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Heartbreak Hotel

Only a few years after J. W. Stevens opened his grand Michigan Avenue hotel, the Depression devastated his family, inducing a series of calamities that included suicide, bankruptcy, and criminal charges. But from the debacle of the Stevens Hotel (now Chicago Hilton and Towers) emerged a young man who today, at 86, sits on the U.S. Supreme Court

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When the Stevens Hotel opened in 1927, the news papers wrote of a new Versailles rising on South Michigan Avenue. The colossal building soared 28 stories and occupied an entire city block between Seventh and Eighth streets. With 3,000 guest rooms, it was the biggest hotel in the world-and possibly the most opulent. Its brick-and-limestone walls, decorated inside with hand-painted frescoes, contained fine restaurants, exclusive shops, and vast ballrooms. There was a bowling alley, a hospital, and a special private room for pets. The Stevens could produce 120 gallons of ice cream per hour. On its roof, you could play miniature golf at the High-Ho Club. “What a grand realization of an ambition and an ideal . . . is this great caravansary,” gushed Hotel World magazine, “this magnificent palace of hospitality dedicated to Chicago and the world!”

photograph: courtesy of Chicago Hilton

Eighty years ago, construction continued on the Stevens Hotel.

No one had seen anything quite like it before. Yet, just five years after the first two guests-Vice President Charles G. Dawes of the United States and President Gerardo Machado of Cuba-registered, the Stevens Hotel plunged into a disaster as grand as its founders’ ambitions. The hotel went bankrupt, and the State of Illinois charged its owners with financial corruption. One of them was crippled by a stroke; another committed suicide. In newspapers across the country, the crisis of the Stevens Hotel competed for column inches with Al Capone’s imprisonment and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in the White House. And when it was over, the Stevens business empire, once one of the most prominent in Illinois, was gone.

Few, if any, of the thousands who pass through the cavernous Chicago Hilton and Towers, as the Stevens is called today, know the dramatic episode of Chicago history that unfolded there. But it is not just the tale of a gaudy Jazz Age venture laid low by the Depression. It is also the story of a remarkable Chicago family-a family that paid dearly when its reach exceeded its grasp, but attained new heights in the next generation. The youngest Stevens heir was seven years old when the hotel opened, and barely a teenager as the business crumbled around him. But John Paul Stevens would go on to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, the office he still holds at the age of 86.

Justice Stevens has embraced his family history. He loves to tell stories about the happy early days of the hotel-when he met celebrity guests such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. His daughter, Elizabeth, held her wedding at the Hilton and Towers in 1984. In a brief conversation last year, Stevens told me of his pride in the hotel, calling it “one of my dad’s contributions to the city.” Yet even those closest to him know little of the family traumas that cast a shadow over Stevens’s early years. (Justice Stevens generally does not give on-the-record interviews, and he made no exception for this article.)


The Stevens Hotel was in large part the brainchild of Justice Stevens’s grandfather James W. Stevens. A native of Colchester, Illinois, where he had been a village merchant, “J. W.” migrated to Chicago in 1886. A born financier, J. W. made a fortune in insurance and ruled his companies with a firm hand. In due course, he brought his sons, Raymond W. and Ernest J.-Justice Stevens’s father-into his businesses. Raymond, an affable but cautious man, helped J. W. run his insurance company, Illinois Life. Ernest, ten years younger than Raymond, ran the LaSalle Hotel, which the Stevenses opened at the northwest corner of LaSalle and Madison streets in 1909. The LaSalle was for a time Chicago’s largest hotel and, under Ernest’s management, one of its most successful.

But the Stevenses dreamed of more. They believed that Chicago, the booming hub of the Midwest, needed a state-of-the-art destination for travelers and conventioneers. It needed the biggest hotel in the world. The projected price, more than $28 million, was a fantastic sum in the 1920s-ten times what Yankee Stadium had cost a few years earlier. J. W. thought a bond issue could easily finance the venture. Though Raymond balked, Ernest backed his father. And so, in 1925, the family launched the Stevens Hotel Company, betting their future on Chicago’s.

At first, everything went according to plan. The bonds sold well, having been declared safe by the financial press based on J. W.’s prediction of $2.8 million in after-tax annual revenue. The Stevenses sold their relatives some $350,000 worth of bonds. And why not? Illinois Life itself had bought $3 million worth.

The Stevenses laid the cornerstone at Michigan Avenue and Seventh Street (now Balbo Drive) on March 16, 1926. Buried in a copper box alongside the massive block was a Chicago Tribune editorial praising the venture. At a flag-raising ceremony on the site in May, Ernest passed out cash bonuses to the workers, a token, he told the men, of the “part you played in the construction of the largest and finest hotel in the world.” When a rival group announced plans for a 25-story hotel next to the Stevens site, J. W. bought the land out from under them for $1 million.

Ernest planned the building inside and out. Justice Stevens’s 89-year-old brother, Bill Stevens, told me that he could still recall watching his father study the blueprints at night on the family dining table. Adapting one of the innovations pioneered by the hotelier Ellsworth Statler, Ernest equipped each of the hotel’s rooms with its own bathroom-and added a mirror flanked by “two brilliant light globes so that a man can see to shave both sides of his face without guessing,” as the Chicago Daily News noted. Ernest asked three of his four sons-John included-to pose for bronze statues that would later stand in the lobby. Meanwhile, seven freight cars of glassware for the hotel came from Pennsylvania; ten carloads carrying 300,000 pieces of china arrived from a New Jersey factory. The dinner plates bore silhouette images of Ernest’s wife, Elizabeth; on the reverse side was Ernest’s tribute: “Her silhouette in profile is pleasing to the eye but her own dear self in person makes my home a paradise.”


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