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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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Republicans meeting in the Crystal Ballroom in 1960

When the plan to build the Blackstone was reported in the Chicago Daily Tribune on April 18, 1908, the coverage was straightforward, explaining that the hotel would be named for the late Timothy B. Blackstone, the founder of the Union Stock Yards and the longtime president of the Chicago & Alton Railroad, and would occupy the site of his former mansion at Michigan Avenue and Hubbard Place (now Balbo Avenue). The Drake Hotel Company was the developer, and the establishment would be managed by Tracy C. and John B. Drake, the sons of the late hotelier John Drake.

The following month, when the drawings from Marshall & Fox, the architecture firm, were released, the poetry was already in motion. “To the height of three stories the treatment will be in polished pink Milford granite, and . . . the balance of the façade in warm shades of pressed brick and terra cotta. The frieze cornice, dormers, and balustrades will be of terra cotta, the whole crowned by a mansard surfaced with green tile.”

When it opened in 1910, critics saluted the stately Beaux Arts building for its lobby paneled in French walnut and detailed in gilt, its Art Hall promenade, its classically ornate ballroom, and its elegant private dining rooms. The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded Marshall & Fox a gold medal for the design, noting that “the interior combine[d] dignity with a feeling of homelikeness.”

And the people came. The acclaimed tenor Enrico Caruso appeared at the opening. Over the years, the Blackstone became known as the Hotel of Presidents. Every chief executive from William Howard Taft through Jimmy Carter (with the exception of Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford) was a guest. In 1920, a reporter for the Associated Press coined the phrase “smoke-filled room” when cigar-brandishing Republicans met on the ninth floor to determine that Warren G. Harding would be the party’s presidential candidate. The phrase entered the national parlance as code for a brokered deal. (In the future, all deals at The Blackstone will be wrangled over in a no-smoking environment.) Foreign dignitaries checked in to dine or briefly reside—Charles de Gaulle from France; Juan Antonio Ríos, the president of Chile; Princesses Birgitta and Désirée from Sweden; Charlotte, the grand duchess of Luxembourg.

Through the first half of the 20th century, when most people traveled by train, stars en route to Hollywood or New York often repaired to the Blackstone to await their rail connections. “A lot of Chicago’s identity as a celebrity center was based on the fact that people were changing trains,” says Samuelson. In 1926, a teary Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, stopped in, having just attended Rudolph Valentino’s funeral in the East. The opera singer Mary Garden lived in the Blackstone for many years, but she was just passing through in 1931 when she was interviewed in a suite there and made this proclamation about the prevailing mood of economic doom and gloom: “Pessimists bore me.”

In the late forties, the actress Ethel Barrymore, on her way to New York to pursue divorce proceedings against her adulterous husband, remained in seclusion at the Blackstone. In 1959, the peripatetic Duke and Duchess of Windsor took a time-out there with three pugs in tow.

The hotel was also high on the list of desirable destinations for Chicagoans. “For many years, the Blackstone was the in-city headquarters for people who lived in the suburbs,” Samuelson explains. “If they had business to conduct in Chicago, they would stay at the Blackstone. If you were to have a social event in the city, that was the place to be.” Stanley Paul, the society bandleader, started performing at weddings with his orchestra in the city in the late sixties. At the time, he recalls, “the big weddings were held at the Ambassador East, The Drake, the Conrad Hilton, and the Palmer House, and the Blackstone was at the top.”

By the midseventies, though, the building had declined. “I noticed things getting tattered around the edges,” Paul says. “The bones of the hotel were beautiful, but the building was beginning to look like an old dowager.”

In 1995, the Maharishi Ayurvedic University, then owned by the transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, bought the building from a West Coast group, and it was managed by the Heaven on Earth Inns Corporation. Unfortunately, meditative philosophical goals trumped the exigencies of management. The city sued the hotel that year, citing 35 building-code violations. In 1998, the Blackstone was granted landmark status, and yet its fortunes continued to fall. Even after the hotel was voluntarily closed in 1999, city inspectors went on to charge the building with 103 code violations.

The Maharishi’s comeback plan was to convert the building into condominiums, and the Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange was hired to redesign it. That plan proved to be premature—the rebirth of the South Loop had not yet taken off, and Millennium Park had not been completed. And the prices were unrealistic—$1,000 a square foot, Lagrange says, when there was nothing on the market at that price. Long an admirer of the building, he was delighted to be selected by Sage to proceed with its rescue. “For many years, the Blackstone was just a dump,” Lagrange says. “Nobody would want to go there. But the history of The Blackstone is tied to the history of Chicago in my mind.”

Mayes, the hotel’s general manager, agrees. “We envision again making this Chicago’s hotel,” he says. “We won’t be the prettiest; we won’t be the flashiest. But we’re going to be able to connect with people emotionally. We’ll give them the ability to make their own stories, to have their own memories created here.”

Some longtime guests were already clamoring to get in last fall. “Well, shucks,” said Don Tucker, the president of a radiographic imaging company in North Carolina. Last year, hearing that the hotel was reopening, he had called to make a reservation for November, only to be told that it would not be completed by then.

He and his wife and their three now-grown sons had stayed at the Blackstone for years when he attended the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. But Tucker’s return seems assured. “I like the lobby,” he says, “sitting by the fireplace, drinking a little toddy, all the hustling and bustling and watching everyone else come and go.”

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Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis


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