Chicago Athletic Association

photo by: Thomas Hart, Shelby Goat Rodeo Productions

October 29, 2015

Inside the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel

An elite 1893 social club on Chicago's Michigan Avenue is now the city's hottest new hotel.

  • By: David Weible

By any measure―food, entertainment, art, architecture, or attitude―Chicago is a world-class city, and if you are committed to experiencing any of it, do not stay at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.

Once you enter, you will not want to leave.

“We wanted to make sure that a guest could get a full Chicago experience without ever leaving the building,” says Patrick Hatton, the hotel’s general manager.

OK, so you won’t be riding the L or sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley, but when the hotel looks and feels like this, you will not care.

The lavish furnishings and the uber-suave vibe are obvious selling points, but they’re successful because of the story behind them.

You probably guessed that the building was once simply the Chicago Athletic Association. But you probably don’t know that it opened in 1893―just months ahead of the Chicago World’s Fair―with 3,000 members and a 10-year waiting list that persisted until admissions were used to buoy finances during World War I.

This was one of the premier social and athletic clubs in the country, and the evidence was in the building as much as it was in the membership roster.

Henry Ives Cobb designed the 11-story Venetian Gothic facade with replica pieces from Doge’s Palace in Italy. No expense was spared with the interior either, which incorporated the best European craftsmanship and design.

The club folded in 2007, but a team of partners led by John Pritzker snagged the property in 2012. Two-and-a-half years and an untold sum later, the building opened as the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.

“The real design intent was to honor the building but not make it a museum,” Hatton says. “We wanted to make sure there was a sense of play and adventure in the building.”

Italian columns, gilded doors, and Turkish baths were all painstakingly restored. German millwork on the second floor was removed, cataloged, stored, and reinstalled like pieces of a puzzle.

Modern flooring in the club’s gymnasium, which took up the entire fourth floor, was removed and repurposed in the hotel’s elevator cabs. The original pine deck underneath was uncovered, supplemented with new wood where needed, and restored to its original look.

Smaller items that reflect the club’s past―tennis rackets, a pommel horse―were repurposed or introduced in subtle ways.

Chicago Athletic Association Exterior

photo by: Chicago Athletic Association

Chicago Athletic Association Guest Room

photo by: Alan Shortall

Chicago Athletic Association Guest Room

photo by: Alan Shortall

The crown jewel of the restoration is the White City Ballroom. Once the club’s dining area, it is now a special events space.

The room’s Italian Carrera marble floor was buried under an inch-and-a-half of carpet, glue, and Drycrete. Its discovery was a pleasant surprise to ownership, who invested in a two-year project to bring it back to life.

"It’s not perfect because it’s a 125-year old floor, but the marble can’t be replaced, so where it’s broken, it’s broken,” says Hatton. “But it’s spectacular.”

Chicago Athletic Association Stained Glass

photo by: Chicago Athletic Association

“We wanted to make sure that a guest could get a full Chicago experience without ever leaving the building.”

Patrick Hatton
Chicago Athletic Association

photo by: Alan Shortall

Chicago Athletic Association

photo by: Alan Shortall

Artists also hand made 167 stalactites with original techniques on site to recreate the room’s ceiling that had been destroyed by drywall installation. The space’s three working fireplaces, original stained glass, and a grandfather clock were also restored.

And while there’s plenty of 1893 to go around, the hotel offers all of the services and amenities of 2015.

Food options from Shake Shack to fine dining in the Cherry Circle Room meet every taste. There’s a rooftop bar with views of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan, and a speakeasy with a curated list of rare liquor set to open in November. A game room in place of the club’s amateur boxing ring provides plenty of entertainment, and 24-hour services and a gym (of course) ensure your life stays on track, no matter how much you indulge.

Like I said ... you won’t want to leave.

Chicago Athletic Association Bar

photo by: Clayton Hauck

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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