Photos by Dave Rentauskas
676 North LaSalle is a brawny, squat and unremarkable building that, for 40-some-odd years, cloaked a rollicking recording studio in its basement. Under the guise of a series of eclectic owners, the space lured musicians of all stripes, jingle writers, B movie producers and, for a long streak in the 1980s, the audio engineers for Mutual of Omaha’s TV show Wild Kingdom.
Then, last year, the building was sold for $12 million to Chicago development firm Cedar Street Capital. On a cold day this past February, a bobcat was pulled in to dig up the floor, presumably to make way for a loading dock or a basement gym.
Diana Ross once recorded the soundtrack for Mahogany here. Now it will be 114 city apartments.
So the natural way of real estate goes. Even the owner of the last recording operation here, Wall to Wall, acknowledges that the 9,000-square-foot studio stayed open way longer than it probably should have, financially speaking. Music engineering software has made recording a do-it-yourself enterprise, and bands that want to make professional albums increasingly rent scrappy, smaller studios in cheaper neighborhoods like Humboldt Park.
River North is no longer a city frontier, but home to tourist-soaked Brazilian churasscarias, the Rock N’ Roll McDonald's and lots of expensive residential real estate.
Recognizing this sliver of Chicago entertainment history was about to be lost forever, Middleouest brought along Chicago photographer Dave Rentauskas on a tour of the studio. Most of the information in the captions comes from Dan Dietrich, the co-owner of Wall to Wall.
One of the hallmarks of the studio was the bevy of giant, rare equipment from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, much of which Dietrich’s studio partner (whom he does not want to name) collected over the years and now plans to sell. “That’s a broadcast turntable we used to do a vinyl transfers; it had been at a radio station in the 1980s,” Dietrich says. The unique assemblage of equipment was a draw to a wide spectrum of Chicago bands, from Andrew Bird and Neko Case to the Redwalls and Waco Brothers.
Another distinguishing feature was its sheer size: 9,000-square-feet divided into a labyrinth of hallways and recording rooms. “The shape of the place was kind of crazy, and it didn’t really make a lot of sense—but it worked out OK," Dietrich says. The building, he says, had been bought around 1969 by a photographer named Ed Van Baerle, a creative type with a fondness for surrounding himself by artists. He had gotten the long-vacant building cheap. "He told me that you didn’t come west of Michigan in the late 60s and early 70s, that beyond Michigan was warehouses and slum. He was a photographer, he did a lot of advertisements for Marlboro and Playboy. There were always photographers and audio people and crazy people in the building."
Around 1971 or 1972, a entrepreneurial pair named Chuck Lishon and Hans Wirsum started building out a recording studio in the basement. Lishon's family owned Frank’s Drum Shop on Wabash, and he had a lot of musical connections. "I don’t think there was much of a plan; Chuck Lishon was a little crazy and was trying to fit this big studio in between (the building’s existing concrete) pillars. I’m not exactly sure why he made some choices, like putting in an orchestra pit. In a studio setting that doesn’t make any sense.”
“We never made any money; it was just able to pay for itself. People don’t pay what they used to for studio space. We found some old receipts from someone who had recorded there in 1977, and they were recording for the same day rate we were charging in 2010.”
“The deer head was in one of the rehearsal rooms. The green box is a Magnasync Recorder, which is something they used to sync music to film back in the 1970s. Until computers came into use in the 1990s, that’s what you had to use. That kind of work took a lot of people and a lot of machinery.”
“In the 1970s they were doing a lot of music, but in the 1980s, they were doing more film and video. They made all their money doing Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. This is the room where they did all the sound effects. They would do all the sound effects there, and then mix it there.”
"The red shag carpet was on the wall of one room built in the 1970s, and the gold paneling was from a vocal booth built in the 1980s. The aesthetic went from 1970s to the 1980s all in one space. It would have been expensive to replace it, and there was really no reason, it still sounded good. And we didn’t think people would like it anyway.” As for the picture of Tiger Woods, Dietrich says he has "no idea" where that came from.
“That’s a studer tape machine; the last generation of analog tape machines built in 1990s.”
“A lot of vintage guitar amps. We definitely had the advantage of having a lot of access to a lot of equipment. It gave bands more choices for sound and more varieties of sound. Not long after we opened, Andrew Bird recorded Mysterious Production of Eggs—he was taking off at the time and starting to be more than a local artist then. I think that kind of helped us to get other local clients.”
“The cartoon was drawn by Jon Langford. He recorded a Waco brothers live record here. The sign is from the freight elevator. We never wanted anyone to fall down the elevator pit.”
“When we got here in 2003, the walls were white, then we painted it. It was like a hospital down there. Not sure why we picked that red color. It was weird.”
“This is the main recording room—you can see one of the original mic panels from 1971. On the floor is a drum riser. Drums sound better on a riser than sitting on the floor, strangely enough.”
“There aren’t many studios that are this size anymore. Now it’s just one guy with a little room, because that’s what you can support. People can do a lot more on their own, so the money is just not there as much. You don’t necessarily need a giant mixing console," says Dietrich.
As for his next chapter, he says he has bought a house and plans to have a studio there: "I can do a lot of what I need to do with a much smaller space.”
Dave Rentauskas is a freelance photographer in Chicago.