Mark Twain once said, “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to keep up with Chicago. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
The city is one with a past (and even a present) that so varied, deep, and complex that it is almost impossible to take in during one visit. The music, the art, the gangsters, the architecture, the politics and personalities…their cumulative history is still so vibrant, so uniquely Chicago, that you desperately want to absorb it to experience this great city and, yet, you don’t know where to begin.
Thankfully, there is a place in Chicago that has kept its finger on the pulse of its city for over one hundred years. It’s a place where you can stay and wrap yourself in modern luxury surrounded by a history that has been carefully cultivated inside its elegant walls. It has mirrored the very history of Chicago itself and created its own storied past within that of the city that has grown up around it. This place is The Blackstone hotel and once you stay there, Chicago will no longer be a novelty to you. You will see her for who she is.
Beginnings That Were Anything but Humble
The Blackstone was not the first building to stand at the intersection of South Michigan Avenue and Balbo Street in the south Loop. Before it came to be, it was where Timothy Blackstone lived a quiet urban life in the most luxurious mansion in Chicago in the 1880s. Blackstone needed such a place to rest his weary head; he was the president of the Union Stock Yards that was the country’s meatpacking center for decades, as well as president of the Alton Railroad, connecting Chicago and its meatpacking industry to such essential cities as St. Louis and Kansas City. But after less than twenty years of making this spot his home, Blackstone died in 1900 and his wife sold their mansion to famed Chicago hoteliers John and Tracy Drake, whose father had been a friend and employee of Blackstone’s in the Alton Railroad.
The Drake brothers took some time to find an architect that was able to design a showpiece that was in keeping with their flagship Drake Hotel. By 1908, they had settled on the Chicago firm of Marshall and Fox. Marshall had just returned from a trip to Paris before beginning work on the Drakes’ project and was filled with majestic ideas for this latest hotel venture. Together, he and Fox designed a Beaux-Arts masterpiece that was reminiscent of the buildings of the World’s Fair with terracotta Grecian carvings on the ground floor and soaring arched windows. Marshall’s Parisian inspiration is evident in the distinct Neo-Baroque Second Empire feel of the building, specifically the Mansard roof with its elaborate and steeply angled curve, as seen in many Parisian buildings. This roof towered over every other roof of Chicago on this 22-story masterpiece and was the tallest building in the city when the hotel opened its doors on April 6, 1910.
From that first opening of the doors in 1910, in a ceremony replete with ribbon cuttings, upper class society and a song by opera legend Enrico Caruso, The Blackstone began to etch itself into Chicago and American history. Indeed, every decade since then has had the hotel at the center of a notable event or visit from actors, presidents and gangsters.
Perhaps The Blackstone’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the location of the first-ever “smoke-filled room,” from which Republican leaders emerged with a new Republican presidential candidate in Warren G. Harding. Back in 1920, the GOP couldn’t reach an agreement for a presidential nominee. After hours of debate at the Republican National Convention, several of the party’s elder senators met in Suite 915 of The Blackstone and, amid a haze of cigar smoke, decided on the compromise candidate of Warren Harding as the GOP nominee. This “smoke-filled room” is now one of the hotel’s most sought-after suites and it features several pieces of furniture that were present for these secret deliberations.
In the same decade that The Blackstone was helping decide presidential candidates, it was also providing a hideout for the country’s most notorious gangster. Throughout the 1920’s none other than Al Capone used the windowless, but luxurious, marble-walled barbershop on the hotel’s basement floor for not only haircuts, but also secret meetings with his most trusted confidants. Legend also has it that he used a secret room behind the barbershop to hide some of his alcohol during Prohibition. The barbershop is still there and it’s still used as a meeting room, for legitimate pursuits only. Capone was not the only gangster to make use of The Blackstone’s amenities either. In 1931, “Lucky” Luciano used the same Crystal Ballroom where today’s brides and grooms dance their first dance as husband and wife for the first “National Crime Convention,” with every mob boss in the country in attendance.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a return to The Blackstone’s roll in politics, albeit with some of the same air of secrecy from the days of the “smoke-filled room.” Throughout the decades, every US President had stayed at The Blackstone and by the 1950s the Secret Service required a higher level of security for the POTUS when he traveled. The Blackstone consequently created a secret staircase behind hollowed out walls for the President to come and go without scrutiny as well as to provide a hidden room for Secret Service staff. The staircase was accessible via a closet in the 10th floor Presidential Suite, the very room where Dwight D. Eisenhower watched his nomination on TV in 1954. Marilyn Monroe supposedly used this same closet and staircase in 1962, when she was secretly ushered up to the Suite during President Kennedy’s stay. However, all thoughts of secret meet-ups were banished on October 15, 1962, when Kennedy was first informed of the Cuban Missile Crisis during his stay in that Presidential Suite at The Blackstone.
To be sure, the hotel’s history was not all politics and no play. Several movies filmed at the Blackstone in the 1980s and 1990s. “The Color of Money,” starring Paul Newman, “The Untouchables,” with Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro and Sean Connery and “Only the Lonely,” starring John Candy and Maureen O’Hara all featured the hotel and the city on equal footing with the stars who stayed at The Blackstone during their days of filming. While the hotel was dipping its toe into Hollywood’s waters, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, becoming a Chicago Landmark in 1998.
Like so many of these hallowed buildings, The Blackstone had some dark days with an uncertain future. While the hotel changed ownership multiple times in its history, in 1995 it was sold to Maharishi Maresh Yogi, the meditation guru who was the spiritual advisor to the Beatles. Unfortunately, he could not properly maintain the building and it fell into further disrepair, being sold again in 2000 and remaining vacant and crumbling for the next five years. Its rescuer would come in the form of Marriot International/Renaissance Hotels and hotel management company Sage Hospitality. With $13.5 million from the city of Chicago, Sage and Marriott began a $128 million renovation. The crumbling terracotta was painstakingly cleaned and restored. The dark and dusty carvings in the Crystal Ballroom were repainted white and the chandeliers restored to give the room a heavenly glow. The guest rooms and their furnishings were completely redone and modernized. The hotel reopened in 2008 as the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel Chicago.
The hotel thrived in its reopening but the face of Chicago and so many American cities was changing. Unique hotel experiences, as opposed to generic, uniform accommodations, are the new face of urban hotels. Consequently, Marriott began a second large-scale renovation of The Blackstone in 2017 with Chicago-based design company, the Gettys Group. With all of the history that the building has witnessed, this latest renovation was about showcasing that history within the setting of 21st century luxury. The lobby was revamped to almost feel like the eclectic living room of a wealthy family, with historical pieces and faux fur chairs throughout. Timothy’s Hutch is one of those pieces. It’s a small white hutch that stands in a sitting area of the lobby where ready-to-pour craft cocktails await you to sip and have a seat, perhaps as Timothy Blackstone was to do when this was his home. The lobby’s pool table is the one featured in “The Color of Money,” while there is also an original 1908 typewriter and hotel stationary on an adjoining table that you can you use to type out a letter like they did in days of old. The effect is whimsical and opulent all at the same time.
Meanwhile, in another nod to Timothy Blackstone, the hotel has become almost museum-like for its dedication to showcasing the work of local Chicago artists. The Blackstone was a noted philanthropist and patron of the arts in Chicago in his day. Marriot and the Gettys Group worked together to create the Art Hall on the hotel’s 5th floor that is a literal gallery of Chicago contemporary art. Chicago artists are also featured in all 331-guest rooms as well as throughout the lobby and restaurants.
Upon completion of this renovation in early 2018, Marriot re-classified the hotel under its Autograph Collection, reserved for smaller hotels of local historical significance. It was also renamed The Blackstone. The hotel is glowing with light and life once more with young and old congregating in its lobby for a drink, dancing in its Crystal Ballroom, and strolling through its gallery of paintings and sculptures.
It’s an almost living and breathing monument to the events it witnessed while it enjoys the revelry of the present. On the contrary Mr. Twain, inside The Blackstone is no novelty. To know her is to love her.