Rooms With Memories

The grand Blackstone hotel was a favorite of U.S. presidents, movie stars, smart-set Chicagoans, and jazz musicians. Now, after decades of decline, it’s beautifully buffed up and back in business

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Go with the flow: the restored and updated Blackstone lobby


One afternoon last fall, two men were walking through the 23-story Blackstone, a historic hotel on South Michigan Avenue, checking out the progress of the extensive renovation then nearing completion. They seemed pleased. In a guest room with a pair of king-size beds, they paused, and Fletcher C. Mayes suddenly jumped up and fell back on one of the beds. “I just love these mattresses,” he shouted as he smiled at the ceiling. Walter Isenberg followed suit. They looked satisfied, as if they had pulled off a big prank. But perhaps they were simply acting out their understanding that aside from services and amenities, hotels should deliver a good time.

Distinguished-looking men with graying hair, Mayes and Isenberg are two of the top hotel executives behind the reclamation of the Blackstone, a long-languishing landmark designed by the Chicago architect Benjamin H. Marshall and completed in 1910. He went on to design The Drake and the Edgewater Beach hotels and many other elegant buildings, even while he eagerly pursued showgirls in an era when they were plentiful.

With more than 22 years in the business, Mayes was most recently the general manager of the Hyatt Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina. Isenberg is the president and chief executive officer of Sage Hospitality Resources, a 24-year-old company based in Denver, Colorado, that now owns or manages 47 hotels in 21 states. Of those projects, he says, before they were converted into hotels, 12 were threatened historic buildings—among them, a bank, a department store, and, most recently, a 1920s Masonic temple in Providence, Rhode Island. Sage bought the Blackstone, closed since 1999, in 2005 and is scheduled to reopen the hotel in March. The renovated building will feature 332 guest rooms, 12 suites, and almost 20,000 square feet of meeting space. In a franchise agreement with the Marriott Corporation, the hotel will be part of its high-end brand and will be called The Blackstone—A Renaissance Hotel.

“People want the places where they’re staying to be more than just a hotel,” Isenberg says. “And then, for us, there are what I call corporate citizenship issues—we’re bringing life to blighted buildings, adding value back to the community, and creating jobs.” Sage paid $22.3 million for the Blackstone and has spent $106 million restoring the hotel; the city contributed $18 million in tax increment financing.

Bob Rowan, a carpenter who worked on the project, remembers the hotel from his visits in the early sixties, when he was five or six. His father was a hotel detective for the Chicago Police Department. “It looked grand back then,” Rowan says. “Now it’s 100 percent restored. It’s gorgeous.” Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian, also recalls trips to the Blackstone as a child. “I liked history, and I liked architecture,” he says. “And it was great going into the Blackstone because it was like stepping into another time.”

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Photograph: Mike Schwartz

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