What’s That Building? Harpo Studios | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Morning Shift

What’s That Building? Harpo Studios

The building that once housed Oprah’s soundstage and offices may soon be home to a new set of headquarters: McDonald’s HQ.

And as if the presence of Oprah and (potentially) McDonald’s wasn’t enough, the site has an incredible history before that. Here are just some of the things the building has housed:

A temporary morgue

The building was set up as a temporary morgue for victims of the Eastland disaster in July 1915. 

It housed about 600 of the 844 people who died when the Eastland sank in the Chicago River. Built as the Second Regiment Armory, it was the largest empty space within reach of the Chicago River, and most of the hundreds of bodies were delivered to the building on horse-drawn wagons.

A set for The Monkees’ TV series

After a brief hiatus as a roller skating rink, the building was a TV production facility called Fred Niles Studios from 1958 to 1982. Lots of commercials were filmed there, including some that featured Muhammad Ali. 

In August 1967, The Monkees filmed the musical segments for most of the second season of their TV series in this building, when riots in Detroit and Milwaukee forced them to take a break from a concert tour. Some segments included “Daydream Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

A set for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom

Here are a couple of in-studio shots from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, presumably shot in the Washington Street building in the 1960s.

And, of course, Harpo Productions

The Oprah Show paid $4.75 million for the 88,000-square-foot main building in 1988. Her move contributed mightily to the rebirth of the neighborhood, including the Randolph Street string of restaurants, just a block north.

By 2014, she owned four buildings in all and sold the group for $32 million.

As of now, nothing has been demolished. The old building is still standing, though stripped of all Oprah signage. Sterling Bay, the commercial real estate firm that bought the campus, has plans for new building on the site, although some reports say that portions of the old buildings might be retained.

If the McDonald’s headquarters deal goes through, the move is slated to happen in 2018.

Want more building stories? Check out this playlist. 

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.