By Lisa Skolnik | October 22, 2015 | Home & Real Estate
With vision, capital, and good old-fashioned elbow grease, the completely renovated Chicago Athletic Association rises again as a hotel and a hospitality hot spot.
Built in 1893 as a Chicago version of a British gentlemen’s club, the Chicago Athletic Association has been transformed into a stunning boutique hotel. Here, the Drawing Room showcases the original German millwork brought back to life as part of the larger restoration of the building.
With its sweeping marble staircases, lavish mosaic tile floors, gilt-encrusted ceilings, and majestic grand ballrooms complemented by chic restaurants and shops all abuzz with the city’s smart set, it’s hard to fathom that the Chicago Athletic Association club had sat vacant and neglected since 2007. Today, thanks to the efforts of hospitality maven John Pritzker, the South Michigan Avenue landmark is once again an architectural force to be reckoned with, featuring a renovation that has been magnificently and meticulously executed by some of the best restoration and design professionals in the country.
The CAA’s history is a grand one. The building started its life in 1893 as a Chicago version of the venerated British gentlemen’s club, designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb to emulate a fanciful Venetian palace. Its membership included the city’s most prestigious male citizens, names like Field, McCormick, and Wrigley. But after 114 years of continuous updates and modifcations, it was in dire shape when it shuttered its doors in ’07, a victim of changing times.
John Pritzker to the rescue: The son of Hyatt Hotels founder Jay Pritzker snagged the threatened CAA out of foreclosure in 2012, and also saved it from Landmarks Illinois’s Chicagoland Watch List of endangered structures. Most significantly, Pritzker—a hospitality powerhouse in his own right as chairman of Commune Hotels & Resorts, which opened the Gold Coast’s Thompson Hotel last year—had a smart vision on how to return the place to its former greatness, realizing that “it’s a big building with lots of public spaces that can be used for an enormous amount of programming.”
Wood paneling and lighting fixtures have been meticulously restored, as seen in the second-floor lobby lounge.
Thus, the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel was born. Besides capital, the billionaire Pritzker also had the passion and commitment to get the byzantine project done. Though involved in several major hospitality projects then and now, “Chicago has the most emotion for me. I’m from here, I love this city, and I feel we have a responsibility to save these places. So I really wanted to get it right,” he explains.
Getting it right was easier said than done given the project’s scope and sheer expense, which prompts Pritzker to quip in retrospect, “It became our ‘how could we not’ project.”
“In projects of this size, there are usually a few spaces or a lobby and an exterior to do,” points out Paul Alessandro, a restoration expert and partner at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture. “But the CAA has space after space after space, all historic and important to save.”
The most notable of these elements is the now-glorious ceiling of the White City Ballroom, festooned with 167 frothy white plaster stalactites hand-cast from a plaster mold of the original. It’s a vast improvement over the previous state of the room, where those elements were “hidden under a dreadful dropped ceiling with fake beams and an awful paint job,” says Patrick Hatton, the hotel’s general manager.
Designed by New York firm Roman and Williams, guest rooms feature sporting elements like custom interpretations of classic pommel horses at the foot of the bed.
Another is the suite of voluminous, richly paneled rooms on the second floor that now houses the hotel’s main public hospitality spaces, the über- hot spots Cherry Circle Room and The Game Room. Foot after foot of paneling and dozens of lighting fixtures had to be taken down, cataloged, and refurbished in order to run new electrical wiring and reinforce the structural columns.
Today, shots of the exquisitely completed project “are so exciting that most don’t realize the extent of the structural work that had to be done—and the Herculean effort and expense it took to save the building,” says preservation consultant Allen Johnson of MacRostie Historic Advisors. “Serious structural deficits that had to be corrected ranged from a sinking foundation and compromised truss- and-girder system to rotting structural members and non-connected floors. At every step, the development team did the right thing,” he notes.
Yet all those extraordinary architectural elements, fixtures, and finishes that had to be painstakingly repaired, revived, or re-created anew—and which Johnson calls “an embarrassment of riches”—are what make the project feel so genuine. “People are yearning for authenticity,” Pritzker says. “So we went out of our way to make this authentic from the ground up.” 12 S. Michigan Ave., 312-940-3552
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