“The memory of that visit followed me when I walked into the renewed splendor of the newly renovated Belden-Stratford. It’s the mansard-roofed, high-rise, Second Empire queen that hugs so close to Lincoln Park that its residents are awakened by the morning howls of the red wolves in the zoo across the road. Built in 1923, it was one of a collection of large residential hotels that grew up in Chicago in the decades before The Great Depression. If living in a hotel seems rare today, it was once surprisingly commonplace in American cities. Author Paul Groth, in his excellent “Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States,” notes that Americans have been living in hotels for over 200 years. The zenith of the residential hotel building boom, however, lasted from the 1880s to the late 1920s. The hotels continued to be homes to millions for decades after.
“Today, it may be hard to comprehend just how big a role residential hotels played in the lives of Chicagoans and other city dwellers around the United States. The Belden-Stratford was one of a string of hotels developed by Gustav Gottschalk, a Milwaukee-born livestock broker who moved to Chicago to buy land and build. By the early 1920s he was building a string of large residential hotels in Lakefront neighborhoods. These include the Jackson Shore Apartments at 5490 South Shore (still a premium apartment building) in Hyde Park, the Shoreland, also on South Shore in Hyde Park and three luxe apartment hotels in Lincoln Park: The Parkway, The Webster and The Belden. (The hotel added “Stratford” later, a nod to the statue of The Bard across the street in the park that classed up the name.) The Lincoln Park trio of hotels were all developed by Gottschalk with his partner and architect-of-record, Meyer Fridstein, a University of Wisconsin-trained structural engineer who moved to Chicago from Milwaukee for the make-no-small-plans enterprise.
“The affluent were just part of the market. Nearly every economic class had residential hotels pitched their way. At the bottom of the market were the downtown flophouses, such as those west of Chicago’s train stations. A vast middle market existed, and endured, too. In the 1920s, Chicago’s downtown YMCA’s largely residential hotel had 2,700 rooms. Even in the late 1980s, the YMCA and YWCA, which owned large residential hotels in cities across the nation, were together the third-largest hotel chain in the world. Writing in 1984, Paul Goldberger, the longtime architecture critic at the New York Times, noted that a cozy unit in an apartment hotel made for New York’s perfect pied-à-terre. “They exist in a kind of in-between world,” Goldberger wrote. “They offer services far beyond those of most apartment buildings, since they have traditionally appealed to those who… did not maintain traditional households. So the small, well-located apartment that comes with maid service, phone message service and perhaps even a restaurant or dining room on the premises… clearly fulfills the prescription for the ideal pied-à-terre.”
“Groth notes that in the year 1990, two million Americans still lived in hotels, more than the total who lived in public housing.
“The Belden-Stratford’s presale brochure from the early 1920s spelled out its appeal. “In his own apartment the guest and his family have everything that could possibly be secured in the most modern private home, including a fully equipped kitchen and its service, and in addition he has at his call at all times the highest specialized service of the most efficient and carefully trained hotel organization.” And, thank goodness, no nettlesome domestics! The brochure pledged residents would be “entirely rid of the servant problem, of all the petty details and annoyances incident to operations of one’s own home.” And for significantly less than the price of owning and running a servant-filled home of one’s own. “The high cost of fuel, food and other commodities coupled with the desire of this class of people to be relieved of various home inconveniences is about a change in the mode of living. Servants mean more rooms and more food. In an apartment hotel a family can live as comfortable in a five or six room apartment as they can in a very large private residence.”
“The Belden-Stratford seems to have played a particularly large and important role in Chicago’s Jewish community. Looking through the social pages in back issues of The Sentinel, a long-running but now defunct magazine serving Jewish Chicago, most issues, across eighty-five years, have references to Jewish families either moving into the hotel, or holding important events or meetings there. Groth resurrects telling passages from the work of Chicago School sociologist Louis Wirth. Writing in “The Ghetto” (1928), Wirth noted that Chicago’s predominantly Jewish hotels offered both an escape from Jewish neighborhoods and a place to land where Jews could mingle with a cosmopolitan clientele that included non-Jews. The Belden seems to have been part of the “Jewish Hotel Row” where rooms were often let to businessmen with wives and children. The social pages of The Sentinel regularly mention Jewish families moving in. Some, like one young North Shore widow, came to spend a season in the city away from their suburban homes.” (Fishman, NewCity Design, 10/16/23)