When Meladee Hughes began her real estate career in 1968 in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, men dominated the business. Most women didn’t have licenses to drive, let alone sell real estate.
“I was 35 years old with five children ages 7–14 and a husband just back from a six-month diplomatic assignment in Vietnam,” recalls the 85-year-old real estate veteran, who is affiliated with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Chicago. Prior to Vietnam, she explains, they had lived in Tehran, Geneva and Washington, D.C. and had just returned to the Chicago area, where her husband, Jim, had taken a lead marketing position for Rotary International in Evanston.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper for a real estate agent, and I went to the office, which was just two blocks away,” she says as she sips a pink-tinted Cosmo in the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Chicago. She’s wearing one of her trademark hats, as if she just stepped out of a Chanel ad. The words and memories flow easily. “There were no agents in the office that day, but the co-owner was there and just about to leave. He handed me a real estate book to read and told me to come back after the holidays and he would tell me where to take the test. At that time, there were no real estate schools. I had sold my own house in Skokie a few years before, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ It was that simple.”
Hughes passed the test and quickly got to work. She didn’t know how to drive, which meant her initial coverage area was limited to the homes to which she could walk.
“I almost immediately got listings by going to door-to-door instead of calling people,” she says. “It was aggressive behavior in this conservative cradle. Plus, I was a newcomer and they saw me as an outsider. My enthusiasm, optimism and creative marketing ideas worked.”
For the first few months, she kept her lack of driving skills a secret from her broker, Howard Davis. “He was probably the smartest and most knowledgeable broker of that time,” she says. “He was also compassionate, trustworthy and dependable. He frequently offered me his car to use. I always refused, saying my husband would not allow me to drive someone else’s car. He really helped me start my career the right way, and I will always be grateful to him.”
Within a month, she had sold three houses and had enough money to purchase her own car. She arranged to take her own driving lessons. Once she passed the driving test, she headed to a local car dealer in downtown Winnetka. She saw a very small red convertible in the window — a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia — for only $1,600. But the dealer would not sell it to her without her husband’s signature.
“It was the dark ages,” she says. “A woman, no matter what her job or earnings, could not buy anything on credit, including a house, without her husband — but he could buy anything without her.”
Jim had to make the official purchase, and the little sports car was hers — until their old station wagon stopped going in reverse. “To use it, someone would have to push it out of the driveway onto Sheridan Road,” she says. “Jim needed a reliable car for work, and I wanted my car, so what did I do? I had to buy him another car.”
Finally free to roam the roads in her red Karmann Ghia, Hughes expanded her coverage area. Wilmette, Northfield, Glenview…she reached at least a dozen homes a day.
“Many people thought I was selling magazines,” she says. “Sometimes I was invited in for tea and cookies or music played on their pianos. Most people seemed happy to see me, but I did have doors slammed in my face. I always went back to those houses and presented them with maps and other information to help them sell their own homes. Because I was consistent, I always got the listings.”
Her tenacity quickly earned praise from her broker and dubious glares from her male colleagues. She turned all of it into a real estate career that has now spanned five decades. On Mar. 14, 2018, she celebrated her 50th anniversary in real estate — a rare achievement for any real estate professional.
“Meladee Hughes is an icon and a pioneer, exhibiting the kind of vanguard spirit that has defined the Coldwell Banker® brand for 112 years,” says Craig Hogan, vice president of luxury for Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, who has known Hughes since 2010. “For me, she’s one of a kind. Long before I knew her, I knew who she was. She was always considered to be the crème de la crème. I’ve watched her do a listing consultation, and I was blown away by how prepared and smooth she was. She’s a true master. And she’s one the best cooks I’ve ever met.”
Hughes’ list of accolades, accomplishments and landmark sales is long and near-legendary — like the 2014 sale of the Highland Park property that famously appeared in one of the most climatic scenes of the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which featured a glass-enclosed pavilion atop steel pilings over a ravine as the fictional garage where Cameron Frye’s father kept his cherished classic Ferrari. Hughes hadn’t even seen the movie initially. When she originally won the listing, all of the previous owners’ belongings were packed away in boxes. It took her two months to stage the house. “I couldn’t show that house without presenting it properly,” she says.
“I learned a lot about the media with that listing,” remembers Hughes, who specializes in historic mansions, unique mid-century modern architectural treasures, beautifully restored co-ops and high-rise penthouses and condominiums from Chicago’s North Shore to the Gold Coast. “Reporters were not interested in the house or the famous architect who designed it. It was all about the movie. My third husband, Laurence Korwin, was a marketing genius, and he leaked it to the right people. Every TV station — national and local — was parked outside the house for a week. I was doing interviews on TV and radio. The media attention was never something I wanted.”
You don’t reach your 50th year in real estate without the luxury of having a few stories to tell. And Meladee Hughes has a lot of them. Quick-witted and a natural raconteur, Hughes slips easily from memory to memory — sometimes before the listener has time to catch up. I haven’t even had a chance to ask about her first sale yet.
“It was a red brick house in Winnetka,” she eventually tells me. “It sold for $25,000. This was long before buyers fussed over the color of the cabinets.”
The late 1960s were a different real estate era, indeed. Buyers never “talked about the condition of the kitchens or bathrooms,” she says. “They did not think about upgrades. Putting in new appliances equaled remodeling. No one seemed to care about or even want wood floors. Carpeting was in. The main fussing point was the color of the carpets in the home. Blue and green seemed to be the most hated colors. Appliances were then coming in colors like brown, yellow, avocado and pink. We were emerging from mid-century modern into some kind of nondescript Ethan Allen world, combined with heirloom and second-hand pieces.” Affluent families were fleeing the city, opting instead for the mansions of Winnetka.
“The entire North Shore was a very hot market,” she says. “Everything sold within a month, and nothing was staged or prepared for sale. Many houses were sold sight unseen, and no repairs were asked for by the buyers or offered by the sellers. Agents would sell the homes by having a special broker open house as the first opportunity to view them, and the brokers with their clients would file in, each with a signed contract in their hands to present as they exited the house. It was crazy and frantic, like a Black Friday sale.”
In one way, her own migration to the North Shore matched her clients’ urban exodus. Like them, she settled into comfortable suburban life as she raised nine children — six birth children, two stepchildren and one adopted child. In another way, her path was very different from that of the Winnetka wives. The Gold Coast-born Hughes was cosmopolitan, independent and free-thinking. She always had her own ambitions outside the home. She worked through all of her pregnancies. “I don’t like restraints,” she says. “I need a very long leash.”
The octogenarian has had more than a few past lives. A competitive figure skater who trained with Hedy Stenuf and almost made it to the 1952 Olympics, she taught figure skating for 20 years and ran ice skating schools in Denver and Chicago. Even when her husband Jim’s diplomatic mission took him to Tehran, Iran, she thought nothing of packing up their five children and heading on a world tour of Europe alone before taking the final plane to Tehran. She has lived and sold real estate all over the world, including Denver, Rancho Sante Fe, France, Moscow and Prague, where she had the opportunity to open a real estate office.
“The former Soviet Union had finally freed the many Eastern European countries it had governed for so many years, and capitalism was emerging in Prague,” says Hughes. “I spent the next 10 years living and working there, including Russia, and started Bridges across the Atlantic, an international children’s medical exchange that later included China and the Philippines and brought teams of doctors from major Chicago hospitals to do cancer, spinal and heart surgeries on children, pro bono. I adopted one of these children, who is now a nurse in labor and delivery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. This was our reward — the gift of our Chinese daughter in 1997, a year after my marriage to Larry. That decade will be the subject of my next book.”
Yes, in between all of her real estate endeavors, she somehow found the time to write six books; her latest is a real estate memoir, “50 Years in Real Estate,” due out on Amazon later this year.
“All of this historic architecture [overseas] spoiled us for living in a plain-looking American home, so when returning to the Chicago area and searching for a rental, all I found were big old stucco prairie-style clunkers with no architectural appeal, until I found our Spanish house on Sheridan Road in Winnetka,” she writes in the book’s first chapter. “This house looked like a European home, complete with Moorish arches and high cove ceilings, intricate carved moldings, palladium-style windows and wide plank dark-oak floors. The floor plan made no sense, and it did not have all the bedrooms we needed, but it had so much square footage and style we all fell in love with it. The problem was we did not have the money to buy it, but we rented it with an option to buy it at $64,000. The property is now worth a million, and I sold it for $450,000 in the early 1980s.”
Having logged so many decades in real estate, Hughes is naturally prone to these types of then-versus-now price comparisons. During the earliest days of her career in the late 1960s, for example, she tells me that home prices varied from $25,000 on the low end to about $125,000 for Clement Stone’s 3-acre mansion on the lake, built by the Quaker Oats family. “It sold about five years ago for almost $9 million,” she says.
She is a walking history book for the “Mad Men” era of real estate, and a paragon for younger real estate professionals just starting out in the business. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you want to know the future, look at the past.”
The early days of her career make the real estate industry sound like the wild, wild West. There were no real estate schools. No continuing education courses. No attorney approval or home inspections. Credit checks for buyers were almost nonexistent, usually relegated to a brief meeting with a loan officer or president at one of the local banks. New listings weren’t delivered to email inboxes, but rather to each of the real estate offices by a local printing company in the middle of the night. “We had black three-ring binders in which to place these stacks of 5×7-inch sheets with only basic information and a black and white photo of the house,” she says. “And how did I price my listings?” she asks. “Off the top of my head. I never used comps, as each home at that time was uniquely different, and the mass developers had not yet arrived.” To this day, Hughes operates much in the same way, leaning heavily on intuition and her 50 years of experience. She is notoriously anti-report and anti-spreadsheet. “All of my numbers are in my head,” she confides.
In terms of marketing her listings, Hughes was ahead of her time. “I did some unusual and creative things that helped my properties sell faster,” she says. First, she began staging her listings. This was long before property staging was the multimillion-dollar business it is today.
“First, we set the dining room table with the sellers’ finest china and crystal, and I set flowers for the centerpiece,” she says. “Then I moved furniture around to create a better walking path for the buyers. I told them to pack up their out-of-season clothes so the closets looked bigger. I had them bake cookies for Sunday open houses. I always had a good turnout. I used holiday themes and international food specialties. I actually got in trouble with the board for serving sangria with a Mexican lunch. The suburbs were dry at the time.”
Through packed open houses, cars that wouldn’t reverse and the rising tide of feminism, Hughes has managed to keep a good sense of humor — which she says is the best quality to have in a realtor. “You have to like people in this business,” she says, and she returns once again to her early days when doors were slammed in her face. I ask her about lessons she has learned over the last half-century and what advice she would give new agents entering the business. “Colleagues are forever, and their trust in you is very important,” she answers quickly.
For Hughes, everything comes full circle. What began 50 years ago in Winnetka now continues in Chicago, where she has returned to her Gold Coast roots. “I know every street,” she says. “I’d make an excellent Uber driver.”
“In a red Karmann Ghia?” I almost ask. With Meladee Hughes, anything seems possible.
Story by Alyson Pitarre