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by Thomas P. Schaffner

In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Chicago was known as the “City of Big Shoulders,” but more to the point it was simply the “City of Big.”  Within its boundaries were the world’s largest building (the Merchandise Mart), the world’s largest store (Sears Roebuck and Co.), the world’s largest livestock marketing facility (Union Stock Yards) and the world’s largest hotel (The Stevens).

In those days, apparently, everything was not bigger in Texas.

Conrad-Dining-tableAlthough all of these businesses enjoyed long reigns as “the world’s largest,” all four have since given up their titles — the Merchandise Mart is now the world’s second largest office building (the Pentagon is number one); Sears was relegated to second largest in 1989 by Wal-Mart after having held the number one position for 103 years; the Union Stock Yards vanished from the cityscape in 1971; and, as of this writing, the Hilton Chicago (formerly the Stevens) is the 93rd largest hotel in the world.

Though the superlative of “World’s Largest” is no longer attached, the Hilton Chicago is still a spectacular and magnificent hotel — it oozes with history, is lavishly styled and is blessed with one of the most desirable and well-situated land parcels in the entire city of Chicago.  It is across the street from beautiful Grant Park, only a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan and is an anchor property on the Chicago Cultural Mile.

It also is still a very large hotel — a 30-story building occupying a full city block bounded by Balbo on the north, Michigan on the east, Eighth on the south and Wabash on the west.  The hotel today offers 1,544 rooms, down from the 3,000 that were available when the Stevens first opened its doors in May, 1927.  The Hilton Chicago employs a large staff (approximately 1,000 employees), has an incredible 234,000 square feet of meeting and event space (70 percent of the hotel’s guests are part of a group) and offers 36 regular suites and 13 residential specialty suites — the most of any hotel in the city.  The suites range in size from 1,000- to 2,500 square feet and every one of them has a magnificent view of Lake Michigan.

According to Angela Braswell, manager, media relations/sales, Hilton Chicago, the suites give the hotel a marketing edge among guests who are looking for more space in their accommodations.  “They are the largest and nicest suites in the city,” said Braswell.  “Everyone loves them — they are roomy and comfortable.”

Conrad-LivingRoomOne of the suites at the hotel, the Conrad Suite, has earned a reputation as one of the most spacious and opulent hotel suites in the world.  When the hotel underwent a major renovation in 1985, two former ballrooms on the top two floors of the hotel were redesigned into a single, spectacular bi-level suite at a cost of $1.6 million and named the Conrad Suite.  Playfully dubbed the “Midwest White House” (because every president since Ronald Reagan has stayed there), the suite contains all the comforts of home and then some, including a grand salon with fireplace (1,900 square feet), a dining area for fourteen, a classic library, private kitchen, three bedrooms with full baths, two powder rooms, four elevators for private access and a spiral staircase that connects the two floors.  The décor features gold and crystal Strauss chandeliers, large floral oriental rugs, mahogany parquet floors and period antique furnishing and art work.  If you can afford $10,000 per night, you can stay there as long as you wish.

Built at a cost of $30 million, the Stevens Hotel was considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world because of its sheer size — it was, essentially, a city unto itself.  In addition to the hotel’s own private areas (heating and cooling systems, laundry, kitchens, electrical, carpentry and plumbing shops, etc.) the property featured a wide variety of services and features for guests, including a rooftop miniature golf course, a drug store, cleaners, a children’s clothing and toy store, a beauty shop, a jewelry store, haberdashery, flower shop, a concert music library, a recreation room, a children’s playroom, several restaurants, a small hospital with an operating room, a 1,200-seat theater with “talking motion picture equipment, a seven-chair barbershop, its own ice cream and candy manufacturing facilities and 25 elevators.

The hotel was the brainchild of James W. Stevens, his son, Ernest, and their family, who ran the Illinois Life Insurance Company and owned the nearby La Salle Hotel.  James Stevens was the grandfather and Ernest was the father of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

HC-Historical-210x300From Opening Day on, the hotel was the place to be — and be seen — in Chicago.  The first guest booked into the hotel was the Vice President of the United States, Charles G. Dawes; the second guest was President Machado of Cuba.  Galas and special events filled the ballrooms night after night — a dinner honoring Charles A. Lindbergh; the Motion Picture Association Ball, attended by movie mogul Cecil B. de Mille and actor Victor McLagan; and many more.
The good times, however, didn’t last for long.  In the weeks and months following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the Stevens Hotel fell onto hard times — fewer and fewer guests booked rooms and the dining areas and ballrooms were barely used.  During the Depression it is estimated that some eighty one percent of hotels in the United States went bankrupt.  In June of 1934 the seven-year-old Stevens fell victim to this trend and was declared insolvent.  In 1937, the hotel was appraised for $7 million, a whopping 78 percent decrease in its value in only a decade.

Perhaps one of the most interesting eras in the long and illustrious history of the Stevens was launched in 1942 when it was purchased for $6 million by the U.S. Army, which used it as classrooms and barracks for the Army Air Force Technical Training School featuring 10,000 air cadets stuffed three- or four apiece into the hotel’s 3,000 rooms.  The rest of hotel was similarly “militarized,” chandeliers and elaborate window treatments were removed from the Grand Ballroom and it was converted into a mess hall; the on-site drug store was made into a PX; the Oak Room became a civilian employment office.  For a little over a year, the facility trained air cadets and sent them into active military service.

In February 1945, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel from a local businessman, Stephen Healy, for $7.5 million.  Earlier, Healy had bought the Stevens from the Army for $4.91 million and converted it back to a hotel.  Shortly after buying it from Healy, Hilton began making improvements, including the installation of a large ice stage in the Boulevard Room which began showing elaborate ice shows on a nightly basis in 1948.  He also initiated extensive training sessions with his employees in an effort to become the “friendliest” hotel in Chicago.   In 1951, the board of directors rewarded him for his efforts and re-branded the hotel, the Conrad Hilton.

HC-Historical-Stevens-300x197A celebrity in his own right (a resident of Los Angeles, married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, and briefly a father in-law to Elizabeth Taylor), Conrad Hilton enticed many stars of stage, screen, sports and politics to entertain at or visit the hotel — Eddie Duchin, Guy Lombardo, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Babe Ruth, Grace Kelly, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, to name a few.  Perhaps his crowning achievement was in 1959 when Queen Elizabeth II, on an official visit to Chicago, became a guest at the hotel.

“The best thing about Conrad Hilton was that he was a hotelier, he understood that the business was all about keeping guests comfortable and satisfied — and he worked very hard to achieve that in all of his properties,” said Perry Eshoo, Banquet Director and employee at the Hilton Chicago for 57 years.  “He knew that a well-trained, courteous, out-going staff was perhaps the greatest asset a hotel could have and to this day, I believe that all of us who are employed at this facility carry on that tradition — we’re easy going, polite, friendly and helpful.  As a guest, what more could you ask for?”

Braswell agreed and offered an anecdote to illustrate the point.  “Not long ago, one of our younger guests lost a shoe to her cherished American Girl Doll somewhere and couldn’t find it.  We sent a staff member to the American Girl Doll store, purchased a replacement and told the little girl that we ‘found’ the shoe.  She was thrilled…and so were we,” said Braswell.  “We love going out of our way to improve our guests’ stays with us.”

In the past two decades, the Hilton Chicago has gained the reputation as a great place in which to film scenes for a Hollywood movie.  Among popular Hollywood movies filmed at the hotel were “U.S. Marshalls,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Home Alone II” and “Road to Perdition.”  The most memorable, however, was probably 1993’s “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford and Tommie Lee Jones.  In the final memorable chase scene, virtually the entire hotel is showcased as the action moves from location to location — the Grand Ballroom, the Great Hall, the International Ballroom, a suite’s library, the roof promenade and the hotel’s laundry.

Today’s Hilton Chicago is an excellent steward of the environment and also is an active participant in the local community.  In addition to a number of awards and recognition it has received for sustainability programs, Braswell says that a large portion of the roof on the eighth floor is actually an urban garden that is cultivated in partnership with Windy City Harvest, an organization that trains students how to grow organic, sustainable fruits and vegetables in an urban environment.  Much of the produce is consumed at the hotel.

Improving and beautifying the neighborhood is also a top priority at the Hilton Chicago.  In May 2014, the hotel unveiled eight 15 x 25 foot fashion photographs with custom frames that now grace the walls of the building on Eighth Street and Wabash Ave.  The photographs, produced by fashion photography students at nearby Columbia College, are part of a partnership between the hotel, the educational institution and community organizations to help beautify the neighborhood while broadening the learning experiences of students.

The Hilton Chicago also recently became a member of the Chicago Cultural Mile Association, an organization that is creating a new community and destination for tourists among the many museums and cultural institutions that line Michigan Avenue between the Chicago River on the north and the Museum Campus on the south.  “We’ve been in this neighborhood for a long time and we’re thrilled to see it come together as a community and promote itself as a culturally relevant tourist destination,” Braswell said.  “It’s like the rebirth of a neighborhood — we’re proud and honored to be part of it.”

In fact, the Hilton Chicago is in the process of building a museum of its own.  With more than 80 years of artifacts that range from the early days of the Stevens to the 1968 Days of Rage riots on the hotel’s doorstep to photos of the many celebrities that have stayed at the hotel over the years, the museum itself will be well worth a visit to this historic hotel.  It is slated to open in the Spring of 2015.

Visit the Hilton Chicago on the Chicago Cultural Mile — where commerce meets culture.