Jennifer Pritzker is investing in the future prosperity of Evanston one bed and breakfast at a time.
Words by David Sweet / illustration by Robert Risko
If one is armed with a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, it’s safe to assume a job in finance or in a similar field is destined.
But if a person is a transgender billionaire—the world’s first known one, in fact—there’s no playbook to gauge what his or her pursuits in life may be.
Evanston is finding out.
Jennifer Pritzker is spending millions of dollars to buy aging Evanston properties (she has done the same in Chicago, purchasing and restoring the Emil Bach House on Sheridan Road among other real-estate acquisitions). Most recently, according to the Chicago Tribune, she bought a seven-bedroom home built a century ago on Sheridan Road near Northwestern University for $1.7 million through General Sheridan, a limited-liability corporation.
The property sits near a lakeside mansion owned by the city that Pritzker proposed to buy for less than half its appraised value in 2013 and turn into a 57-room hotel with 200 underground parking spaces, which sparked fierce opposition. Hundreds signed an online petition against the proposal, which would have created the only hotel on Lake Michigan on the North Shore. “No Park Sale” signs sprouted on Evanston lawns, referring to public land that would have been sold as part of Pritzker’s purchase.
“The council would be absolutely going against public policy that they’ve already established,” noted Barbara Janes, co-founder of NoParkSale.org, at the time.
Ultimately, the Evanston City Council voted against the plan. But two Pritzker bed-and-breakfasts in century-old homes with views of the lake have been approved despite some public opposition.
Why is Pritzker so enamored with historic Evanston houses?
“I have a lifelong interest in history in general, and I have enjoyed being involved in building preservation activities,” says the Evanston resident. “I wish I could have done something like this (building preservation) for the house my father and his brothers grew up in on Wellington Street in Chicago. My parents and both of my dad’s brothers were married there. Unfortunately, my grandparents could no longer handle such a large house, so somewhere in the early 1960s it was sold.”
Though her passion for restoration in Evanston has encountered people equally as passionate to prevent it, she is undeterred.
“Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion,” she says. “My Evanston neighbors have been overwhelmingly supportive.”
At 300 Church Street in Evanston sits Stone Porch by the Lake, a restored Tudor House bed and breakfast featuring a number of suites. Across the street from Lake Michigan and an easy walk to Northwestern, the location is hard to beat. Built more than 125 years ago, it underwent a two-year restoration after Pritzker purchased the property for $2.25 million in 2012. Hundreds attended the ribbon cutting in October, the biggest number Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl has ever seen at such an event.
“It was a diverse group. We usually don’t have gentlemen from the NRA (National Rifle Association) at ribbon cuttings,” she said, referring to guests of Pritzker’s, who is a noted military buff.
The first legal bed and breakfast in Evanston history is not exactly a traditional one, where an unassuming home owned by a smiling proprietor welcomes travelers to spare bedrooms. Heated marble floors and flat-screen televisions grace the five suites, which start at $250 a night. Waterford sconces delivered by the ambassador from Ireland to Ralph and Marguerite Church, previous owners of the home who both served in the U.S. Congress, hang on the walls of the dining room. Gourmet breakfasts are served in the morning, Belgian chocolates from an Evanston store rest on pillows at night, and tokens to enter the beach a few steps away are offered.
“We provide the ultimate concierge experience for the guests,” says Carrie King, who co-owns the inn with her husband Jim and Pritzker.
When Pritzker first stayed at Stone Porch (and woke up to a breakfast of Belgian waffles), the guest was quite pleased.
“She slept well, enjoyed the view, and had a relaxing weekend,” King says.
Stone Porch—which is already booked for Northwestern University graduations through 2018—is exempt from the city’s 7.5 percent tax on hotels and motels, a boon for the property.
“It’s been brought up before, and it hasn’t changed,” Tisdahl says of the lack of a B&B tax. “But I never try to predict what the Evanston City Council might do.”
Only two doors from Stone Porch (a B&B so discreet that it lacks even a sign), the sounds of chainsaws, hammers and workmen shouting commands at each other emanates behind construction fencing. Pritzker is rehabbing that property (bought for $2.8 million) which she says she plans to open this fall as a B&B called Stone Terrace. Though it will offer five bedrooms just like Stone Porch, she notes, it will boast a much bigger space at 10,000 square feet.
“I take great pride in each phase of the restoration process to make sure the property is done to the highest level of historic renovation,” Pritzker says of her B&Bs. “It is a challenge to take a 100-year-old home and make it useful in the 21st century. I like to go the step further to make them financially viable.”
Having two bed-and-breakfasts so close together prompted an outcry among neighbors and others when the plans for 1622 Forest Place (Stone Terrace) were unveiled in 2013. The project was approved by the Evanston City Council that year despite the fact the Zoning Board of Appeals had voted against a special-use permit to allow the B&B to exist.
Last year, Evanston aldermen considered zoning amendments that would limit these type of “Pritzker” B&Bs (making sure that an owner with an interest of 33 percent or more, as Pritzker does, lives at the property, for instance). Though passed by the Plan Commission, the City Council rejected the amendments. (Pritzker says she has no plans to turn her most recent Evanston purchase, at 2437 Sheridan Road, into a B&B.)
The Pritzker name has achieved both fame and infamy in Chicago. Once owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain, along with a number of manufacturing concerns under the Marmon Group, one of the richest families in America faced horrible publicity in 2003, when a few scions started suing their elders, claiming they were being cheated out of their inheritance. The end result: the breakup of the family empire and the distribution of billions of dollars in cash to various Pritzkers. These days, a few family members still command the spotlight: Penny Pritzker is U.S. Secretary of Commerce, while J.B. Pritzker is well-known for backing technology startups with his brother Anthony.
Having lived with the Pritzker name for 65 years (and with her first name since 2013), third-generation Jennifer is well-versed in understanding the reaction the surname can spur.
“The name can sometimes open doors that might otherwise remain closed. Sometimes the name causes more problems than benefits,” says the child of Audrey and Robert Pritzker. “The attention sometimes attracts predatory interest. Too many people want something from you simply because they perceive you have it and they want it and will be angry and resentful if you don’t provide it to them.”
Why become a woman? Pritzker told Crain’s Chicago Business, “I came to a certain decision point. I didn’t want to keep going back and forth, thinking about, ‘Who am I today for who, what, where?’ It’s easier now. I couldn’t have done this 30 or 40 years ago. People did, but it was a lot tougher—almost impossible.”
Before her buying foray in Evanston, Pritzker was best known for founding the eponymous Pritzker Military Library in Chicago, which sits across Michigan Avenue from the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
“Given the fact that this country spends in excess of $600 billion a year on defense, there is certainly a need for the general public to have additional sources of information on military affairs,” the retired lieutenant colonel explained to sister publication The North Shore Weekend. “How can we have a democracy with civilian control of the military if the civilians do not have knowledge and contact with the military?”
An admittedly poor student in high school, Pritzker enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1974.
After being commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry in 1979, she served at Ft. Campbell, Ky. and at Kelly Barracks, Germany until released from active duty in 1985. She served in the Illinois Army National Guard for 15 years before retiring in 2001, having received numerous medals during her military career and earning a college degree from Loyola University along the way.
Pritzker—who is divorced with three children—has broad interests. She traveled to Antarctica four times as part of scientific missions, once working first-hand with Russian scientists.
“I was able to go with these scientists to witness the discovery of bacteria growing at the bottom of a frozen lake on a 2,000-foot glacier in a place where the sun does not shine for several months of the year,” she noted, adding that on another expedition she helped collect meteorite specimens now housed at the Robert A. Pritzker Center for Metoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum in Chicago.
And back in Evanston, she stays busy with her hospitality projects. Though some residents and politicians wish she’d spend her golden years in Antarctica, others are glad she’s become so involved in her hometown. Says Tisdahl, “Her impact on Evanston—and particularly on our housing—is fabulous.”