The Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile: From a Victim of Timing to a Triumph of History

by Lisa Gravallese
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So many beautiful old buildings take on their own persona over time. They become (or we start to see them as) a person, with a personality and even a soul. From an old country farmhouse to Notre Dame herself, we almost believe that we can see the building living, breathing, and feeling. To be in the Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile is like sitting with a bride who thought her wedding day would never come. She had a long relationship that ended in an engagement but fell apart before she could walk down the aisle. To be in the hotel now, to see it in all its carefully restored glory, is to feel that all her past heartbreak was worth it. The Intercontinental never got her chance to really shine and now her doors are flung open wide for her triumphant, and long awaited, marriage with timing and care.

Full of Gilded Promise

In 1927, most Americans had no idea that the country was on the brink of economic collapse. As far as architects and industry titans knew, the Gilded Age was solid gold, and they were in a perennial phase of blind new love. Consequently, when the Shriners Organization decided they wanted to have their own exclusive men’s club (even though Chicago had several such clubs already) local architects vied for the chance to design the building, to the point where the Shriners held a design contest to determine the winner.

Not surprisingly, the victor was Chicago native Walter Ahlschlager who had already designed several notable buildings in Chicago and New York City and who submitted the most over the top design for the Shriners. His design didn’t just utilize one architectural style but, rather, several contrasting ones with a great deal of artistic detail. The limestone building’s exterior would have ancient, Assyrian style relief carvings on the eighth floor, representing Wisdom, Consecration, and Contribution, with the faces in these noble scenes depicting Shriner club members. Above the building’s Michigan Avenue entrance, on the 12th floor, the faces of three Sumerian warriors were carved into the limestone. To literally top it all off, the 42 story structure was capped with a Moorish-style gold dome, meant to be a decorative docking station for dirigibles that were thought to be the air travel mode of the future (before the Hindenburg disaster changed everyone’s mind). Meanwhile, at the base of the building, the Shriners placed a copper time capsule in one of the building’s cornerstones, containing photographs of all the members, a copy of the day’s Chicago Tribune, coins, and other Shriner-related mementos. Clearly they meant for their Club to last a lifetime.

The inside of the building was even more fantastical, and the Shriners spared no expense to create the man cave of their dreams. A miniature golf course was on the 23rd floor. Subsequent floors featured a shooting range, gymnasium, running track, billiards hall, bowling alley, archery range and a boxing arena with raised seating. Naturally, there were also ballrooms, the largest of which was the elliptical-shaped Grand Ballroom featuring a 12,000 lb crystal chandelier and decorated with Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian carvings and murals. The King Arthur’s Court, as it was modestly named, was a smoking lounge with richly carved mahogany, deep leather chairs, and stained glass windows complementing a mural of King Arthur and his fellow knights. However, the crowning glory of these manly pursuits was the fourteenth floor junior Olympic size indoor pool, an engineering marvel that was one of the highest pools in the world at the time. Terracotta walls surrounded the Spanish-tiled pool with a fountain of Neptune vying with the tranquil water as the room’s focal point. Soaring windows on one wall let the light stream in on the languid swimmers, one of which was Olympic gold medalist and Tarzan originator Jonny Weismueller. And last, but not least, were the 440 guest rooms for the Shriner’s 3,500 members because, hey, if you were an upper class man in 1929, would you want to leave?

A Broken Engagement

The Shriners christened their club The Medinah Athletic Club and when it opened in 1929 its opulence was too much even by Roaring Twenties standards. Many thought the club to be overly extravagant, and when only 32% of the Shriner population initially joined the Club it was deemed downright wasteful. However, the architectural community thought the building itself was a triumph. It was a unique addition to the Chicago skyline and considered to be a marriage of designs over which no one but Ahlschlager could preside. But on October 29, 1929, no one was thinking of architectural design. The stock market crash changed lives in a matter of hours and brought the prosperity of the past decade not only to a grinding halt, but made it instantly a thing of the past. Widespread merrymaking, upper crust entertainment, and elite pursuits dwindled if not disappeared. The Shriners managed to keep the Medinah Athletic Club afloat for almost five more years but, by 1934, they were forced to declare bankruptcy. You could almost envision the beautiful bride standing alone at the altar.

Trying to Move On

During the Depression the building was put to use as apartments but 1944 was the year that changed its fate with a new identity. A local developer turned the building into the Continental Hotel and Town Club and the building’s luxurious interior was a big draw once again. Famed swimmer Esther Williams frequented the indoor pool. But maintaining a hotel of this magnitude is not easy and takes deep pockets. The numerous architectural and artistic aspects of the building alone were difficult to maintain and an emphasis on fresh and new as opposed to old and historical resulted in many of these finer details being painted and plastered over. Throughout the next twenty years the hotel bore the names of Sheraton and Radisson under several different owners but by 1986 owner MAT Associates closed the hotel for a total renovation. This time it wouldn’t be about painting and plastering. It would be a restoration of who this building was meant to be and finding the best partner to make her so.

Finding “The One.”

In 1987, MAT Associates named Intercontinental Hotels as the new management company for the hotel and you could almost hear the building start to dream again. In an amazing stroke of luck, a Shriner who was an original Medinah Club member heard of the renovation and donated his 1930 Club yearbook to serve as a reference to how the club actually looked. These yearbook photos proved invaluable to the hotel’s restoration team, as they were able to locate the exact locations of relief carvings and murals that had long ago been painted and plastered over. Designers were also able to use photos to replicate the exact carpeting that was in the guest rooms as well as to rebuild the Grand Ballroom’s 2nd floor balcony that had since been removed. The yearbook photos also helped restore the indoor pool’s terracotta and Spanish tiles to their detailed glory.

 The actual details of this scale of restoration and this commitment to the hotel’s history on the part of Intercontinental were painstaking. The delicate carvings in the Hall of Lions, which is where the hotel’s meeting rooms were reconstructed, had to be resurrected using cornhusk blasting (with actual dried corn husks), as regular sandblasting would have destroyed them. The same technique was applied to the marble columns and stone lions that flanked the staircase to the Hall of Lions, often with paint needing to be delicately chipped away by hand. Lido Lippi, the same artist who restored the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was called in to restore the beautiful blue coffered ceiling in the Hall of Lions as well as the hotel’s numerous murals, ceiling frescoes and gold leaf that had been covered for decades.  As is so often the case, these renovations always turn up a few secrets, the most telling being when the mahogany panels in King Arthur’s Court were removed for cleaning and one was found to be the secret cabinet to a Prohibition-Era hiding place for the Club’s liquor.

Against all odds, the building that had once briefly housed an exclusive and opulent men’s club before falling victim to the Great Depression found her partner in happiness with Intercontinental Hotels. The hotel reopened in 1990 after a $250 million renovation and the effect was like the church doors being thrown open for an ecstatic bride. No one in the present day had ever seen the Assyrian, Greek, and Egyptian style carvings that were unearthed. They had never seen the gold leaf in the ceilings or the indoor pool with pure white terracotta walls. It was like discovering Atlantis or being told that the building next door to you has been a castle in disguise all along. In 1994 the lobby was renovated, making it 4 stories tall and capped by an illuminated rotunda that turns into the night sky when the sun sets each day. This lobby renovation also included utilizing intricately carved brass handrails salvaged from the Medinah Club days for the majestic staircase leading to the Grand Ballroom on the floor above. The Shriner phrase “Es Salumu Aleikum” is etched into two marble columns on either side of the hotel entrance, meaning “Peace in God” while Celtic and Assyrian murals throughout the lobby still marry Ahlschlager’s amalgam of designs in perfect harmony with his creations almost one hundred years ago. The hotel became a member of the Historic Hotels of America in 2011 and is consistently ranked among the best luxury hotels in Chicago year after year.

Meanwhile, Intercontinental has presided over multiple renovations over the years, the most recent being in 2015, when its guest rooms were overhauled to a more modern aesthetic with grays, whites and jewel tones. Yet it still honors the rich past that characterizes the building with iPod audio tours available to not only hotel guests but to anyone who walks through the doors eager to learn more. Today, the Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile is magnificent in every sense of the word. The building no longer stands incredulous that its time has finally come. Every day it throws its bridal bouquet into the air with the joy that comes from a dream realized.

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