A Short History of Chicago’s Beautiful, Decrepit Guyon Hotel

West Garfield Park’s Moorish masterpiece was once the center of a conservative media empire (in the moral sense), the home of WFMT, and a host to young Benny Goodman and old Jimmy Carter. It’s also been a crucible of low-income housing development, and despite being on the National Register of Historic Places, it remains in limbo, where it’s been for decades.

Hotel Guyon Chicago landmark

 

Although the Freeport City Hall and Prentice Hospital make a good case, for my money the most spectacular building on Landmarks Illinois’ ten-most-endangered buildings list is the Hotel Guyon at 4000 W. Washington in West Garfield Park. It’s a Chicago-Moorish hybrid from architect Jens J. Jensen*, and played an important role in Chicago music in the early 20th century. On the other hand, despite its beauty and pedigree as “the home of homes,” it’s also been a money pit practically since it was built.

The Hotel Guyon (alternately known as the Guyon Hotel or the Guyon Towers) was the brainchild of J. Louis Guyon, a French-Canadian dance instructor and promoter who made his reputation and fortune with Guyon’s Paradise, a nightclub with a 4,000-person dance floor in the rooming-house district. (The Daily News archive has a photo of people thronging Guyon’s, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Guyon). But it was no mere ballroom. It was “the most conservative ballroom in Chicago”: no Charleston allowed there, nor even the one-step or the fox trot. Guyon was a media impresario of clean dancing and clean living, as he advertised:

ABOLISH JAZZ MUSIC
Abolish FOX-TROT, ONE-STEP, TODDLE, SHIMMY
or any form of dancing or any position which permits the gentleman to walk directly in front of his partner.

There lay ruin:

When you are told that boys and girls of the age when sex impulses run hottest, when judgment has not been developed, when will and knowledge to combat strange and new desires are absent, and when supervision is either lacking entirely or is superficial—when you are told that youth of both sexes— can mingle in close embrace with bosoms and abdomens in friction and with limbs intertwined, and survive the experience without mental, moral and physical pollution, you know the teller LIES.

Variety called the music Guyon offered a “service brand of dance music,” “peppy but not hotsy-totsy.” Unappealing as it might sound, it fit within the reform sentiment at the time, a connection that would survive the hotel and ballroom: Benny Goodman got his start at Hull House, moved on to the Guyon’s Paradise Orchestra, and would remain a supporter of Hull House throughout his life.

Being in keeping with the times made Guyon a good living, and he also embraced the radio business, building the multi-lingual station WGES as part of his clean-media empire (even after Guyon lost it, his hotel would serve as home to WFMT):

Vaillant introduces “the construction of radio families” through a profile of J. Louis Guyon, the impresario who owned West Side station WGES. Vaillant describes him as a “radio patriarch, seated at the head of an extended white family of the air.” Guyon and other broadcasters frequently invoked an imaginary “family” of listeners and spoke of themselves as working to “serve the people” by likening a radio station to “a community center” for the neighborhood. It appears there was more to this than simply rhetoric, as owners like Guyon invited local residents on the air to sing and play musical instruments, and make announcements of a familial nature. Guyon made further claims to community service, saying, “There are thousands of Catholic people in the neighborhood that I am in that patronize my ballroom, and I felt as though I owed them something in return.” Whether this was sincere civic-mindedness, or just good business sense, he put local religious figures on the air alongside opera and commercial dance music. Vaillant sums up these features of WGES radio as an effort “to redefine public culture and urban identity in Chicago via radio.”

Fourteen years after he started Guyon’s Paradise, the 289-room, 169-unit Hotel Guyon was built at a cost of $1,650,000 in 1928, or over $22 million in today’s dollars.

1928 was, of course, a very bad time to build a $22 million residential hotel. (It probably didn’t make the upstanding Guyon happy when the cops busted Capone associate Jack McGurn’s apartment, either.) By 1934, the underwriters of the initial $1,000,000 bond took the title to the Hotel Guyon for a mere $100,000, though it somehow (and I’m a bit puzzled by this) managed to stay in receivership for another five years; when the hotel went into receivership, there were still taxes owed from the year the hotel was built.

Five years afterwards, it was sold by the original bondholder for $425,000, or $5.5 million in 2012 dollars. It was sold again the next year for “a reported price of slightly less than half a million dollars.”

It remained in the same hands—Jack Galper and George London, owners of “several apartment hotels in Chicago” along with the Moor Mud Baths Hotel in Waukesha—for another two decades. In 1964, it was sold for $500,000, or $3.7 million today. Immediately thereafter, the area around Washington and Pulaski would be ground zero for the 1965 and 1968 riots. The neighborhood began to collapse (its population would almost halve from 1960-1990, and the hotel’s trail runs cold: “Like Midwest Apartments, the quality buildings of East Garfield Park are not just remains [of] a time before white flight and the 1960s riots. They are the foundations upon which—with preservation and reinvestment—this community can be rebuilt.”

The city tried once to make the Hotel Guyon a foundation for rebuilding West Garfield Park, when its story picks up again. In 1985, Bethel New Life Inc., the community affiliate of the Lutheran church, bought the all-but-abandoned building “at almost no cost,” the Tribune reported, through a tax activation program:

Developed by the Woodstock Institute, the Rehab Network, and other local groups such as Bethel, tax reactivation allows the county to seize large apartment buildings whose owners are more than five years’ delinquent in paying real estate taxes. The county then turns the buildings over to organizations that plegde to rehabilitate them and get them back on the tax rolls.

The Guyon got a $1.5 million mortgage, plus $580,000 from the Chicago Equity Fund, “a program that gives private investors a federal income tax shelter by making them ‘limited partners’ in the community group’s development.” But they were still $780,000 short, and the remainder was expected to come from the Community Development Block Grant Program, then under fire during the Reagan years. They did manage to pull funding together, and that’s how it ended up a landmark, though it doesn’t have local protection:

Bethel New Life further ensured the hotel`s future by successfully lobbying for its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. And the project attracted the support of former President Jimmy Carter, who stayed in the Guyon for a week while working on a building rehabilitation with Habitat for Humanity, another nonprofit housing organization.

Carter, Crain’s reported, “stayed overnight in a roach-infested room, furnished with only a couch and a milk crate.” But the renovated hotel was still sitting on a shaky economic foundation:

Nearly three years and $6 million later the doors have opened to the newly named 4000 Guyon Towers. The building at 4000 W. Washington Blvd. includes 114 one- and two-bedroom apartments with rents starting below $325 per month.

[snip]

Although some gas stations, automotive repair shops and fast-food restaurants are in business on surrounding blocks, the celebration of the completed building caused a stir in a neighborhood in which such openings are still rare. Those who reclaimed the Guyon Hotel acknowledge that the full redevelopment of the West Side will need much more federal, state and local government aid for low-income housing and small businesses.

By 1995, the Guyon Hotel was transferred from Bethel to the Chicago Equity Fund, Crain’s reported at the time, in a piece about problems with non-profit housing development:

CEF last summer quietly took control of partner Bethel New Life’s high-profile Guyon Hotel redevelopment in Garfield Park. Restructuring plans include a $290,000 grant from the state and annual $50,000 infusions from corporate investors, CEF’s Mr. Higginson says.

Meanwhile, the city has cut off new development funding to Bethel, Ms. Carrott confirms.

What most low-income housing developers and lenders didn’t account for in their underwriting was the cost of managing properties in poor Chicago neighborhoods, where social conditions have deteriorated with the introduction of crack and increased gang activity.

You may recall the Chicago Equity Fund from its deals with Rezmar, Tony Rezko’s company; the CEF partnered with Rezmar on subsidized housing, and Rezmar promised to cover operating losses for seven years. After that, Rezmar walked away, leaving CEF to keep the buildings running as affordable housing under IRS guidelines for a full 15-year term. The Guyon doesn’t appear to have been one of the CEF-Rezmar partnerships, but the many Rezmar deals bled both the state and the CEF. In 2005, the CEF’s CEO resigned, and its remnants seem to have been mostly absorbed by the National Equity Fund.

Since 2005, according to Landmarks Illinois, the Guyon has changed hands four more times. It’s total assessed value (in the books at 116 N. Pulaski) in 2011 was $149,228, down from just under $200,000 the year before. (Here’s what it looked like inside in 2010.) It’s been a troubled and slow decline for the Guyon Hotel, but despite its long history, almost all its value disappeared practically the day it was built.


* Who would go on to reinvent the American grocery store.

 

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons (CC by 3.0)

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