Presidential Architecture and History at the Blackstone Hotel

The Blackstone Hotel, known as the “Hotel of Presidents” has long been one of the most prestigious spots in Chicago. Located on Michigan Avenue in the South Loop, just a few blocks from where our 1893 World’s Fair Tour begins, the grand hotel has hosted a dozen U.S. Presidents and countless celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe, since its construction in 1910. Looking closely at its architecture we can find signs of this opulent, elite history.

The Blackstone Hotel’s Powerful Location and Style

Blackstone Hotel front door facade Michigan Ave
The Blackstone Hotel’s classical detailing typified early 20th Century architecture. Photo by Alex Bean.

The building’s location, size, and prestige played a big role in its lasting popularity. A century ago, when the Blackstone was built by the Drake Brothers (they also built the Drake Hotel), its neighborhood was the bustling hub of North American train traffic. Notably, the Capitol Limited from DC to Chicago pulled into Grand Central Station, only a few blocks to the west. Its frontage on Michigan Avenue also gave guests easy access to Grant Park and the former Chicago Coliseum down the street.

Blackstone Hotel Michigan Ave architecture Beaux Arts Second Empire
The Blackstone’s mix of Beaux Arts and Second Empire design set it apart on the skyline. Photo by Alex Bean.

The size and style of the Blackstone Hotel also set it apart from competitors. The hotel soars 22 stories above the park, which placed it among the city’s tallest buildings upon completion. Then as now, elite elevations turn buildings into hot spots.

Politicians and Presidents would have also prized its patrician architecture. Its style dances between neo-Classical Beaux Arts and neo-Baroque Second Empire. The Beaux Arts style, which was popularized at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, revived the forms of Renaissance and Greco-Roman architecture. The Blackstone’s lower-level arched windows and Grecian pediments of terracotta are definitely Beaux Arts features.

Second Empire is another revival form of architecture, this one popularized during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III in France. He rebuilt Paris to be a modern city of sweeping boulevards and grand buildings. One of its signature features is the Mansard roof, an ornate and steeply-angled cap on many Victorian era buildings. The Blackstone Hotel’s Mansard roof is among the most prominent example of this style in downtown.

The Presidential Suite and Activities Therein

Blackstone Hotel President Franklin Roosevelt 1940 DNC
President Roosevelt gives a radio speech accepting the Democratic nomination he’d secured at the Blackstone Hotel. Image via Wikimedia.

Every President of the United States for seven decades stayed at the Blackstone Hotel after it opened in 1910.  Indeed, Presidential visits at the Blackstone were so common that the hotel modified a suite to suit these Commanders-in-Chief. According to legend, the Secret Service had the walls around the Presidential Suite hollowed out so that they could operate more easily. The empty walls also allow the President leave the building quickly and inconspicuously. Just like the “smoke-filled room” described below, the Renaissance chain preserved the Presidential Suite. Though something tells me you can’t slip into the hollow walls.

Many Presidents happened to stay at the Blackstone Hotel during historic moments. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the inspiration for my “jazz name” of “Huevos Ranchero Delano Roosevelt” on our Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour) negotiated his precedent-shattering third nomination for president while staying at the Blackstone. President Kennedy stayed at the Blackstone on a visit to Chicago in 1962. Rumor has it that the Secret Service snuck Marilyn Monroe into the room through the hollow walls. More importantly, he was first notified of the Cuban Missile Crisis while eating Boston clam chowder at the Blackstone Hotel.

The 1920 GOP Convention

Chicago has hosted more major national political conventions than any other American city. Combined, the Democrats, Republicans, and even the Bull Moose Progressives have made their Presidential nomination in Chicago 26 times. One of those events, the 1920 Republican National Convention, is infamously tied to the Blackstone.

The convention delegates, meeting at the Chicago Coliseum, could not decide on a candidate. They cast ballot after ballot, but neither of the frontrunners, Major General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, could win a majority. Exhausted and dejected, the delegates retired to their hotels, including the Blackstone. There, party bigwigs gathered in a private conference in a room on the ninth floor.

In that space, described as a “smoke-filled room” by a newspaper report, they decided on Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding as a compromise candidate. The term “smoke-filled room” immediately entered the American political lexicon as a reference to intrigue and corruption by party bosses. It probably doesn’t help that Harding went on to be one of our very worst Presidents.

Blackstone Hotel smoke-filled room
The infamouse “smoke-filled room” as it appears these days. Photo courtesy of the Blackstone Hotel.

The Infamous “Smoke-Filled Room” Today

Today, the proprietors of the Blackstone Hotel have preserved the smoke-filled room in something like its 1920 form. The black-painted cabinets and fireplace still have their original form. Commanding views of Grant Park reinforce that this is the domain of the powerful and privileged. Charmingly, artwork commemorating the Presidents who’ve stayed there fills the room. There’s even smoking-themed memorabilia lining the shelves. Ironically enough, the Blackstone Hotel is now a smoking-free facility. So even the biggest of political bosses could not convene in a smoke-filled room there these days. The Blackstone concierge club can recommend a nearby cigar club, though.

I was lucky enough to get to tour it with Kim Corrigan, the hotel’s general manager. Kim even pointed out where the walls were once hollowed-out in the bedroom closet. She said that there hadn’t been a POTUS at the Blackstone recently, since the Secret Service requires that the hotel have a helipad for evacuations. 

Considering the current President’s antipathy for our city, the days of Presidents staying at the Blackstone are probably on hiatus. Still, the Blackstone Hotel remains a sterling piece of Presidential history and architecture in downtown Chicago. And there’s no telling when a President might stop by again.

-Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

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