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A look inside Emme apartments: A modern building that respects its historic site

The smartly designed building stands at the location of one of Chicago’s most infamous events

On May 4, 1886, an outdoor labor rally in Chicago turned deadly when a bomb and subsequent shoot-out left eight police officers and at least four civilians dead. Known as the Haymarket Massacre, the event played a pivotal role in the city’s organized labor movement and was later commemorated in a sculpture by artist Mary Brogger.

Temporarily removed for construction, Brogger’s memorial is now back at 165 N. Desplaines Street. It joins Emme, a newly opened 199-unit apartment tower from Portland, Oregon-based developer Gerding Edlen. Curbed Chicago stopped by the building to learn about its unique design approach given its historically sensitive site.


Chicago’s Haymarket memorial is now set within a widened sidewalk and new landscaping.
Tom Harris Photography

“We didn’t want to ‘theme’ the building on the Haymarket event itself,” explained Don Copper, a principal at GREC Architects. “But we wanted to embrace it and show respect. As we first looked at the project, the monument immediately provided a starting point to drive the rest of the site plan.”

As a result, Emme is set back considerably from the reinstalled sculpture. The choice not only creates a mindful buffer, but allows space for a new public pocket park next to the monument. Absent of fencing, the park adds greenery to a dense area of Chicago that is relatively short on landscaping.

Local history also informed the exterior design. The facade features contrasting gray materials colored in a manner to reflect the “Chicago common brick” found in older buildings throughout the neighborhood. The grid-like design creates a noticeable three-dimensional depth—a feature that so often gets dropped or “value engineered” in favor of flatter and less costly designs.

Stepping inside Emme, the lobby area is sleek and modern and features a notable amount of negative space, allowing its artwork to take center stage. “We were constantly challenging ourselves to remove one more thing and let what was left shine through,” said Copper. Gerding Edlen commissioned Haymarket memorial artist Mary Brogger to design a sculptural piece comprised of twisted industrial wire suspended in a niche.

Tom Harris Photography

The lobby’s seating area is adorned with an oversized orange and yellow painting visible from outside through a large, Mondrian-inspired picture window. The opening allows for an unobstructed view of the memorial and is joined by an additional plaque explaining the significance of the Haymarket event.

The materials here are high quality: real stone floors, and plaster instead of drywall. The lobby incorporates elements from the Crane Company building that was partly demolished to make way for the apartment development. A beam from the old industrial structure is embedded into Emme’s front desk while the floor of the mail room features salvaged wood stained and arranged in a chevron pattern.

Above, a glass catwalk connects the building’s management office, its large indoor and outdoor dog runs, and a lofted library and co-working space stocked only with books containing the word “light” in the title.

Tom Harris Photography
Tom Harris Photography

According to the architect, the curated book collection was a nod to Emme’s name, which loosely relates to the Greek word for light. The capitalized “EMME” lettering gave the designers inspiration to create graphical patterns—similar to an eye exam chart—throughout the development.

Also dispersed across the building are its tenant amenities. “It’s easier to energize smaller, more intimate spaces,” noted Copper. “Other buildings with one big amenity area can feel like an empty airport terminal when they’re not packed with people. That’s something we try to avoid.”

Emme’s third-floor lounge features a demonstration kitchen, two private “work pods,” and an eye-catching pink pool table. The space takes on a special quality on sunny afternoons when a narrow skylight, running along the eastern wall, casts shadow patterns across its raw concrete walls.

Tom Harris Photography

The lounge opens to a large outdoor terrace with fire pits, grilling stations, and a 5,000-square-foot plot dedicated to urban agriculture. Residents can spread out across a sloped, west-facing lawn to soak up afternoon rays. This elevated patch of grass is backed by the historic facade of the Crane Company building and adds interest to what would be an otherwise flat deck.

These lower-floor amenities are supplemented by a number of 14th-floor communal spaces. Perched on Emme’s top level, the fitness center looks out across the forest of construction cranes currently building up Chicago’s West Loop. It is joined by a south-facing yoga studio, pool deck, and resident party room.

Tom Harris Photography
Michael Lipman Photography
Michael Lipman Photography

The apartment levels feature light colored corridors with a mix of studio, one-, and two-bedroom floorplans. The units are efficiently laid out and brightly lit thanks to an abundance of windows and indirect LED lighting, emanating from above the sleek kitchen cabinetry. Other features include hardwood floors, unfinished concrete ceilings, roller blinds, Nest thermostats, and integrated appliances (good luck spotting the model unit’s concealed refrigerator at first glance).

Michael Lipman Photography
Michael Lipman Photography

Emme welcomed its first renters in September. While it may not be Chicago’s largest or flashiest new apartment development, it is thoughtful in its details and has a strong understanding of its location—both on the street and in Chicago history.

Tom Harris Photography