The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel: Stories of Privilege, Prohibition, and Pleasure

Even the most independent of us like to feel part of something exclusive sometimes. A truly great luxury hotel will give us this feeling every time we check in; even as soon as we pull up to the curb. In Chicago, a city rife with unique luxury accommodations, the Chicago Athletic Association was just for the privileged. Just for the rich. And just for men. It was never even a hotel at all. It began as a private athletic club for Chicago’s most powerful and it stayed that way for over 100 years. Repurposed as a boutique hotel in 2015, the doors of the CAA are now closed to no one. When you pull up to the curb, take in this Gothic beauty because she was purposefully designed to stand out. When you enter the lobby, drink in the carved mahogany, towering fireplaces, and rich brown leather. After decades of exclusivity, they are now for all of us to enjoy. And knowing this makes checking in feel that much more exceptional.

A City With Something to Prove

In the 1890’s, Chicagoans were consumed with preparing for the World’s Fair and proving themselves to east coast doubters, who felt New York was the country’s cultural epicenter and should have been the Fair’s host. Chicago’s elite knew their city had a little sprucing up to do in order to be seen as a world-class destination. Namely, they had to provide the amenities to which the East Coast elite had become accustomed. Luxury hotel accommodations and high-end stores on tree-lined streets were all well and good but private clubs were becoming institutions back east. These clubs were places where the rich and powerful (male) members of society could congregate amongst each other as a respite from work while networking in a more casual, albeit still luxurious, setting. Chicago’s rich and powerful, most notably Cyrus McCormick (the inventor of the mechanical harvester), Marshall Field (a mercantile owner turned department store magnate) and A.G. Spalding (the sporting goods tycoon) had all spent time in the cities of the east and believed that a private men’s club was just what Chicago needed. And they were going to make it happen.

Built to Impress

Within a year, these three business moguls had found a location for their club on South Michigan Avenue and an architect to design it. Like several of the city’s best architects, Henry Ives Cobb was working non-stop to design the buildings for the World’s Fair. McCormick, Field, and Spalding wanted their club to stand out as something special. They knew that many would be travelling along the city’s coast via ferry on Lake Michigan to get to the Fair and they wanted the club to stand apart from the other buildings as Fairgoers sailed past it. Cobb himself was partial to the more ornate Gothic Venetian style of architecture that was nowhere to be found in Chicago. If anyone was going to make their men’s club stand apart from the crowd, it was Cobb.

By 1893, just months before the Fair’s opening day, the Chicago Athletic Association opened its doors to the elite men of the fair city. Cobb had outdone himself by creating the 11-story building to be reminiscent of Doges Palace in Venice. It’s exterior was constructed primarily of brick with all the Venetian Gothic elements of pointed arches, window traceries, and columns, all in a creamy limestone. It was as if the building had been pulled off a Venice canal and plunked back down in Chicago. The interior of the building was just as ornate, with mosaic marble tile, mahogany wood paneling and bas-relief sculptures imbedded into towering fireplaces that flanked a 2nd floor drawing room.  The interior doorways and arches were outlined with stained glass while white plaster ceilings, some coffered, others with a unique hanging “stalactite” design, gave a light airiness to the otherwise dark and masculine feel of the rooms. The ground floor had a mosaic-tiled indoor pool, while the first floor was a cavernous gym, basketball court, and running track. Another floor contained the billiard room, while another the library and still others private meeting rooms and office spaces. The tycoons of Chicago had their playground and the time had come to play on it.

A Playground for the Powerful

And play they did. One of the very first events at the Chicago Athletic Club was the country’s first night football game during the first week of the World’s Fair. The CAA team beat West Point that night 14-0. One of the stars of the team was none other than Pudge Heffelfinger, considered to be the first professional football player since the founders of the CAA and others paid him handsomely to be part of their teams. Over the next few decades the Club became so exclusive that the city’s elite men didn’t have to be paid to be a part of it: the waiting list was 10 years long. By the early 1900’s the Club had their own logo: a large red “C” on a circular white background, edged in blue. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Club member William Wrigley, the founder of Wrigley’s chewing gum, stole the logo’s design to use for the Chicago Cubs when he became principal owner of the team in 1918. There were no hard feelings among members though; like any good businessman, they figured there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Prohibition in the 1920’s certainly didn’t have much impact on the high class and high-spirited revelry at the CAA. Johnny Weismuller, the five-time Olympic gold medal champion swimmer and Chicago’s pride and joy still practiced his laps in the club’s pool and continued doing so even after he became just as famous for his recurring role as “Tarzan” in over a dozen Tarzan movies.  Like any Chicago institution during Prohibition, the Club also had its own speakeasy so that at least the city’s elite gentlemen could indulge in a drink if no one else could. But the ever-cautious businessmen made sure that even if a police raid occurred, everything would seem on the up-and-up: the booze was mixed with milk so that the pure white beverage disguised the mixed-in alcohol.

 Though several other private clubs in Chicago came and went, the CAA was the only one to survive the Depression thanks to their deep waiting list. During WWII, the Club kept membership up by allowing members’ widows to use the facilities, though the end of the war and a return of the Club’s GIs brought an end to this policy. The CAA stayed current throughout the years with various remodeling projects, including in 1954 when the supper club was renovated. To accommodate the, ahem, desires, of some of its members, the supper club was reconstructed in the back of the second floor with it’s own separate alley entrance up a private staircase. The Cherry Circle Room, as it was named, became the nightspot of choice for members and their mistresses for the privacy it afforded. 

The CAA stalwartly carried on as a private club for men until 1972 when 10 out of 200 female applicants were granted membership. As more women rose through the ranks of the business world to become leaders in their own right, female membership grew until the club had a female president in the 1990s. Times were changing, though, and dwindling membership shut the club’s doors in 2007, after 114 years of operation.

Another Turn of the Century and Another Building Boom

In 2012, Chicago and other cities were again amidst a regeneration of new luxury accommodations, restaurants, and high-end stores. The Chicago Athletic Association had been empty since 2007 and, just like the Chicago titans who built it, it would take another native titan to restore it.  That year, John Pritzker, son of Hyatt Hotels founder Jay Pritzker, was leading the boutique hotel movement with his Hyatt subsidiary, Commune Hotels + Resorts. He and his family had been in LA for decades but they were Chicagoans at heart and Pritzker had been born and raised there. He took one look at the old CAA building after years of being away and knew it could become another jewel in his crown of small, intimate, luxurious hotels. After partnering with several other investors, he bought the property for $13 million. And a three year, multi-million dollar rebirth worthy of a Venetian palace began under the Chicago firm of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture.

The interior restoration was given to New York-based designers Roman and Williams and was often painstaking, with every mahogany carving, mosaic marble tile and plaster ceiling stalactite requiring renovation along with instituting modern touches that played on the building’s history. The ground floor pool was filled in but its mosaic lane tiles were saved and used in a new floor for a large-scale public space. The first floor gym was preserved with its original hard wood floor, but was redesigned as entertainment space for parties and live performances. A game room with pool tables, a bocce court, and darts keeps the building’s sporting history alive while a 12th floor was added for a gourmet restaurant with a view of Lake Michigan. The 241 guest rooms were created with leather pommel horses for benches, masculine desks, brass beds, and rich oriental rugs to further keep the building’s past an entity of the present.

Some of the CAA’s outstanding features remain as they were; part of the building’s very soul. The speakeasy bar from Prohibition days is now aptly named The Milk Room and is still a small, intimate setting for a craft cocktail. The Cherry Circle Room is still a restaurant and lounge with its own private entrance but it’s no secret from any wives. Lastly, the second floor Lobby Lounge was lovingly restored to echo its original luxurious glory with its rich wooden carvings, massive fireplaces, and deep leather-bound chairs. When the building reopened in 2015, it was with the same lavish uniqueness that had been so captivating back in the days of the Chicago World’s Fair, 122 years ago. And even though its doors are open to everyone, to stay here is to feel like you’re still part of a very special club.

Read reviews and find the best prices on TripAdvisor

More Stories
The Algonquin Hotel New York: Literary Legends Know Why The Caged Bird Sings