Like so many American cities, Chicago’s downtown Loop is undergoing what can only be termed as a renaissance. Cranes, the predecessors of great things to come, dot the landscape as new skyscrapers go from design to build in almost an instant.
High-end stores, glittering condominiums, refurbished theaters, and multimillion-dollar apartments have all led to an influx of new downtown residents ranging in age from the retiree to the millennial. The Loop is revitalized, reborn, and reawakened.
Anchored in the Loop’s famed Theatre District sits the Hotel Allegro, boasting every modern amenity with carefully planned architecture and art deco design honoring its beginnings in a city of yesterday. It’s polished, fresh, and a shining example of the new downtown Chicago. And, yet, in spite of this regeneration, one still finds oneself thinking, “What about the old Chicago?” That rough and tumble city of workers by day and partygoers by night, where the underbelly of gangsters, jazz, and prohibition speakeasies rumbled just beneath the surface, often spilling over into the streets. Well, the Hotel Allegro was there for that too. Like the downtown itself, the hotel had a totally different identity (even a different name) back in those storied days and no matter how enchanting the makeover, the Hotel Allegro preserves the soul of Old Chicago.
A Different Age, A Different Name
Photo: Hotel Bismarck via Wikimedia Commons
What we know as the Hotel Allegro began as the Hotel Bismarck in 1894. Built by two German immigrant brothers, Emil and Karl Eitel, they were just two of the thousands of German immigrants that found their way to Chicago as the first wave of the great European migration reached America. Emil and Karl were eager to give Chicago a sampling of German hospitality and even before they opened the Hotel Bismarck they ran a small inn near the fairgrounds of the great Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. This first success inspired them to think bigger and, after watching the Chicago Loop begin to take form, they bought an existing hotel on Randolph Avenue and named it the Hotel Bismarck after the famous German chancellor. The Eitel brothers, ever forward-thinking, installed ice-boxes in the hotel’s kitchen and air conditioning in its restaurant and the hotel was an instant hit. During World War I, amid American anti-German sentiment, the Eitels changed its name to the more socially acceptable Randolph Hotel and the hotel thrived even as the war raged.
In 1924, six years after the end of World War I, the Eitel brothers bought additional parcels adjacent to their hotel in what became known as the “Eitel Block.” On these grounds, the brothers oversaw the building of the Metropolitan Office Building (considered to be a skyscraper at 22 stories high) and the Palace Opera Theater, a giant of dramatic theaters with 2,500 seats. They also demolished their existing hotel and, in its place, built a 19-story behemoth with 600 guest rooms and a grand marble staircase showcasing the lobby. It reopened in 1926 with just as much fanfare and success as it did the first time and the brothers’ final renovation was to give their showpiece back her name: the hotel became the Hotel Bismarck once more.
How to Party Hard in Prohibition
Despite re-opening in the throes of Prohibition the Hotel Bismarck prospered largely because of its location in the Theatre District and the very fact that it was in Chicago, the original gangster’s paradise. The adjacent Palace Theatre soon became one of the epicenters of vaudeville with stars such as Jimmy Durante, Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Bob Hope performing there and all staying next door at the Bismarck. But Chicago was never a town for PG-rated fun. One of Bob Hope’s memories from his time at the Palace and the Hotel describes what happened when he told a joke about his brother once slapping Al Capone. Later that night, he reported getting an anonymous phone call in his Bismarck hotel room in which the mysterious caller “suggested” that he remove the joke from his repertoire. Despite the big laughs the joke would get, Bob knew he was in Al’s town and thoughts of the dark alley he had to walk through between the Palace and the Bismarck ran through his head. Needless to say, he didn’t perform the joke again during his next performance.
To say that Chicago was run by organized crime during Prohibition is no exaggeration. Speakeasies abounded in the Theatre District around the Bismarck and Chicago’s infamous mobsters ran many of them. Fights would break out in the streets at night, gunshots rang, and sirens wailed. Yet the Bismarck saw a steady parade of guests ranging from wealthy flappers to titans of industry to ladies of the night during this most tumultuous of times, until the day finally came when Prohibition ended in 1933. The official Repeal Day was December 5th and the Bismarck wasted no time (and none of its infamous gangster connections) when it came to serving alcohol. At precisely midnight, the first twenty barrels of beer in the Loop were rolled right into the Bismarck Hotel’s Walnut Room, where hundreds of revelers were waiting for a legal sip. The Hotel Bismarck found its way into American history that night and became the first institution to legally serve alcohol after Prohibition. Guests were given paper hats in the shape of beer mugs with the phrase “Happy Days” printed on it and, indeed, the happy days continued for the hotel.
The Good Times Rolled…For a Little While Longer
Walnut Room Bismark Hotel
Even throughout the Great Depression and World War II, the Eitel brothers kept the Hotel Bismarck a premier destination in Chicago. Patrons flocked to the hotel’s Swiss Chalet restaurant serving authentic German cuisine. The hotel claims to be the first completely air-conditioned hotel and the first hotel in the Midwest to have telephones in every guest room. As vaudeville and big bands fell out of vogue, the neighboring Palace theatre kept current with traveling Broadway shows, eventually becoming the biggest movie theatre in the city in the 1940s. However, as so many urbanites know, change is the only constant in city life. By the 1950’s hotel juggernauts by the name of Hilton and Marriott were beginning to change downtown Chicago along Michigan Avenue. The Eitel Brothers were older now and they could smell the change in the air. In 1956, they sold the Hotel Bismarck to Arthur Wirtz, a Chicago born-and-bred businessman who already owned the Blackhawks and Chicago Stadium.
Though Wirtz had the golden touch in business, he couldn’t fight the tides of change in American society throughout the 1960s and 70’s. The Bismarck stalwartly carried on, becoming the unofficial meeting spot of the all-powerful Cook County Democratic Party under Mayor Richard Daley, who was also head of the National Democratic Party during much of his twenty-year reign over the city. Towards the latter half of his tenure, Daley and his underlings would meet regularly in one of their twenty-one reserved rooms on the fifth floor of the Hotel Bismarck for any and every type of wheeling and dealing, largely because of the hotel’s proximity to city hall. He even had his own table in the Walnut Room with a private phone installed for his personal use. The smell of steak and bourbon in the Walnut Room became the smell of power as democrats on the local, and even national, stage would hold court with Daley and his confidants. But with Mayor Daley’s death in 1976 came the death of the powerful Chicago Democratic Party and multiple half-hearted attempts at renovations of the Bismarck fell flat. By the early 1990’s, the once bustling hotel with the latest innovations and legendary connections had earned the reputation of being a has-been.
A Renaissance Within a Renaissance
Like a knight in shining armor, the Pelmet Corporation purchased the Hotel Bismarck in 1996 and gave Kimpton Hotels the task of hotel operator and overseer of a massive renovation. Over the course of two years, a $31 million face-lift was completed, paying homage to the hotel’s omnipresent place in the theatre district with theatrical décor throughout the 483 guest rooms, including lavish bedding in the rich, jewel-toned velvets of a stage curtain. The marble staircase in the lobby and its original brass handrails were refurbished and even the lobby’s original light fixtures were found in the hotel basement and restored. Meanwhile, the Palace Theatre next door went through its own renovation and became The Cadillac Palace, playing host to the traveling companies of major Broadway musicals. Just like in its heyday, the actors and actresses of the Palace’s stage all find their way to the Hotel Allegro to lounge in the lobby bar after the curtain has fallen for the night.
Kimpton Hotel Allegro
In 2014, Kimpton Hotels began a two-year, $15 million renovation that changed dormant space into two elegant meeting and event rooms, again with theatre-inspired décor that also honored the art deco style of the hotel’s heyday in the 1930s. Metalwork, the use of luxurious materials like marble and velvet, and rich blue, white, and gold tones resulted in an Art Deco masterpiece along with every 21st-century amenity that stars such as Christina Aguilera, Jay Leno and Rhianna have enjoyed.
The lobby’s focal point is a massive mural by a local Chicago artist of a flapper adorned with real gold and silver chains, languidly watching the ebb and flow of visitors and guests. Her eyes are windows to the hotel’s very soul. They watch the rebirth of this building within the renaissance of Chicago itself and, at the same time, they gaze back in time to an age that has become almost mythical. But the flapper and the hotel know that this age was no myth. They lived it in all its glory