Historic hotel reopens after $128 million makeover

Presidential Suite / Photo by Sarah Rivers

Chicago's historic Blackstone hotel reopened its doors this month after undergoing a three-year, $128 million restoration.

The project, which began in December 2006, was an effort to renovate the 98-year-old landmark while keeping most of its original architecture intact.

The hotel has been vacant since 1999 when building inspectors found safety violations in the then 89-year-old hotel.

Early 20th century architects Benjamin Henry Marshall and Charles Eli Fox originally built the Blackstone, located at the corner of Balbo and Michigan in the South Loop, between 1908 and 1910.

For eight years the future of the Blackstone was in limbo as then-owner Maharishi Mahesh Yogi attempted to convert the historical landmark into luxury condominiums.

In December 2006, after failed attempts to sell the property, Sage Hospitality Resources, a Denver-based hotel management and development company, acquired The Blackstone from the Beatles former spiritual leader for $22 million.

SHR then spent an additional $106 million restoring the hotel's interior and exterior, according to a press release issued by the company.

Of the $128 million invested in the hotel's renovation, $13.5 million came from the city of Chicago for street front improvement and federal historical tax credits because the building is a historical landmark. The street front improvements included the restoration and recasting of over 10,000 pieces of decorative terra cotta.

Because the Blackstone is a historical landmark, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks had to oversee the renovations. The nine-person commission is comprised of individuals appointed by the mayor and city council, who are responsible for determining landmark status for buildings in Chicago, as well as ensuring their protection.

Peter A. Psihas, director of sales and marketing for the Blackstone said working with the commission was easy.

"They were phenomenal to work with," Psihas said. "They accommodated us and we had no trouble working together."

The newly renovated hotel features 332 rooms and over 65 unique floor plans. Each room has been designed to combine a modern look with what Psihas describes as a "classic looking feel." This is achieved by combining vintage furniture such as Eames chairs with contemporary commodities such as flat screen televisions.

Additionally, while the lobby has been refurnished with new chairs and rugs, the original moldings and architecture have remained intact.

The Blackstone lobby / Photo by Sarah Rivers

Two original features did not survive the renovations. A barbershop and the theater. The barbershop has been converted to a rentable meeting room, still called "the barbershop", and the theater was converted to the Blackstone's bar and restaurant.

The historic "smoke filled room" and Presidential Suite have undergone the least amount of redesign, maintaining their original floors, fireplaces and structural shapes. However one of the more unique features of the Presidential Suite, a hidden passage behind the fireplace to allow the president to exit the hotel unnoticed, has been converted into closet space.

Before the renovations, the passage allowed guests staying in the Presidential Suite to enter and exit through the hotel's eastern stairwell unnoticed.

Both the smoke filled room and Presidential Suite are available for guests.

The hotel's ballroom has also undergone minimal architectural changes. The ballroom features sconces and five chandeliers that date back to the hotel's initial opening in 1910. Many of the moldings on the hotel walls and pillars are as old as the hotel itself and those rebuilt during the renovations have been modeled after the originals.

Many rooms in the Blackstone feature artwork by local artist Michael Hernandez de Luna depicting famous guests of the Blackstone on postal stamps. Some of the guests depicted include Maharishi and Presidents Harding, Eisenhower, Nixon and Kennedy.

Although presidents Taft and Wilson had stayed at the Blackstone, the hotel began earning its reputation as a political landmark in 1920 when top Republicans met there to determine the nomination of Warren G. Harding in the upcoming election.

Historians say a reporter for the Associated Press was responsible for entering the concept of the "smoke-filled room" into the political lexicon after he described  the meeting as a congregation of cigar-smoking politicians engulfed in a cloud of their own smoke.

The smoke-filled room / Photo by Sarah Rivers

According to the Chicago Historical Society, in the following decades the Blackstone's political reputation was further cemented as it hosted Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Carter.

The Blackstone's list of famous clientele is not limited to politics. The Chicago Historical Society also lists other notable guests such opera singer Enrico Caruso, actors Rudolph Valentino, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and writers Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Carl Sandburg and singer Lena Horne who performed in the Blackstone's theater.

In addition to hosting famous guests, newspaper accounts from the time report that the silver-oxide battery, better known as the watch battery, was unveiled at the Blackstone in 1952.

The Blackstone general manager Fletcher Mays views the hotel as an important part of Chicago's history and culture and plans to use the hotel's art hall to showcase work by contemporary local artists.

Mays described the art hall as a revival of the hotel's tradition of showcasing emerging artists in the Chicago area. The current exhibit features artwork by recent graduates of Columbia College.

The Art Hall currently showcasing artwork by Columbia College graduates/ Photo by Sarah Rivers

Mays spoke passionately when asked if he felt he had a historical responsibility as general manager of the Blackstone.

"I told our staff at our first meeting that we are stewards of history," he said. "It is our responsibility to build a new history for the hotel while enlightening new guests about its past."

Renovations are not complete, as the 23rd floor, which was formerly attic space, is still under construction and not yet available to guests. Upon completion in late April, the floor will feature the Blackstone's executive suites. Although a fixed price has not yet been set, Psihas estimated that the rooms will cost about $125 more per night to stay in than the other rooms in the hotel, which range from $424 to $634 per night.