Why stay in an ordinary hotel when you can stay in a historic Chicago gem? Step into the lobbies of any of these history-filled hotels and you'll feel as if you've stepped back in time. Here are five of my favorite historic Chicago hotels.
Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel (17 E. Monroe St., pictured above)
For more than 140 years, Chicago's Palmer House, located in the heart of the Loop at the corner of State and Monroe, has been treating guests to opulent and gracious hospitality. Once touted as the largest hotel in the world, the Palmer House lobby has seen dignitaries, celebrities and royalty come and go since the hotel was established in 1871.
The current Palmer House was actually the third incarnation of Potter Palmer's dream of a hotel: The first was a wedding present that literally went up in flames on Oct. 9, 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire swept through the city and destroyed not only the hotel but also roughly 3.3 square miles of the city, leaving more than 100,000 residents homeless.
But not even the Great Chicago Fire could keep Palmer's dream hotel down — he secured a $1.7 million signature loan, likely the largest individual loan ever secured at that time, and set off to rebuild his eponymous hotel. The lobby at the Palmer House remains one of the most historic and stunning hotel lobbies in the world. Perhaps the best spot to take in the view is from one of the 2nd floor balconies, where you can watch hotel guests come and go in the always elegant setting.
At the western end of the Lobby, escalators whisk guests up and down to the room elevators. Look toward the eastern end and note the regal queens cast in gold with their giant candelabra headpieces, standing guard before the staircase that leads up to the Empire Room, once an entertainment venue that hosted legendary entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong and Liberace, who got his start in 1947 as the Palmer House pianist.
The Drake Hotel (140 E. Walton Place)
The Drake Hotel has been welcoming visitors from its perch at the beginning of the Magnificent Mile for more than 90 years. Designed with the Italian palaces of High Renaissance Rome and Florence in mind by Benjamin Marshall, a self-trained architect best known for his luxe apartment and hotel designs, brothers John and Tracy Drake acquired the property from Chicago real estate and retail magnate Potter Palmer in 1916.
The March 22, 1919 issue of The Economist estimated that it would cost $5 million to bring the urban resort to life. In the end, the opulent Drake Hotel cost $10 million. Two thousand of Chicago's leading citizens were invited to inaugurate the grand hotel on New Year's Eve in 1920.
From opening night forward, the Drake became a hotel for the rich and famous, its 537 guest rooms and 74 suites hosting important cultural and political figures from around the world. Many U.S. presidents have spent the night in the six-room Presidential Suite, from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton. Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Charles Lindbergh, Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana have all called the Drake home for a night or two.
When President Obama stayed at the Drake in 2011, his secret service detail discovered a chain of hidden passageways under the hotel. Even some members of Chicago's underworld enjoyed a night at the Drake: Francesco "Frank 'The Enforcer') Nitto, head of the Chicago Outfit in the '30s and '40s used a suite of rooms as his primary "office." The Drake has also hosted movie stars galore, and several movies have been filmed under its roof, including "Time and Again," "The Blues Brothers," "Continental Divide," "Risky Business," "My Best Friend's Wedding," "What Women Want," and "Flags of our Fathers."
InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile (505 N. Michigan Ave.)
Formerly the home of the Medinah Athletic Club, the InterContinental's south tower was built in 1929, a significant year for American architecture. Skyscrapers were on the rise in Chicago - the polished black granite Carbon and Carbide Building (230 N. Michigan Ave.), the Palmolive Building with its navigational beacon (919 N. Michigan Ave.), and the Civic Opera House (20 N. Wacker Dr.) all rose high into the sky in 1929.
By the time the Medinah Athletic Club's new home opened its doors on the northwest end, Chicago's Michigan Avenue was already glittering with shiny new skyscrapers. Architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, best known for designing the Beacon Hotel and Theatre and the Roxy Theatre in New York City, combined an eclectic variety of international architecture styles in the 42 story, over-the-top building design.
Though many of the incredible architectural elements of the original athletic club have been lost over time, including the two-story boxing arena, miniature golf course and archery range, the 120,000-gallon swimming pool remains virtually untouched. Ten feet at its deepest end, the diving board is long gone but you can still dive in and swim laps or just cool off after a busy day of shopping the Mag Mile. Order a retro cocktail and lie back on one of the poolside wicker chaise lounges and imagine watching synchronized swimming icon Ester Williams performed before your eyes, as she did at the pool in the 1940s, when the Johnny Weissmuller Pool was one of the most glamorous places to see and be seen in the city.
The Alise Chicago (1 W. Washington St.)
Stay at the The Alise Chicago and you'll be checking into a National Historic Landmark. Architects Daniel Burnham, John Root and Charles Atwood's revolutionary steel and glass structure shaped our city's skyline and paved the way for the modern skyscrapers. When it was built in 1895 it was considered one of the city's first skyscrapers with its 14 stories stretching into the sky. Today, the hotel keeps the spirit of this old Chicago gem alive while also offering modern-day amenities. Dine in style at its iconic restaurant, Atwood, while enjoying the building's original grandeur and Gothic-inspired ornamented exterior.
Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel (636 S. Michigan Ave.)
Step into the stunning Beaux Arts lobby of the Renaissance Blackstone and you'll feel as if you've stepped back into time, to turn-of-the-century Chicago. The Blackstone, also on the National Register of Historic Places, opened its doors in 1910 to much fanfare. Its rooms have hosted everyone from Rudolph Valentino to Joan Crawford, from Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams. Carl Sandburg celebrated his 75th birthday here.
But the hotel is best know for hosting 12 U.S. Presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. Indeed, the original "Smoke Filled Room" originated here, when an AP reporter coined the phrase as he observed the cigar-smoking Republican leaders brokering the presidential nomination of Warren G. Harding at the hotel during the 1920 convention.
Be sure to check out the hotel's former barbershop, once frequented by none other than Al Capone, and the elegant Crystal Ballroom, site of Lucky Luciano's infamous National Crime Syndicate meeting. Beware of ghosts: the hotel's English Room, with its paneled Tudor-style wood walls and stained glass windows (transplanted from a 17th century English castle) is allegedly haunted.
Looking for the best Chicago hotels? Get more Chicago hotel spotlights on the blog. Explore historic hotels in the city, or browse hotels close to everything in Chicago — theaters, attractions and more.
Updated October 25, 2017