until 2001 when it closed its doors for good.
Top of the Rock in Chicago had closed in 1976. No other restaurant has occupied the 41st floor of the Prudential Building. By the early years of this century, all of Stouffer’s original Top restaurants had closed.
It had been a concept especially suited for its time, when the excitement of modern skyscrapers and the thrill of new heights combined with the perennial pleasures of food, drink, and company to create indelible memories. Both Chicago and Milwaukee welcomed postwar skyscrapers of exceptional height and modern design, along with the many innovations they brought, from fast elevators to interiors filled with plants. Both Chicago and Milwaukee had years with a destination restaurant located high above that gave people a chance to take in the city from a dramatic vantage point. The Top of the Rock and the Top of the Marine showcased each city’s modern architecture. And by dining and enjoying ‘cocktails in the clouds,’ people couldn’t help but celebrate the splendor of the cities below.
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. You can leave them below. WendyCityChicago.com
If you would like to know more about the title of this podcast, take a listen to Episode 1.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee” by KEdKE.
See you next time.