Six things you need know: Chicago’s downtown hotel boom
By Lynn Becker
1. They’re Coming.
Chicago added 8 million new visitors in just three years, and the city has set an ambitious goal of 55 million people by 2020. New hotels are popping up all over the place to meet the demand—1,000 rooms recently, another 2,500 in development.
Some of those rooms are in new buildings like the edgy Godfrey in River North, the sleek Loews in Streeterville and the massive Marriott under construction near McCormick Place. The big news, however, is how hotel operators are making a big-time bet on classic Chicago architecture. Recently opened is the Chicago Athletic Hotel, an ambitious restoration of Henry Ives Cobb’s 1893 Venetian-Gothic-styled structure on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park.
2. You Can Spend the Night Where Chicago’s Earliest Settlers Slept.
Alfred S. Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building is a 1923 skyscraper constructed on the site of Fort Dearborn, established in 1803. Although the last vestiges of the fort were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, you can still see its outline inscribed on the sidewalk and its image cast in bronze above the doorway. Instead of logs, the London Guarantee offers up cut stone and classical grandeur. The entrance takes the form of a triumphal arch, leading into a circular rotunda with an ornately decorated ceiling, complete with historical murals. At the building’s top, there’s an arcade of eight two-story-high Corinthian columns, and above that a domed temple modeled—depending on who does the telling—on either the ancient Choragic monument in Athens or the town hall of Stockholm, Sweden.
Oxford Development is in the process of turning London Guarantee into the 452-room LondonHouse hotel, a nod both to the original owner and the name of the famous nightclub that was once on the main floor. As a modernist counterpoint, Goettsch Partners has designed a tall glass annex that’s being constructed just south of the 1923 building.
3. The Block of the Six Hotels.
By the time all the construction is finished, LondonHouse will have no fewer than five competitors on the same block. Down Wacker, there’s the pioneering modernism of the 1960 Wyndham Hotel, by architect Milton Schwartz. Next door, Guest Quarters has set up shop in the 1928 Mather Tower. At 521 feet (159m), it was the tallest structure in Chicago at the time of its completion. Its floor plates were so small it was nicknamed the “Needle Building.” By the turn of the 21st century, the Gothic terra cotta ornament had begun to crumble so badly, chunks of it fell onto the street. The top 45 feet of the tower were removed in 2000. On a windy weekend two years later, passersby were treated to the spectacle of a helicopter lifting an 11-ton painted aluminum replacement into position.
Along the south side of the block, finishing touches are being made to a new 27-story Hilton Garden Inn on east Wacker. Next door, a new Hampton Inn opened in the long-empty 1928 Chicago Motor Club Building. The original Art Deco detailing of the lobby has been lovingly restored, including the wall-sized, 29-foot map of the United States marked with popular driving destinations.
The sixth hotel? A Comfort Inn on Michigan Avenue designed by Larry Booth, which was previously apartments and then an office building where each suite had its own bathtub.
Those six hotels don’t just have bibles in the rooms, they have their own church. Harry Weese’s handsome 1968 Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, rounds the corner between the Wyndham and the Garden Inn.
4. The Virgin Has Angry Birds.
Old Dearborn Bank built 203 N. Wabash in 1928, then promptly failed a few years later. What makes the 27-story structure unique, however, is that it is one of only two office buildings designed by the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp, best known for their over-the-top movie palaces like the Chicago Theater. The building’s facade is overrun with terra cotta ornament, featuring beasts both real and mythical—medieval knights, lots of lions, ducks, and. . .squirrels, a traditional symbol of saving. Most extraordinary of all are the massive, stern-visaged birds guarding the roofline.
British tycoon Richard Branson acquired the building in 2011 and re-opened it in 2015 as the first-ever Virgin Hotel. In addition to restoring the facade’s terra cotta ornament, Branson’s team brought the interior’s rich materials back to life, polished up the ornate elevator doors and uncovered the banking hall’s original patterned ceiling.
5. The Block of the Three Hotels.
Okay, that’s a lot less than six, but these are really big. Already the Hyatt Centric opened in the 22-story former office building at 100 W. Monroe. But the big game is on the half of the block facing LaSalle Street. Construction crews are hard at work turning William Le Baron Jenney’s 1894 New York Life Building into the 281-room Kimpton Hotel. The imposing original two-story gray marble lobby, largely intact, is sure to wow customers. As the restoration continues, the facade seemed as much plywood as terra cotta, as many damaged panels had to be removed for repair or replacement. The new hotel is scheduled to open in 2016.
Just up the street, Marriott is retrofitting the historic Roanoke Building at Madison and LaSalle into a Residence Inn. Originally constructed as The Lumber Exchange, it’s a building that refused to sit still, growing like topsy from its original 1915 height of 16 stories. In 1922, five more floors were added and just three years later a 35-story-high annex tower was constructed—perfect for penthouse hotel rooms. The Roanoke is a rare example of the Portuguese Gothic style, and the facades of the lower floors are richly ornamented.
6. The Ghosts of Chicago Hotels Past Still Lurk.
Chicago has demolished hotels taller than most cities have buildings. When the 526-foot-high Morrison Hotel, a half-block down Madison from the Roanoke, was demolished in 1965, it was the highest structure to have been torn down anywhere in the world. It was replaced by the upward sweep of the 850-foot headquarters of the First National Bank of Chicago, now Chase Tower.
It’s almost become a joke that when an owner is looking to cash out on a less-than-pristine office building of a certain age, the rumors of another hotel conversion start to fly. In Chicago, even with the current explosion of activity, there’s no shortage of candidates. Just across Madison from the Roanoke, behind the generic steel and glass curtain wall of a nondescript office building, lie the bones of the “Absolutely Fireproof” New Hotel Brevoort of 1906. Designed by architect Benjamin Marshall, it was known for its elegant appointments and bountiful artwork. Frank Lloyd Wright was once a resident. As the stream of visitors to Chicago continues to strengthen, could a double-reverse be in the cards?