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Jane Addams Is Not Here to Sell Your Fancy Hotel Rooms

A Michigan Avenue hotel is rebranding as the St. Jane, and the Mother of Social Work is rolling over in her grave.

The revamped space (formerly the Hard Rock Hotel) will take its name from beloved 20th century activist Jane Addams.   Photo: (Addams) Library of Congress; (building) Matt Hucke/Wikimedia Commons

The city is looking at a new boutique hotel what feels like every month. This summer we’ve seen openings for the Midtown Athletic Club, Ace Hotel, and soon, the Viceroy. As if on cue, this week the owners of the Carbide & Carbon building on Michigan Avenue announced that the existing Hard Rock Hotel would make way for a new concept that will include upgraded rooms, a new café, restaurant, microbrewery, and more.

But something stuck out: I couldn’t get past the name, the St. Jane Chicago Hotel. As a proud art history major, I ran through my encyclopedic mind palace of useless Catholic information and could only remember one Saint Jane, who opened a convent for nuns rejected from other convents because they were too old or sick. 

“Please, let this be a hotel for elderly women rejected from other hotels,” I thought to myself.

It’s not.

On closer inspection, it’s not actually named after Saint Jane, who has no connection to Chicago at all, but rather Jane Addams herself—the early 20th century activist and author dubbed “the Mother of Social Work.” And I think the latter explanation is more insulting.

A brief primer: Addams is a towering figure in Chicago history who famously established the Hull House, a settlement house which served as a women’s residence and research center that studied important issues like housing, disease, childbirth, and more. It also provided after-school programs, night school for adults, a public kitchen, and arts classes for kids. Some say it served as a model for today’s adult continuing education. Her work greatly influenced things like the eight-hour workday for women, the importance of sanitary living conditions, and employment assistance. Oh, and she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Mother of Social Work is not synonymous with a giant building clad in polished granite and gold leafing that was actually designed with a champagne bottle in mind. The Addams name isn’t about a boutique lifestyle or chic design. And, as a someone who spoke out against the role of alcohol in the prostitution market, I doubt she’d be impressed by those 24th-floor cocktails (available only to those who pay a premium to stay in the fanciest rooms), either.

Jane Addams is not your brand, bro.

AJ LaTrace, Curbed Chicago editor, writes, “the move is likely to compete with newer downtown hotel offerings located in restored buildings that some sort of tie in with Chicago history and a more ‘authentic’ Chicago experience.”

What would make the St. Jane Hotel an authentic way to experience Chicago— specifically, a Chicago that Jane Addams fought to make equitable and healthy? If it were open to those in transition, in need, between jobs or without jobs, or who desperately need a basic shelter. If it provided free art and gymnastics and music classes for kids and adults. If it fed each homeless person sitting outside their doors on Michigan Avenue a decent meal. And, if it paid every single one of its workers a living wage, with sick leave and family leave, all wrapped in a big bow of health care.

In its press release, the ownership group mentions, “The hotel will also be a deeply rooted member of Chicago’s philanthropic community through giving back and supporting local causes through sales and the hosting of charity events and meaningful donations.”

Promising? Certainly, but hotels always play host to charity events. What will set them apart? This is not good enough for Jane. This is not good enough for her legacy. This is a brand that is using our icon to make a hotel “iconic”—but not much more than that.

Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and editor of Chicago Architect magazine. As a writer, she focuses on livable built environments, equitable design, historic preservation, architecture criticism, and radical urbanism.

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