NOTABLE SPACES: THE CHICAGO ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION.

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We had heard that to experience Chicago history first-hand, nothing is quite like membership in one of the city’s private clubs. Most clubs, originally men-only, date from the late nineteenth century, and many of its members are descendants of Chicago’s founders. The clubs’ vitrines are filled with ephemera from historic events that affected the members or in which they had taken part—the Chicago Fire of 1871, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the ascendance of women in business in the 1970s. Each club has a unique focus on the city—for The Chicago Club, it’s business; for The Union League Club, government, economics and politics; The Casino Club is exclusively social (and socially exclusive). Exclusivity, in fact, is common to all. We wanted a more practical approach, and then we learned that the Chicago Athletic Association had been turned into a hotel.

The CAA was founded as an athletic club—Johnny Weismuller, the four-time swimming Olympian and original movie Tarzan, was a member—but by 2007 Association membership pointed toward extinction. That year, the club closed its doors and left its handsome Venetian Gothic Revival building to an uncertain future. Several years later, when the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel was open for business, we packed our bags, ventured across town and checked in.

When we arrived, we found that we had more than clothes to unpack: the club has a rich, interesting history that we were eager to discover. Founded as a men’s athletic club in 1890, the Association needed headquarters in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. In May 1891, the club secured a permit for a ten-story building at 12 South Michigan Avenue; construction cost was forecast to be $200,000. To assure a distinctive and compatible design, the Association called upon one of its members, the architect Henry Ives Cobb. (Cobb was only one of the club’s original leading lights, which included Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormick, and many others.)

As part of their training, hotel staff are filled in about the building’s history and encouraged to share it with guests. We learned that when the site and its residential surroundings had been destroyed by the Chicago Fire of 1871, they were replaced by commercial buildings rising on the west side of Michigan Avenue north to the Chicago river. It was a desirable location. Historical precedent assured that the land to the east would remain undeveloped, letting abundant natural light stream into buildings across the street. Cobb’s Venetian Gothic Revival façade, a style used only rarely among new Chicago construction of the time, gave the building a distinctive presence on the Avenue. Suggesting the Doges’ Palace in Venice, it combines elements of Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish architectural styles. Its luxurious decoration, inside and out, communicates power administered with a deft and sensitive hand.

Fireplace

As lifelong architecture buffs, we knew that by the mid-1880s, steel framing, elevators and other new technologies had given Cobb and other architects in Chicago, New York and elsewhere the ability to build taller, safer buildings. The Chicago Athletic Association and its neighbors were built on the west side of Michigan Avenue, facing Grant Park; this area, now the site of world-renowned Millennium Park, was adjacent to the downtown business area, which became known as The Loop for the elevated train tracks that encircled it. As Chicago’s business community grew and the Association’s membership expanded, two sections were added to the original headquarters—a twelve-story annex in 1906–1907, and a seven-story addition, built in 1926. These later portions embody the restrained and more typical Chicago Commercial style.

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Yearbook celebrates authenticity, and we had done some homework before our stay. We were pleased to note that, over the years, revolving doors and removable canopies appeared to be the only significant changes made to the building’s façade; interior changes were limited to new finishes on ceilings and floors.  Much of the original woodwork, ornamentation, and traffic flow are intact, which is unusual for a structure of the hotel’s size, age and history of heavy use. Other take-your-breath-away details of the restoration include stained glass windows, mosaic-tiled floors, floor-to-ceiling fireplaces, and original light fixtures and chandeliers.

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Along with a bit of history, the staff like to share historical gossip. Originally a restaurant and private dining club for the club’s exclusively male membership, the Cherry Circle Room retains back bars from the1890s. The room had arched, semicircular bay windows; from the outside, they appeared to have been filled in, but the club’s interior was visible through the windows of the building next door. Legend has it that this gave club members’ suspicious wives a perch where they could spy on their spouses and return home with “Gotcha!” to the men who liked to sneak their girlfriends into the Cherry Circle Room through the fire escape door.

Women weren’t completely excluded from the club’s activities, however. They were invited to Sunday afternoon concerts, and on Wednesdays were welcome in the main dining room, which gleamed with polished oak paneling and glistened with the incandescent lights in the carved stucco ceiling. An annual Ladies’ Day included sporting exhibitions in which the wives took part.

Today, the hotel’s huge game room includes its original bocce ball court, along with game tables and a bar. The athletic theme extends to the guest rooms—each has a built-in desk with a rack above composed of leather straps; in many rooms, the bench at the foot of the bed suggests a pommel horse.

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One story that’s a favorite with staff and guests alike tells of the hotel’s connection to the Chicago Cubs. Over the years, the club’s logo, proudly and colorfully displaced in the Cherry Circle Room, took on a second life as a beloved Chicago icon.  In 1916, during the Great War, the colors of the thick-banded C in a solid circle on a white background were changed to red, white, and blue, reflecting the patriotic spirit of the time.  When William Wrigley Jr., a club member, purchased the Chicago Cubs, the team adopted the Cherry Circle as its logo, which has not changed to this day.

In 1931, with falling membership a result of the Great Depression, the Association became a social club; membership slowly but steadily declined until the club was forced to close in 2007.

Cindys

If the Chicago Athletic Association is no more, its building definitely is. Although the hotel has been open less than a year, the masterful renovation by Roman and Williams has already gained favorable publicity in print and social media and substantial praise through word-of-mouth. With its five-star location overlooking Millennium Park from the new rooftop restaurant, Cindy’s, and as long as Chicago remains the attraction it has proved to be among tourists from around the world, the future of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel appears to be secure.