WendyCity Vintage View: Top of the Rock

0 Posted by - August 21, 2014 - Vintage View

From the time it opened in 1955, the Prudential Building became a major destination for its fabulous views.   High atop the 41-story building were two places you could visit: the glass-enclosed observation deck and, one floor below it, Stouffer’s Top of the Rock restaurant.   Back at a time when most people didn’t fly and the supertall skyscrapers weren’t yet on the drawing board, this was a thrill for many.  In the first year alone, the Prudential observation deck had attracted a staggering one million people.


Not only were the views of the surrounding city breathtaking – and completely unobstructed – it is said one could see four states on a clear day.  Here is a neat little silent film from 1957.

I’ve often heard older Chicagoans recount their excitement when visiting the observation deck years ago.  After taking the world’s fastest elevators, you took the world’s highest escalators up to the observation deck.  Then you could put a coin into the telescopes by the windows.

A happy visitor to the observation deck in 1962, cigarette in hand.  Photographer's handbag on ledge.

A happy visitor to the observation deck in 1962, cigarette in hand. Photographer’s handbag on ledge.

But some of Chicagoans’ fondest memories center on the Stouffer’s Top of the Rock restaurant.  This was THE place to take a date, out-of-town guests, or to celebrate a special anniversary.  Many proposals took place here over the years.

Stouffer’s opened its first diner in 1922 Cleveland and expanded into other cities in the 1930s-50s, and then into the world of frozen foods (1954).  The company opened its first “Top” of a skyscraper restaurant in New York City in 1958, at a time when restaurants high in the sky were a novelty.  Top of the Rock in Chicago first opened as a lounge in 1956, later becoming a restaurant (and closing in 1976).   By the early 1970s the company had six “Top” restaurants including NYC and Chicago: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Minneapolis.

Top of the Rock, c1960

Top of the Rock lounge c1960. Cocktails were $1.00.



  • Kathy Burns February 18, 2018 - 2:26 pm Reply

    Ah yes…I remember it well! Summer, 1960. My Mom, Grandma and I were at a window table up there at the Top of the Rock, Stouffer’s.

    We had our drinks and were browsing the menu when a young, well dressed, “negroe” couple appeared and made their way to a table not fat from ours.

    My grandmother, God love her, pointed out the arrivals to my mother and I watched as one by one, table by table, the other diners stopped talking, replaced their silverware, coffee cups, and cocktail glasses on their crisp white tablecloths and purposely turned in their chairs so they obviously had their backs to the young couple.

    Everything stopped!

    I was barely ten and had never seen or experienced anything similar before. When I realized what was going on, I turned to look at the couple.

    The waitresses had disappeared, as had the busboys, the counter servers, the cocktail waitresses. The “beloved” restaurant the city was so proud of; That I had been so excited about seeing, had suddenly turned into the most hateful, vile room I’d ever been in.

    After being ignored, and finally told by an unembarrassed, brash loud mouth bitch in a Stouffer’s hat that “negroes aren’t allowed” the couple rose as walked back thru the restaurant and out to the lobby.

    Back inside, it was as tho nothing out of the ordinary happened. Glasses clinked again, conversation and laughter resumed and my Mom motioned for the waitress to come take our order.

    I never set foot in the Prudential building again! I learned a lot that day but most of All, I saw first hand the ignorance of white people.

    Sadly, almost 60 years later, I can’t say much had changed. It’s merely been kept underground!

    • Wendy February 19, 2018 - 11:43 am Reply

      Wow, Kathy. That is shocking and incredibly disturbing. Thank you for sharing that piece of Chicago history, as ugly as it is. We need to know about it.

    • Marge March 4, 2018 - 3:51 am Reply

      This is not the Top of the Rock or the Stouffer’s I remember. While a college student and then before my first two years of teaching, I worked for four summers (1959 through 1962) for Stouffer’s in the Prudential Building. I started as a waitress (“Stouffer Girl”) in the sidewalk-level restaurants, the Plaza Room and the Beaubien Room, then moved up (literally) to the Gibralter Room on the building’s lobby level and (in my third summer) to the Top of the Rock. During my fourth summer I was a lunch and dinner hostess at the Top of the Rock.

      Although it is true that “Negroes” (or, as we would say today, African Americans) were rarely guests (for possible reasons I won’t get into here), Stouffer’s did not discriminate. It would not have been consistent with the company culture and ways of doing things, in which staff were extensively trained.

      The couple mentioned would not have “made their way to a table” on their own. A host or hostess would have greeted them at the entrance to the Top of the Rock (up several steps from the observation-deck level), led them to a table, and handed them menus. A prominent sign on a stanchion at the entrance said something like “Please wait to be seated” in case the host or hostess was temporarily elsewhere.

      It’s certainly possible for some waitresses (and busboys) to be elsewhere, serving other tables or in the kitchen, when guests are seated. But they hardly would all have fled, or disappeared. In fact, there was really no place to flee to as the Top’s kitchen was so tiny only a small number of staff would fit in there at the same time. Why in the world would they flee anyway? There were no counter, no counter service, and no counter servers. There were no cocktail waitresses, just the regular table waitresses, to serve the drinks. Tablecloths were not white. I can’t speak to any possible behaviors of other guests.

      Stouffer’s prided itself on its attention to all newly seated guests as soon as possible, with a greeting and filling of water glasses. And I can’t imagine that any Stouffer’s employee, female or male, would have announced that “Negroes aren’t allowed.” Additionally, there was no such thing as a “Stouffer’s hat” that would have been worn by any front-of-the-house employee, let alone a female one. Waitresses (and female kitchen workers) were required to wear hairnets (but we always hoped they were sheer enough so as to be unnoticeable).

      • Wendy March 4, 2018 - 7:32 am Reply

        Marge, thank you for giving us a behind-the-scenes view of working at the Prudential Building. The level of detail you provided is something my research did not reveal.

  • Kathy Burns February 19, 2018 - 12:43 pm Reply

    Wendy – I appreciate your reply. I honestly didn’t know if it would be printed or deleted.

    Unfortunately this is but one small example of extreme racism I witnessed growing up in my beloved home town, Chicago.

    It was simply part of life back then. Odd, but as bad as things were in Chicago, my travels thru the south in those days, were far worse.

    Peace to you!

    • Wendy February 19, 2018 - 1:58 pm Reply

      It’s so easy to focus on the “pretty” history of our city, but there are some very ugly parts, as well. I gave a bus tour to an out of state group a few years ago (100% white people) and I was trying to give them a sense of what living in this city was like. Along with all the wonderful things I described, I mentioned how unfortunately segregated the city still is. I received two written complaints after the tour, people upset that I brought in something “unpleasant” to their tour of Chicago. Wow. Thank you again, for sharing, Kathy. Peace to you, as well.

  • Paul Sackett February 19, 2018 - 1:12 pm Reply

    Grear work kathy!

  • Kathy Burns February 19, 2018 - 2:04 pm Reply

    There is an attitude amongst many that if we ignore an issue that isn’t pretty we can make it disappear. To bring it to mind; to admit and acknowledge its existence is an affront to the status quo.
    Bravo to you!

  • Mary Paulsboe April 4, 2020 - 8:10 am Reply

    My former love and I would go to the Top of the Rock for dinner on special occasions and we both loved it and the views and the food and being together very, very much. That was in the early/mid 60’s. I was raised in Chicago and I remember the neighborhoods being separate, i.e. … the Polish in another area, the Slovak in another area, the Italians in another area, the Ukranians in another area. The neighborhood that I grew up in is no longer as the city moved west from downtown as we called it. Thanks for the memories of a very happy time in my life.

    • Wendy April 4, 2020 - 9:58 am Reply

      Thank you, Mary, for sharing your wonderful memories!

  • Brent September 7, 2020 - 2:51 pm Reply

    My parents took me to the observation deck in the 60’s. I recall there being, behind a glass wall, a running model of how an elevator worked. I think it was sponsored by the Otis company

    • Wendy September 7, 2020 - 3:18 pm Reply

      Very cool! Thanks for sharing that, Brent.

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