August 12 1927: Charles Lindbergh is in Chicago, three months after his triumphant flight from New York to Paris. The Chicago Tribune reports: “From 1:45 p.m. until 3 while Lindy swung the big winged monoplane three times around the Loop and as far north as Chicago avenue, the din of this city was for the man and his plane, but from then until 10 in the evening thousands cheered at sight of the man himself. . . .
“It is estimated that 250,000 persons grouped at three principal points and packed along a twelve mile route from the Municipal Flying field, out at Cicero avenue and 63rd street to Soldiers’ field, saw Lindbergh himself.”
Lindy’s long day ended dramatically with a full-dress banquet at the new Stevens Hotel (now the Chicago Hilton and Towers). It was then the largest hotel in the world, and it had opened only two weeks before Lindbergh’s historic flight on May 20, 1927. In the splendid Grand Ballroom, the mayor of Chicago, William Hale (“Big Bill”) Thompson, and an impressive lineup of federal, state, and local officials toasted Lindbergh’s success.
But it seems that politics was politics in Chicago even in 1927. No one knows for sure–such things are rarely known for sure–but it seems probable that Democratic alderman Albert J. Horan paid the Republican mayor for the privilege of presenting Colonel Lindbergh with his gift from the city. (According to the Tribune, this was “a book setting forth the plans for a huge Lindbergh beacon light” to guide aircraft at night. The beacon was mounted in 1930 atop the Palmolive Building–later renamed the Playboy Building.)
This young, unknown alderman from the 29th Ward later became a powerhouse in the Democratic Party, no doubt because he knew exactly where and when to buy and sell favors. He was certainly not a progressive, according to 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke. The honor of appearing on the dais at that once-in-a-lifetime banquet and presenting Chicago’s gift to the hugely popular national hero was undoubtedly worth a sturdy price. And why else would he have been given the honor?
The eight-course Lindbergh dinner, which concluded with cigars, cigarettes, and “glace fantaisie a la Lindbergh,” also featured a chilled tomato “stuffed en surprise” and “orange, pineapple and raspberries supreme en jello.”
Nor was the Lindbergh banquet the first to grace the Grand Ballroom, a replica of the ballroom at Versailles. On the day after the Stevens opened, a dinner was held there to honor the president of Cuba, in those long-ago days when Cuba was almost a fiefdom of the United States. U.S. vice president Charles Dawes was a guest speaker, and he and President Machado and Machado’s entourage were the first guests to register when the fabled hotel opened its doors on May 2.
This is how the Tribune described the hotel’s grand opening: “Hundreds were on hand to eat an elaborate dinner in one of the four dining rooms, to dance in the mammoth ballroom, to view the flowers sent from all parts of the country, and to walk and walk and walk over miles of floor space. Most of all, however, they were on hand to congratulate James W. Stevens and Ernest J. Stevens, the father and son who, back in 1922, determined to build on Michigan avenue the world’s largest hotel.
“A vast and efficient tavern it is, with 3,000 guest rooms and a staff of 2,500 employees; with a ballroom adorned like the palace of Versailles, and a barber shop equipped for the envy of any king who ever lived at Versailles; with St. Genevieve marble panels and Travertine columns above ground, competing with huge refrigerating plants and boiler rooms below ground.
“At the Stevens, as the guides pointed out last night, a guest is more than a guest. He can read a book to his liking among the 25,000 volumes. He can have his appendix removed, for there is a completely equipped two-ward hospital. He can run a convention in the large assembly hall or he can display a complete exhibit in the exposition rooms.”
“Everything went perfectly at the opening,” recalls Sam Cascio, at 92 still a part-time bellman and a luggage porter at the time of the opening. “People came from all over the world just to see the largest hotel in the world.” Every guest received a bronze souvenir, ashtrays for the men and bookends for the women, and every souvenir bore the likenesses of two Stevens sons.
For the Stevens the marble contract alone was $600,000. The total cost of the hotel was an unprecedented $27 million. To measure that cost today you need only note that the price of the most expensive meal served in the hotel was $3. The lowest room rate–for a single–was $3.50. Nearly 60 years later, the Hilton Corporation (which bought the hotel in 1945) spent $185 million to renovate and restore the hotel, which had steadily declined despite–or perhaps because of–several remodelings and refurbishings.
In the years from 1927 to 1984, when the renovation was begun, most of the innovations that had made the Stevens one of the grandest hotels in the world had disappeared. Gone were the hospital; the library, once presided over by a University of Chicago librarian; a children’s playroom; a dry-cleaning plant that could handle as many as 500 suits a day; banquet facilities for 8,000 people at a sitting; an art gallery; a cigar stand with a humidor that stored and kept moist thousands of boxes of Havana cigars; two telegraph stations; a railroad ticket office; a beauty shop with 23 booths and six manicure stands; a barbershop with 27 chairs; a five-lane bowling alley; a 9-hole putting green on the roof; the largest private power plant in the world, which generated for the hotel all its own light, heat, and primitive air-conditioning; a water-filtration plant; its own police and fire departments; and two roof gardens where guests could sit and stroll under the stars, enjoying the cool breezes off the lake in the days before air-conditioning. At Wabash and Seventh Street (now Balbo) the hotel had what was then a huge parking lot–for 75 cars. The Stevens was built by one of the stellar architectural firms of the day, Holabird & Roche (now Holabird & Root), and it had 1.4 million square feet and a bath for each of its 3,000 rooms (an extravagance unheard of at the time). It remained the largest hotel in the world until 1967, when the Soviets built the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow.
Earle Ludgin, later a well-known advertising executive, was a young writer when the Stevens opened. On May 7, 1927, he wrote in Hotel World: “As one who has seen it from the lowest level of the ash tunnel five stories below ground to the lofty columns of the colonnade twenty-five stories above, I would say [John Holabird] has succeeded” in creating “the perfect hotel” for the Stevens family.
In 1909 James W. Stevens, owner of the Illinois Life Insurance Company, had built the sixth large hotel in downtown Chicago, the Hotel LaSalle (since demolished). It was a serviceable, pleasant place intended for businessmen. Only the Drake, the Morrison, the Bismarck, the Blackstone, and the Palmer House were bigger. Albert Quarles, who was a stock boy at the LaSalle and now, at 79, is the retired head of the Hotel-Motel Association of Illinois, remembers the LaSalle well: “It was a nice hotel for its day. It had a bath between connecting rooms, like most hotels. It had 1,026 rooms and cost $5 million to build.” The hotel, in the midst of the business community on LaSalle Street, did very well.
In the early 20s, James Stevens was flush with the success of the LaSalle and of his life insurance business. He and his son Ernest began plans to build the Stevens, a hotel that would make them world-famous. The architects went abroad to study famous buildings and their trappings, to buy wood and marble for construction and antiques for furnishings. But except for a few antique pieces, all of the silver, glassware, paintings, basic equipment, and furnishings were made especially for the hotel. The nearly $300,000 worth of silver that the hotel purchased required three boxcars, with special armed guards aboard, when it was transported to the hotel from the manufacturer. Included were 1,000 oyster forks (the huge kitchens had a special pantry for oysters alone).
To create an unprecedented effect, 350 steel girders and trusses were placed on the four or five floors above the Grand Ballroom so that it could have a grand, open sweep without columns. It had ten crystal chandeliers valued at $100,000 each, 3,000 gold-finished chairs, a balcony all around, and murals copied from Versailles. Besides the Grand Ballroom the hotel had three other large ballrooms, three large restaurants to feed its guests, and 20 public rooms that could be used for convention and exhibition space.
Quarles recalls his part in the Stevens’s grand opening: he was sent over from the LaSalle to help unpack silver and glass. He was 19. His father, before he died in 1924, had been treasurer of the LaSalle. “The Stevens family was very good to me,” he says.
But the family didn’t last much longer in the hotel business, or in the insurance business, either. The year 1927, two years before the Great Crash, was not a good year in which to build a massive commercial monument to yourself. Cascio recalls that once the depression had really settled in, there were often no more than 300 guests to fill the hotel’s 3,000 rooms. To attract guests in 1933, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, the hotel offered a package deal in combination with the railroads–a train trip to Chicago and a weekend at the Stevens for $14.95.
Ernest Stevens took more than $1 million out of his insurance business to keep the ailing hotel going. But in 1931 he was accused, and later convicted, of embezzling that money from the publicly held insurance company. The prosecution claimed that “the hotel was actually insolvent and did not merit the loans of more than $1,000,000 granted it by the insurance company.” As part of Stevens’s battle, a court in 1931 valued the hotel at $15,134,180–and that included the land, of course. In 1933, the Chicago Daily News estimated that if the Stevens were torn down in 1959, “at the end of its normal economic life,” the land alone would be worth $6,427,000.
Ernest Stevens’s guilty verdict was later reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court, but by then Ernest’s brother, Raymer, had committed suicide rather than face indictment, and their father had died of a stroke. “It destroyed the family,” Quarles says. Ernest eventually lost both hotels and the insurance company to bankruptcy. Despite the loss, however, he apparently saved enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life: after a couple of unsuccessful business ventures in the mid-30s, Ernest retired.
Ernest’s son was John Paul Stevens, who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975. Justice Stevens says that his father would sit at the breakfast table fondling one of the silver creamers from the hotel. Saying it was all he had left of his dream, he called it his “$27 million creamer.” When the hotel was renovated in 1984, its general manager at that time, William Smith, retrieved some of the original brass doorknobs and had them mounted. He sent one to Justice Stevens, who responded by telling the story of the silver creamer. He told Smith that he was grateful to have a doorknob now, too.
The hotel was in receivership until 1942, when, in the midst of World War II, the Army bought it for $5 million. The doors were removed from the rooms, the walls were painted Army gray, the hotel was stripped of its furnishings, and an Army Air Forces Technical Command school was installed. Only the Royal Suites on the 23rd floor were kept intact. The officers used them. Linoleum replaced the carpeting in the Grand Ballroom, which was used as the mess hall. The Army held what the Tribune called the “World’s Biggest Auction” to sell off the hotel’s furnishings and equipment. Valued at $2.2 million, they brought only $700,000.
Sam Cascio, who ran the elevators for the Army, remembers that 13,000 men were housed and fed in the Stevens and the Auditorium Hotel, which was also requisitioned. The Army built a wooden bridge over Michigan Avenue so that the soldiers could run across to Grant Park for their calisthenics without obstructing traffic.
It was wartime, and many decisions were made that were sooner or later regretted. Of the 200 hotels in the country that the Army requisitioned in World War II, it purchased only the Stevens. But five months after the huge auction that had scattered the hotel’s equipment far and wide, and 13 months after the Army moved in, it abandoned the hotel. It was sold to the management of the Drake and Blackstone hotels for $5,251,000, only 16 years after it had been finished to the tune of $27 million.
During the 30s the hotel–like most of the nation–had been beaten down by the depression. Then the Chicago branch of World War II passed through its portals, all but destroying its glory. Now, in the middle of the war, it was put back into reasonable working order.
There were shortages of everything then, but certainly of every kind of luxury fitting and furnishing, so the management scavenged far and wide. Eventually it purchased the furnishings of the huge French luxury ocean liner Normandie, which had been commandeered by the United States as a troop ship, and the lobby and some of the public rooms and guest rooms took on a semblance of their original grandeur. On November 1, 1943, the hotel reopened to welcome the annual convention of “shoe men.”
In a way, the Stevens had moved the farther reaches of South Michigan Avenue into the 20th century. To build it, several frame buildings that had survived the 1871 fire had to be torn down. But, other frame buildings remained, to the south on Michigan and on Wabash, and these were filled with small businesses, restaurants, and saloons. State Street south of Van Buren was the honky-tonk area, with strip joints, burlesque houses, penny arcades, pool rooms, adult bookstores, saloons, pawnshops, and the famous 606 Club, an exclusive girlie club where only the best exotic dancers were supposed to have performed.
At the corner of State and Van Buren was the huge Rialto Theatre, the biggest burlesque house in Chicago. Smith (who was the Hilton’s general manager only from 1968 to 1978 but who has clearly imbibed the hotel’s lore) calls the area “the nightlife of the city. There was no Rush Street in those days,” he adds, smiling.
On Michigan north of the hotel all the way to the river were stately skyscrapers and elegant shops. It was the street for tourists and for high-stepping ladies and gentlemen, the street of culture and of fashion, from the city’s turn-of-the-century building boom until the late 50s, when South Michigan especially declined. Culture in the South Loop included not only several theaters and Orchestra Hall but also the Chicago Opry Company. It was in the Eighth Street Theatre, next door to the Stevens, which the hotel bought and tore down in the 50s in order to build the International Ballroom and a huge exhibition hall.
The Stevens, the last of the tall buildings to go up on South Michigan until the 60s, was also one of the grandest, with the Blackstone, the Pick-Congress, and the Auditorium hotels not very far behind. Especially before the depression and World War II, people came from all over the world to visit Chicago, with its magnificent lakefront and museums. Sam Cascio remembers how the many foreign-born employees at the hotel were pressed into service as translators for the hordes of foreign visitors.
Every summer, families came from the south to stay for weeks at the hotel–cool lake breezes were the attraction. Cascio recalls that he helped to haul the huge steamer trunks filled with clothing up to the rooms from the back entryway, because no big luggage was permitted in the sumptuous lobbies. Cascio came to work at 3 AM to water the palm trees in the lobby and to clean the chandeliers. There was no time during his normal working day to do these jobs, and keeping the lobby areas in perfect condition was his responsibility.
This is how Smith describes the hotel’s early days: “The Drake, the Palmer House, the Blackstone, the Ambassador, and the Stevens were all built by rich families–society people who could attract all the society events and people into their hotels. They were the center of life in the city.”
Life in 1927 was more leisurely. Smith says that the women guests would sit all day at the desks in the mezzanine lounge, writing letters and postcards describing the city and the hotel. “It was a place to be seen and to see, to write home about. It was a mark of status to have stayed at the hotel. There were hundreds of thousands of postcards sent out,” he says. “And they wandered through the art gallery and the public areas of the building as if they were in a museum.”
But there were not, in fact, a lot of women guests in the hotel. Although wives sometimes accompanied their husbands on business trips and some families came to spend their summer vacations there, for the most part the Stevens–like other hotels–was built for traveling salesmen and other businessmen. Many of these salesmen, called bagmen because of the embroidered velvet bags in which they carried their samples, were not prosperous, according to Smith. A small room–a place in which to sleep and take a bath–served their needs. Some of the rooms were so small, Quarles says, that “you had to back into the corridor if you changed your mind.” In the ’84-’85 renovation, many smaller rooms were combined to create fewer, but larger, guest rooms, and the number of rooms was reduced to 1,600.
In the early 40s, Conrad Hilton was buying hotels as if they were so many silk socks. He had started in the hotel business as a boy: it was 1907, and after a national bank failure his parents had turned their large house in San Antonio, New Mexico, into a hotel. Hilton was bellboy, baggage porter, doorman, waiter, and carriage driver. In 1919 he bought his first hotel, in Cisco, Texas. His third hotel was the Waldorf in Dallas, which had 150 rooms with a few baths and a 50-room annex with no baths. In 1924 he built his first hotel, in Dallas, for $1 million. Throughout the depression he bought and sold hotels in Texas. He took chances, making millions and going broke by turn in several different ventures. Hotels could be bought for a song in those terrible days, but they didn’t always turn a profit.
In 1937 he branched out and went to San Francisco. There he bought the Sir Francis Drake, the first of his prestigious hotels–what he called his “socialites”–for $275,000 cash. It had cost $4.1 million to build. Hilton had his eye on other prestigious hotels around the country, and in 1943 he obtained several of them at rock-bottom prices–both the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza in New York, for example. He had had his eye on the Stevens as early as 1939, when he started buying bonds in the corporation for as little as 20 cents on the dollar. To finally buy the Stevens in 1945, he sold the Sir Francis Drake and dropped his lease on the Dallas Hilton. In his book Be My Guest Hilton describes how he purchased the Stevens for $7.5 million: “The buying . . . was probably the single most tantalizing affair in my entire career. Not the most complicated, not the most costly, but certainly the most nerve-wracking, frustrating, ulcer-making.”
The management of the Blackstone and Drake hotels, which had bought the Stevens from the Army in 1943, had been in partnership with Stephen A. Healy, a former bricklayer who had built his company, S.A. Healy Company, into one of the largest sandhog businesses in the world–it had dug the Chicago subway and new locks for the Panama Canal. After a year, the Drake-Blackstone management sold out to Healy.
Albert Quarles, who was still closely associated with the Stevens, insists that Healy was merely a front for several powerful politicians, including U.S. congressman Scott Lucas and U.S. senator C. Wayland Brooks. Hilton’s description of Healy’s erratic behavior during the drawn-out purchase of the Stevens lends credence to Quarles’s assertion, but Hilton in his book shows no awareness of the Chicago-style politics that might have been going on behind the scenes.
“Three times I bought Mr. Healy’s hotel,” Hilton says. “Three times we shook hands on the deal. And three times, the two-fisted, dynamic contractor turned pixie and vanished into thin air, each time raising the ante. . . . Healy first agreed to sell the Stevens for a profit of $500,000. Since I wanted the hotel badly, and Healy knew I wanted it, bargaining was out. ‘Deal,’ I said, and we shook hands. Healy then disappeared from his familiar haunts to reappear shortly thereafter, having, as he said, ‘thought things over.’
“‘I want a $650,000 profit,’ he announced.
“I stood the raise. Again we shook hands. Again Healy vanished only to reappear with more expensive ideas.
“‘A million,’ he said. ‘I think I deserve to make a clean million after what I’ve done for that hotel.’ [There is no indication that Healy had done anything for the hotel, beyond putting up some of the purchase money. The Drake-Blackstone management had restored it.] He had obviously spent this interval reading his press clippings. Swallowing a host of indignant words, I stood the second raise. And then a third time Healy vanished.
“I couldn’t find him. His boys swore they couldn’t find him. Even his friend Colonel Henry Crown, millionaire head of Material Service Corporation which had poured sand and gravel into many Healy constructions and had been acting for him in the negotiations, couldn’t find the missing owner of the Stevens. I sat around my suite at the Blackstone . . . in a state of helpless fury.”
While he waited Hilton had another idea, which resulted in his buying the Palmer House. But he still yearned for the Stevens, the biggest hotel in the world, a real feather in his cap. Meanwhile the friend who was with him to do the deal was fretting to get back to the California sun. Here’s how Hilton said the two of them worked it out:
“‘I don’t go home ’til I get a hotel,’ I said firmly.
“‘If I get you one can I get a reservation on the next train?’ Willard asked.
“I didn’t pay any attention to his question and even less to his bundling himself up and trudging off in the dismal remains of Chicago’s last snowfall. In an hour and a half he was back.
“‘I found Healy,’ he announced.
“‘What did he say?’ I demanded.
“‘I told him you’d lost all interest. That you were buying the Palmer House and going home.’
“My heart absolutely stood still. I didn’t know if they’d sell me the Palmer House and now Willard had kissed off the Stevens.
“‘And Healy said,’ continued Willard, ‘that he wants to talk to you right away. I think he’s going to make you a proposition.’
“Healy’s proposition was that he now wanted a million and a half profit for his hotel. ‘How do I know it won’t be two million tomorrow?’ I asked sourly, visions of the Palmer House dancing before my eyes.
“‘Nope. This is firm,’ declared Healy,
“‘How firm? Would you care to sign your name to a document right now?’ It seemed impossible that the Irish butterfly was really willing to have his wings pinned. But he was.
“We closed the deal right there and then. At the last minute I found that by actual count, the Stevens had only 2,673 rooms instead of the advertised three thousand, and that Healy wanted to back a truck around and relieve us of seventy-five cases of scotch and bourbon whiskey. But none of this mattered. What mattered was that, after six long years, the Stevens was mine.”
The hotel prospered under Hilton management as a way station for servicemen returning home from the war and as a major convention center. Business, industry, academia, unions, doctors, dentists, lawyers, and teachers all met for their annual conventions in this, the largest hotel in the world. There were 35,000 feet of exhibition space in the lower level of the hotel, where publishers and manufacturers of all kinds could display their latest products.
The hotel was packed all of the time. Bill McMillan, retired operations analyst for the hotel and a bellman at the time, remembers that “it was nothing to wait an hour and a half for a bellman to take you up to your room. [Guests were not permitted to go to their rooms unaccompanied.] We used to use Andy Frain ushers to line people up along the street. They’d go from the elevators all the way down to Eighth Street. There were 94 people in the front office [today, with computers to do much of the work, there are 24], 70 bellmen [with only 1,600 rooms, there are now 28 bellmen], and 104 people to operate the elevators [today the elevators are automatic].
“There were mountains of luggage. I wish I had a dollar a ton for all the luggage that went through here. Today we don’t have that kind of luggage. The airlines changed that: they meant you couldn’t carry as much, and you didn’t need as much anyway. But when you traveled by train you changed clothes en route. Then, too, everybody dressed for dinner in those days. They changed at least twice a day. The valet shop ran 24 hours a day; now it’s only open till 8.”
Some things change, others don’t. The laundry at the Stevens was and still is one of the largest in the world. After purchasing the Palmer House, the Hilton management closed the laundry there and had all of its linen sent to the Stevens. Later, when the Hilton Corporation acquired the franchise for the O’Hare Hilton, in 1974, its laundry was also sent to the Stevens (by this time renamed the Conrad Hilton).
The laundry is now the largest institutional laundry in the world, doing 15 million pounds of sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, bathrobes, towels, guest bundles, and so on every year, according to the laundry manager, George Howard, who started as an elevator operator in 1953. Not including the payroll, the costs of running the laundry are about $2 million a year, Howard says. One hundred and fifteen people, mostly women, work on two shifts from 6 AM to midnight running the massive washers and dryers, mangles, ironers, sorters, and other machinery. While the laundry is mostly automated, there is also a great deal of tedious handwork. Nevertheless, Howard says that they have only about a 1 to 2 percent turnover a year in the laundry.
The three floors that house the laundry in the hotel’s seven-story service building are probably the only parts of the hotel in which nothing remains of the original. The kitchens, the boiler rooms, and many of the other hotel working areas all contain some of the early fittings. Even the guest rooms show some artifact of an earlier era, though it may be only an original brass doorknob.
The huge banquet kitchens contain much of what remains of the original hotel. Still used are huge ladles made by hand by Stevens engineers, and pots and pans (including a 120-pound stockpot) so crudely made that their handmade origins are clear. And the silver service, found stashed away in drawers and cupboards when the hotel was bought from the Army, is still in use–coffee urns, tureens, serving dishes, and so on. The two huge ovens, which can roast 72 turkeys at one time, were installed by the new owners in 1945. Sous-chef Gary Kurland says the kitchen is wonderfully designed: there is ample open space so workers can move about comfortably and move equipment around easily, yet the stoves, ovens, refrigerators, freezers, and work areas are compactly organized, meaning decreased traipsing back and forth.
Many members of the kitchen staff, which numbers 25, have been on the job for years, some as many as 40. Tony Rodriguez, the butcher, started as a cleaner in 1953, at $7.50 a day. He worked 14- and 15-hour days seven days a week. Today he works a few less hours (all of the kitchen staff put in 10- to 12-hour days, often seven days a week), but still, for one banquet alone he may need to cut as many as 1,000 racks of lamb, 1,200 pieces of swordfish, and 3,000 lamb chops.
The hotel’s kitchen, serving about 15,000 meals a week, has its own pastry shop and bakery (it can turn out 1,000 muffins in three hours), an ice cream shop that also makes sorbets, a pasta machine that turns out hundreds of pounds of pasta, 12 convection ovens for rapid cooking, eight huge broilers, 24 stovetop burners, and six steamer kettles. Some of the equipment is new, but much of it is original. The Army didn’t dismantle the kitchen. It served mess to thousands of soldiers–a lot of beans, as Cascio remembers.
This massive operation today turns out meals ranging from simple three-course meat-and-potatoes affairs to seven-course gourmet feasts. The largest banquet it ever prepared was in 1979, a three-course filet mignon dinner for 13,000. This fund-raiser for President Jimmy Carter was served at McCormick Place; the food was prepared at the hotel and whisked over there in heated or refrigerated trucks.
The fanciest banquet of the year is the one prepared for the International Food Service Manufacturers Association convention in May, where awards for the best food-service operators are given. The Hilton has received only the second-ranking award, but catering manager Paul Demos is aiming for the gold.
Demos started as a waiter at the hotel 35 years ago, and over the years, he says, banquet preparation has changed a great deal. In the early days of the hotel, American food was largely simple and undistinguished, though the hotel had foreign chefs. Sauces were heavy, and there was little imagination or variety, though the fruits and vegetables were all fresh. With the advent of frozen foods and the emphasis on fast service in the 60s, the hotel substituted frozen for fresh food where possible, and less care was given to preparation and service. Now only fresh foods are used, Demos says, and everything is prepared from scratch in the kitchens. Sauces are lighter now, and there is a strong emphasis on variety and imaginative preparation. “We have taken recipes from all over the world, and made our own,” Demos says. Gone are the canned fruit salad, chicken Kiev and peas, and chocolate parfait I suffered through as a young reporter.
When the crowds returned to the hotel in the 40s, the glamour returned too. Shortly after the Lyric Opera Company was founded in 1954, its women’s board held the first Opera Ball–still the city’s most glamorous event–in the Grand Ballroom (where it’s still held). Paul Demos says that, after managing the ball for 16 years, he still “gets shivers” as he watches it. “The guests start arriving about 11, after opening night, and each guest is ushered into the hall by trumpeters wearing costumes appropriate to the opera of the evening. Everybody is in full dress, very beautiful, about 900 to 950. We serve cocktails in the Normandie Lounge [on the mezzanine outside the ballroom], and I escort the stars into a holding area outside the ballroom. When everyone is seated the stars form a procession, and one by one they march into the ballroom in a spotlight to the sounds of the trumpets. Then they are introduced. Everybody who is anybody is there. We serve a three-course dinner, usually with filet mignon, and then there is dancing.” There are no cigars and cigarettes served, as in the early days of the hotel’s grand soirees.
The Opera Ball is only the most glamorous. All the society cotillions–the Passavant Cotillion, the Protestant, the Catholic, the Polish, the Greek, and those of other national groups–the Irish Fellowship Club, the Chicago Bar Association’s Christmas Spirit, which lasts seven nights, Loyola University’s Graduation Ball and President’s Dinner, and the Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine Awards Dinner were–and still are–held at the hotel. There are also hundreds of weddings and dinners, as well as the bottom-line business and professional conventions that serve thousands speedily and with little ado.
In 1955 Richard J. Daley was elected mayor, and he ushered in another era of glamorous events for the Conrad Hilton Hotel. (Named for its owner on its 25th anniversary, the Conrad Hilton was the only hotel in the vast Hilton chain–now numbering 138 hotels–to be so named, and the only one to act as the corporate headquarters.) To enhance his power within the city and to spread his name and Chicago’s name around the world, Daley sent invitations to visit the city to presidents, mayors, kings and queens, prime ministers, and in 1958, after the first U.S. flight into space, to the American astronauts and the Soviet cosmonauts.
The early glory days had returned. Daley gave all his state dinners in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom. Parades and public speeches, topped off with splendid dinners in the ballroom, were regular events throughout Daley’s tenure. He entertained the queen of England, Emperor Hirohito, King Karl Gustav of Sweden, the presidents of Liberia, West Germany, Egypt, and Israel, among other countries, the prime minister of Ireland, and many U.S. presidents.
Also in 1955, Hilton built two huge luxurious suites at the top of the towers that had once held the roof gardens. Called the Imperial Suites after Queen Elizabeth gave a reception in one of them in 1959, they were designed mainly for entertaining, and many of the big public events held by Daley were preceded by private receptions in an Imperial Suite for the elite of the city. They were also used occasionally to house the dignitaries invited by the mayor, as well as by a variety of other celebrities. Demos recalls that President Richard Nixon especially liked to stay in an Imperial Suite because they had wood-burning fireplaces. “Sitting in front of the fire relaxed him, he said,” Demos recalls. Queen Elizabeth did not stay in an Imperial Suite; she only entertained there, She stayed in her yacht, anchored offshore. (She had come to Chicago down the Saint Lawrence Seaway from Canada to help open that waterway, which promised so much and delivered so little.)
The old-timers, when asked about the most memorable event at the hotel in their lifetimes, all recall immediately the queen’s banquet. “All the roses in the state were in the hotel that night,” Demos says. About 750 people consumed, among other things, double consomme Iroquois, prime Chicago filet mignon, an International Rapids salad, and something called “La La Rook Sauce.” It was one of the only dinners that Daley ever gave for which the hotel eventually wrote off their expenses.
But Daley’s biggest extravaganzas at the Hilton were the fund-raising banquets given each May by the Cook County Democratic Party, of which Daley was chairman. There were, of course, other smaller fund-raisers held throughout the year; but this was the big one, and Daley got the most prestigious people he could find to speak, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson. This event spread out into all the ballrooms and dining rooms of the hotel, with the main convocation in the Grand Ballroom. As many as 10,000 people were served filet mignon. In the early days, speechifiers were hooked up to other rooms by speaker systems so that guests in the hinterlands could hear what they had to say. Later closed-circuit television was used. Demos had the job of escorting Daley, the principal speaker, and others of his entourage as they walked from room to room, greeting the guests and making a few remarks–the personal touch. After the tour, the party returned to the Grand Ballroom to give the featured speeches.
Over the years, Daley and William Smith, the general manager after 1969, became well acquainted. “He was a good friend to me,” Smith says, “but we had very little contact that wasn’t business. The mayor didn’t socialize like other people. His social life was here, giving dinners and parties. He was a strong family man and usually went home to dinner, and came to the events after. We would have a little service for him, maybe one course or dessert and coffee.” Smith was never in Daley’s home, and he adds, “Anyone who tells you he was is probably not telling the truth.” He went to the weddings of some of the Daley children and still maintains a close relationship with them and with Daley’s widow, Eleanor. Certainly the manager of a huge hotel couldn’t have had a better friend than the former mayor.
As a matter of fact, all of the executives of the Hilton knew Daley well and admired, even venerated him. He was in the hotel, they say, more often than any other guest, though he never slept there. Some weeks, Daley held or attended an event there every night. “He brought class to the city,” says Demos. (Remembering Daley’s relationship with the Hilton, 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke held his announcement for the mayoral candidacy in the Grand Ballroom and talked about how “mayors were made in this room.” Unfortunately for Burke, the gala reception he held in Daley’s shadow did not help him much in his quest.)
Daley wasn’t the only high-profile figure in the city known to the hotel’s top executives. They know, and have known, all the major brass, who are so often involved in the affairs held in the hotel. Smith is himself a major figure in town, having served on the boards of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, Chicago and Illinois Restaurant Association, District National Bank of Chicago, Michigan Boulevard Association, Metropolitan Fair and Exposition Authority, Mercy Hospital Medical Center, and South Loop Planning Board. He served as board chairman and president of the Hotel-Motel Association of Illinois, and for five years in the 70s helped coordinate summer youth job programs for Daley.
Smith has been with the Hilton Corporation since 1958. Of those 30 years (he retired as general manager of the Chicago Hilton last year after overseeing the ’84-’85 renovation and the subsequent transition to normal operations), he’s spent nearly half in Chicago. The Chicago Hilton is the fifth hotel he either built or renovated; the others include the New York and Washington Hiltons and the Fountainebleau in Miami.
He’s a big, bald, rotund man with a pixieish smile and a hearty laugh. He has a taste for renovating horse carriages as well as hotels, and a taste for brightly colored clothes on occasion. He has a lot to say about the hotel business, but through all his years in top positions with the Hilton Corporation, Smith had refused to sit down and talk with a journalist. Now that he’s retired, he apparently feels free to pass on some of what he knows.
One day in 1946, Tom Phipps, now the Hilton’s banquet manager, was taking a walk up Wabash Avenue when he saw a sign on the hotel’s personnel office that said, “Help Wanted, Inquire Within.”
“The job they had was runner. A tall Oriental woman told me, ‘You get a uniform, minimum wage [about 45 cents an hour], and one meal a day.’ The hours were from 8 to 4:30. I figured I could sneak out or sneak in to my other job, so I took it.” Phipps was working for the Illinois Central Railroad, in the yards, from 4 PM to midnight. He had come to Chicago only a couple of months before from Fancy Farm, Kentucky. “I was baling hay on my father’s farm and a cousin said, ‘Tommy, I’m going to Chicago. I’ve got a job with the IC Railroad making a dollar an hour.’ I was making $1.50 a day. So I go tell my dad. I wanted no part of farming. I had hayseed down my neck. My dad says, ‘OK boy, if you want to go, go. Here’s $ 100. It’s a gift. If you get rich, pay it back. But I want no telephone calls, no telegrams, no letters that you’re broke, you’re stranded. That’s it.’ Well, being 17 years old and stubborn, I sent that $100 back right away.
“I lived with my cousin at the Crillon Hotel at 13th and Michigan. One little bedroom and a bath down the hall. I had a lot of free time during the day and I would walk up and down Wabash Avenue because I figured I couldn’t get lost if I walked straight up and down.
“At that time, most of the department heads of the hotel were European–French, Swiss, German, very few Americans. Most of the cooks and waiters were Europeans, too. I couldn’t understand them, but they liked me. I was a tall, skinny boy. They called me redneck, red behind the ears. I loved it. I had never seen anything so grand. I probably hadn’t eaten half a dozen meals in a restaurant before I came here. I fell in love with it. I loved the Europeans. I’d read about them and heard about them on the radio, but that was all I knew.”
Phipps was a gofer. He worked in the catering department delivering messages, getting coffee for the staff, and so on. “So I kept both jobs for six months or so. I was making more money than I’d ever dreamed of, and I didn’t know how to spend it. I didn’t know about movies. I didn’t drink or smoke.
“Then one night they had a big party here and there was a shortage of waiters. And the banquet manager asked a waiter if he wanted to use me as his busboy and runner because he had to take six tables instead of the usual two. And that’s how I got started in this business. Scared to death I was. I did all right, though, and they asked me to do it again. I learned a little trick. I’d get a menu to deliver for a little party, and I wouldn’t deliver it until late and they didn’t have a waiter, and I’d say, ‘I’m here.’ Little by little, I worked my way into waiting, working days as a gofer and nights as a waiter.
“Oh, it was so exciting. I’d seen things I’d never even heard of–pheasant under the bell and crepes. They put me in charge unofficially of the Towers dining room, and eventually it was official. When I became a captain I quit the gofer job, and then I became assistant manager, and then in the mid-60s I became banquet manager, and here I am.”
Tall, sandy-haired, with a pointy face and a huge paunch, Phipps clearly is still excited by his job, which now pays $90,000 a year and keeps him going 10 to 12 hours a day. He takes a couple of short vacations a year but always returns before he’s scheduled to. His bright blue eyes sparkle as he recalls his first banquet: “It was the first Passavant Cotillion in 1949. My eyes and ears were taking in all that glamour. Music, flowers, young ladies in gowns, young men in full dress. I’d never seen anything like that. For me to be part of something like that was amazing. And my wife–I was just dating her then–was working as a cashier. I’d go and whisper in her ear, ‘Look at that!’ We both remember that.”
Reflecting on how the hotel has changed in the years in which he has been there, Phipps says, “When I started here, the service was old country. Heavy china, heavy silver, slow, lots of courses, heavy sauces. Then the menus became lighter, service became faster, personnel became more American, and more Spanish, too.
“In the Palmer House, a white waiter couldn’t work in those days. Here, a black waiter couldn’t work. Then we both got integrated.” Retired operations analyst McMillan says that the Hilton was the first Chicago hotel to welcome blacks as guests, and that staff integration followed. Phipps adds, “There were no women, then the women came in. Now we’ve got lots of Pakistanis and women. The industry has opened up to women tremendously, from management on down. We’ve had every nationality. I’ve enjoyed working with all the different cultures. I’ve learned a lot.
“When I filled out my application with that Oriental woman, there was a line that said ‘nationality.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Why don’t you just put down Irish? You look Irish.’ So I put down Irish. I do have some Irish in me, a little. I was so innocent. Innocent about everything.
“My greatest memories are with the accomplishments we’ve had here that I’ve had a bit to do with. Like the machine-tool show–the biggest convention ever held in Chicago. This was before McCormick Place was built [in 1960]. They were going to have their exhibits at the Amphitheatre [built in 1934]. But they said they would only come to Chicago if Conrad Hilton would run their food concessions at the Amphitheatre. So we went out there for a week or so and ran a cafeteria, a fine dining room, and a coffee shop. It was in the summertime and the Amphitheatre was hot, and we had no refrigeration except portable trucks that we backed up to the dock. We cooked everything here and sent it out there on heated trucks. We served breakfast and lunch. I was so proud. I was in charge of the dining room. It was my first manager’s job, and oh, I was so proud.
“The hotel has gone through a cycle. When I started here in ’46, we were stiff, formal, sophisticated. Then we became strictly a convention hotel–big conventions–and we went into a fast, profit-making, bottom-line atmosphere. Now we’ve reversed it, and we’re back where we started. Sure, we like the large conventions, but it’s not necessary. We’ll take a small one with a little more class. We’ve changed our whole image. We don’t seat as many people in our dining rooms as we used to. We’re losing money. Lots of times we’d seat 300 more [than we do now] in our International Ballroom. We will not seat that 300 now because it’s too tight and you can’t give proper service. We crowded them in in the early days, but of course service was much slower. Dinner would take two to two and a half hours. Then we went into a phase where we served a dinner in 45 minutes. Now we’re at about one and a half hours.
“First, we had beautiful heavy china and silver; then we went to Pyrex; now we’re back to china. And training used to be on the job, like I got it. Now we have a formal training program. To lose your job at the Hilton now means something. Years ago, it didn’t mean anything. You’d Just go down the street to the Congress or someplace. People are more responsible than they used to be. The old theory was to be big, big, big. We don’t have that anymore. We want to be a little more creative.”
By the early 80s, the South Loop was pretty much a sorry wasteland (except for a few healthy landmarks like Roosevelt University and Columbia College). The Congress and Blackstone hotels were just limping along. The Hilton was doing a good convention business but otherwise was also just getting by. The weekends, when the conventioneers went home, were reminiscent of the depression years for the hotel. Although it was making a profit on the conventions, that’s still not a healthy condition.
Wabash Avenue was nearly dead, with only a few rotgut saloons and fourth-rate restaurants as reminders of what had been. And State Street south of Van Buren had only the Pacific Garden Mission and Jones Commercial High School to provide the lively contrast with the once-stately Michigan Avenue that used to delight Chicagoans. The building in which the 606 Club had flourished was awaiting demolition, and most of the rest of Wabash had already gone under the wrecking ball in an effort to “clean up” the city’s image. There was some development over in Printer’s Row, and the Dearborn Park project to the south had been started. But as the site in which to spend $185 million–and on a 55-year-old hotel–well, it was a calculated risk.
In 1981, the senior vice president of the Hilton Corporation, James Sharon, got together with Mayor Jane Byrne to plan a new flagship hotel for the North Loop. This was to be the starter for the long-delayed, much-discussed, much-negotiated North Loop development. The hotel would go up between State and Clark and between Wacker and Lake. Everything in that area (except for the Ryan Insurance Company high rise) was to be condemned and demolished. What would be done with the massive Conrad Hilton down at the other end of the Loop was on hold, according to Sharon. It was still a big money-maker as a convention hotel, and Sharon says the North Loop development needn’t have influenced a decision about the Conrad Hilton.
Sharon worked out a deal with Byrne and County Board President George Dunne. They planned to use a new tax ordinance, written by the Hilton’s attorneys and passed by the County Board, to make the new hotel a very attractive investment. The ordinance provided for a reduced tax assessment on certain projects that would enhance development in the city, from 40 percent of valuation to 16 percent, for 13 years. The key was a “but for” clause, which stated that if the reduction was not allowed, the developers would not proceed with the project.
Politics entered the picture. There was a war going on between Byrne and the southwest-side Democrats, led by Rich Daley. Byrne had squeezed out the entire southwest-side contingent, which had ruled City Hall for 20 years. One of that contingent’s spear-carriers was Cook County Assessor Tom Hynes, the man with the power to grant the tax reduction. If he gave the Hilton the abatement, Byrne would be a heroine–the mayor who finally brought off the North Loop development–after years of struggling for it, through the Richard J. Daley and Michael Bilandic administrations.
Hynes held a public hearing over three days, and several citizens’ groups protested what they called a tax giveaway. He hired an outside consultant, and the consultant waffled but finally decided to oppose the reduction. After months of debate, Hynes decided not to grant the abatement. Byrne lost. The Daleys won.
Then Hynes backed down a bit. He said he would grant the abatement if the Hilton agreed to turn back to the city part of its profits if those reached a certain stipulated amount. The Hilton Corporation accepted the deal but then couldn’t find the financing for the project. Interest rates had gone way up. In the Chicago Tribune of March 16, 1982, Sharon talked about the determination not to build in the North Loop: he said it had nothing to do with the deal Hynes offered but “was decided only by economic conditions.” According to Sharon, one week after that decision was made, the corporation decided to renovate the Conrad Hilton. That conclusion was no doubt helped along by the hefty tax break granted to commercial rehabbers by the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, which gave rehabbers of buildings over 30 years old a 20 percent tax break.
There was a small amount of development taking place in the South Loop then. It was reasoned, Smith says, that North Michigan Avenue was bursting its seams; it seemed logical that the next phase of downtown development would be at the south end of the Loop. It was a calculated risk to renovate and restore the Conrad Hilton, but the corporation decided it was a safe gamble–to Chicago’s everlasting benefit. The Conrad Hilton would be the “new” flagship hotel. Its luxury would be the restored elegance of the original hotel.
“We never thought it couldn’t pay off,” Smith says. “We put a lot of confidence in the future of the area. We thought it had great potential. And for a hotel, we had the advantage, in perpetuity, of Grant Park across the street.”
And so in 1984 the hotel was closed for ten months for a massive renovation. The number of rooms was reduced but the rooms themselves were made larger, the exhibition space was increased to 140,000 square feet, and the public spaces were expanded to make the hotel even more attractive to conventioneers. The object was also to create a hotel so beautiful that it would attract ordinary travelers, vacationing families, and honeymooners, as well as conventioneers.
A five-story parking garage was built, along with a 12,000-square-foot health club that includes a 55-lap-to-the-mile swimming pool. On the third floor, where there had originally been an art gallery, a new gallery–the Stevens–was added; it has a $1.6 million art collection. A center providing clerical services to businesspeople was installed on the fourth floor. And in the Towers, where two dining rooms had long ago fallen into disuse–although from 1951 to 1966 they were used by the Central Church of Chicago for its Sunday morning services–a luxury “hotel within a hotel” was built; it offered special amenities to a very affluent clientele. For $4,000 a day you can get the Conrad Hilton Suite, a duplex apartment with a winding staircase connecting the floors; in appointments and size it rivals any luxury hotel suite anywhere. Potential guests for this suite are screened before they are booked. Among the guests who have slept there is Michael Jackson.
The lobby–including Italian marble columns and a mural on the ceiling of the Great Hall–the public rooms, and the ballrooms were either restored to their earlier grandeur or improved upon; the lobby features a brand-new marble front desk, for example. Fifty-five meeting rooms were created out of guest rooms, and all the guest rooms were handsomely refurnished. The Chicago Hilton and Towers is no longer the largest hotel in the world. In fact, in terms of guest rooms, it’s only the third largest in Chicago. The Moschow Rossiya continues to be the largest hotel in number of guest rooms, while the Las Vegas Hilton has the most floor space. But the current Chicago Hilton has to be one of the grandest in the world, as the Stevens was in its time.
To make its gamble pay off, the Hilton management encouraged developers to look at the South Loop; Smith was especially active in this effort. “Some were sitting on the fence,” he says. “They needed a major project to give them confidence to go ahead.” While the Hilton Corporation did not invest any money in the area outside the hotel, it did invest in public relations, trying to reach the press and real estate groups with its message. Smith himself spoke to any group that showed an interest. “We made sure that everyone knew what we were doing.”
The gamble paid off. In the ten months in which the Hilton was closed, one million convention guest rooms were booked for the future. It was, Smith says, “the greatest sales effort in the history of hotels.” Furthermore, developers began hopping on the bandwagon; throughout the South Loop, workmen are busily renovating old buildings and constructing new ones to bring back to life the neighborhood that was so sophisticated and colorful when the hotel was built.
It is slow but steady–the signs of new life are unmistakable. In May, DePaul University will celebrate its reopening of the Blackstone Theatre on Balbo across from the Hilton, a splendid theater that has been dark for years, with a lavish party in the Grand Ballroom. Slowly the entire area from 23rd Street to Van Buren, from the river to Michigan, is being regenerated–in large part because the Hilton Corporation chose to restore rather than tear down this splendid anchor. Thirty years after its predicted life expectancy was up, the Stevens is still around.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.