Urban Spelunking: Chicago’s Legendary Blackstone Hotel

Urban spelunking: Chicago’s legendary Blackstone Hotel. Photo credit: Bobby Tanzilo / OnMilwaukee.com
Urban spelunking: Chicago’s legendary Blackstone Hotel. Photo credit: Bobby Tanzilo / OnMilwaukee.com
President John F. Kennedy visits the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. Photo credit: Blackstone Hotel

“For decades, Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, 636 S. Michigan Ave., has meant history to me: jazz history. The name immediately sends me strolling down a memory lane that includes shows by the likes of Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell and Stanley Turrentine. Ever since Paul Cebar introduced me to it by inviting me to see the Dirty Dozen Brass Band there at legendary Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in, perhaps, 1986, The Blackstone has, to me, been spelled j-a-z-z.

“But what I hadn’t realized when I’d walk up the steps on Balbo Drive, through the revolving door and immediately turn left into the Showcase was that the history of The Blackstone involves every president from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter; political conventions at which presidential candidates were nominated; a famous mob convention attended by Al Capone and Lucky Luciano; an owner with ties to The Beatles; appearances in well-known films; and guests ranging from Rudy Valentino, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Lena Horne, to Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

“The hotel is named for Connecticut-born Timothy Blackstone, who was president of the Chicago & Alton Railroad and the city’s Union Stock Yards. A fabulously wealthy man, Blackstone – who had previously and briefly served as mayor of La Salle, Illinois – built his mansion on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Hubbard Court, with a view toward the lake.

“After Blackstone’s death in 1900, the mansion was purchased by the sons of a former business partner of Blackstone’s, hotelier John Drake. Tracy and John B. Drake II would tear down the mansion and erect in its place a theater (now called the Merle Reskin Theater) and a 23-story, 290-foot hotel, designed by Benjamin Marshall, who with his partner Charles Eli Fox, would also later build the brothers’ Drake Hotel north of the river.

“The hotel opened on April 6, 1910 with a celebration that included a performance by no less than Enrico Caruso.

“Outside, it’s a Beaux Arts / Second Empire hybrid, with pink marble at the base of a brick and terra cotta tower. I especially love the green mansard roof, just beneath which there are a couple incredible double-height suites with skylights and those lovely oculus windows.

“The lobby of the hotel is lavish, with wood paneling, a decorated plaster ceiling, chandeliers and some lovely brass railings. Each elevator also has a clock-style location indicator above that’s fun to watch and, inside, a floor mosaic.

“Embracing the main staircase are two curving staircases that lead down to the Michigan Avenue entrance, which has a lovely sculpture-adorned fountain, and to a lower level where there is a former barbershop that’s now a conference room adorned with historic photos of the hotel. It is said that Capone used to take meetings while getting his hair cut here.

“There’s also a bar down here and the billiards table made famous by the Paul Newman/Tom Cruise film, ‘The Color of Money,’ directed by Martin Scorsese. Over the years, the hotel also made appearances in Brian DePalma’s ‘The Untouchables,’ the Coen Brothers’ ‘The Hudsucker Proxy,’ television’s ‘Early Edition’ and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest.’ It also gets a nod in Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’ and its film version.

The Crystal Ballroom is the real gem, with decoration everywhere: the walls, the ceiling, the short balustrade – so low that a waiver must be signed by anyone seeking to enter the balcony. Looking around you can see why this is a popular wedding and events venue in Chicago.

In 1944, when the Republican National Convention returned to the Windy City, Harry Truman called his wife on the Suite of Presidents telephone in the hotel to discuss whether or not he ought to accept the vice presidential nomination. (As he was also known to do at this Kansas City hotel, Truman entertained folks by playing piano at The Blackstone.) (Tanzilo, OnMilwaukee.com, 5/30/23)

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