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The Chicago Hotels of Architect Clinton J. Warren
In a four-year span from 1889 to 1893, architect Clinton J. Warren designed five major Chicago hotels, including two that would later become headquarters for gangster Al Capone. Architectural critic and expert on the Chicago School of architecture Carl W. Condit called Warren “the acknowledged leader among the architects of hotels and apartments.” While some of these glamorous and significant buildings survived well into the second half of the 20th Century, only one still stands today.
Clinton J. Warren was born in Massachusetts in 1860, and made his way to Chicago in 1879. He began his architectural career with the firm of Burnham and Root in 1880, and by 1886 left to begin his own firm. One of Warren’s prominent early buildings still standing today is the gothic limestone Church of Our Savior (1888) at 530 W. Fullerton Avenue in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
In addition to his early 1890s hotels and apartments, Warren designed the impressive Unity Building at 127 N. Dearborn Street. The building stood for nearly 100 years on what would become known as Block 37 in Downtown Chicago, across the street from the future Daley Center Plaza. In 1895, Warren was one of the top candidates to build an enormous Federal Building and Post Office on the block bounded by Dearborn, Adams, Clark, and Jackson. The contract to design the building went to Henry Ives Cobb; ironically, it would be the site of the courtroom where Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931.
In the late 1890s, Warren returned to his native Massachusetts and set up a more modest architectural practice that designed many commercial and industrial buildings in the Boston area, on the East Coast, and in a few international locations. Through the early part of the 20th Century, Warren’s once impressive reputation faded in Chicago architectural circles. But nothing he produced in Boston matched the drama, elegance, and significance of his early work in Chicago.
The Virginia Hotel (1889-90)
The Virginia Hotel was a ten-story building on the northwest corner of Ohio and Rush Streets, built in 1889 and opened in 1890. A 36-page advertising booklet touting the hotel to visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 showcased its elegance, including numerous statues, parlors, smoking rooms, dining rooms, stained glass windows, separate men’s and women’s entrances, and every manner of Victorian elegance.
Commissioned by Leander McCormick (younger brother and business partner of mechanical reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick), the hotel was billed as having a 200-foot frontage on Ohio Street and a 100 foot frontage-- with a Ladies’ entrance-- on Rush Street. The hotel contained 400 rooms and was advertised as being absolutely fireproof. Elaborate ironwork awnings stretched from the entrances to the curb. Three McCormick mansions (for Leander, his son Robert, and Cyrus McCormick) were situated two blocks to the north at Erie and Rush Streets.
Prior to 1900, Rush Street was a desirable upper-income residential neighborhood. With improvements in bridge technology and reliability crossing the Chicago River and conversion of Pine Street into the present-day configuration of North Michigan Avenue, the near North Side became a busy commercial and retail center. The aging hotel was demolished 1929, at the height of the building boom in the Michigan Avenue corridor.
The Metropole Hotel (1891)
The Metropole Hotel was built on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and 23rd Street in 1891. The hotel was eight stories, with bay windows, and measured 100 feet of frontage on Michigan Avenue and 180 feet on 23rd Street. The hotel featured numerous light wells and rounded corners, which became a trademark in Warren hotels and apartments.
When constructed in the early 1890s, the area was an attractive residential and thriving commercial strip. But by the early 1900s, vice and criminal elements had settled in to the Levee District just a few blocks to the north and west of the hotel. With the winking approval of crooked aldermen and mayors, a vice and nightlife district was already thriving in the area near the hotel by the time Prohibition dramatically increased the amount of money flowing into organized crime outfits. Clubs like Colosimo’s (at 2126 S. Wabash, a block and a half away), and Four Dueces (at 2222 S. Wabash, just around the corner from the Metropole) made a seamless transition into speakeasies, and attracted ever more ruthless criminals.
One such gangster was Brooklyn-born Al Capone, who moved to Chicago within months of the imposition of the Volsted Act. By 1925, Capone had risen through the ranks and took control of a thriving South Side vice and bootlegging gang, and he set up his headquarters in a group of rooms at the Metropole.
As the Capone operation grew in size, complexity and income, the gang needed additional space. In 1928, Capone moved his headquarters a block and a half north on Michigan Avenue to the Lexington Hotel. In 1927, 22nd Street had been widened into a Boulevard, and the Lexington was now situated at the intersection of two major streets. Capone took a corner suite on the fifth floor of the Lexington with a view of Michigan Avenue and 22nd Street.
Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931, and Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Amid the Great Depression, these two events took much of the money and power out of the neighborhood. The Michigan Avenue strip from 18th Street to 26th Street—known as Motor Row—also suffered as fewer people had money to buy automobiles. After the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair at nearby Burnham Park, the neighborhood went into steady, sometimes sharp decline.
By the early 1960s, the Metropole had declined along with the neighborhood. It became a hotel serving mostly transient laborers and anyone who could scrape up a few bucks for a room for the night. The Metropole was closed in 1975, and demolished in 1994.
The Plaza Hotel (1891-92)
Perhaps the most quintessential Warren hotel, the Plaza was built from 1891-92 at 1553 N. Clark Street, at the southeast corner of Clark and North Avenue. The Plaza was an eight-story hotel with 100-foot frontage on North Avenue and 225 feet of frontage on Clark Street. The hotel was erected in three sections separated by light wells, with oriels and bay windows providing additional light, breezes and views.
Architectural historian Carl W. Condit wrote that the Plaza “follows closely the plan, exterior form, and general functional arrangement of the two Michigan Avenue buildings (the Metropole and the Lexington). … The uniformity and the regularity of the street elevations make this hotel one of Warrren’s best.”
Like Warren’s other work, particularly the Metropole, Lexington, and Kenmore Apartments (at 47th and Lake Park), the hotel prominently featured six of Warren’s trademark rounded, cylindrical corners along Clark Street, which extended turret windows from the second floor to the flat, corniced roofline. Unlike several of Warren’s other buildings, the hotel was situated on the northwest edge of one of Chicago’s wealthiest and most desirable neighborhoods—the Gold Coast—and afforded its guests excellent views of the lake and Lincoln Park.
The fortunate positioning of the hotel in a stable neighborhood allowed it to be more economically successful throughout its life. Ernest Hemingway courted his first wife Elizabeth Hadley Richardson at the Plaza shortly before they moved to Paris in the early 1920s. The Hemingways had their honeymoon at another Warren building, the nearby Virginia Hotel. Even as other Warren hotels suffered from age and neglect after World War II, the Plaza remained a mostly respectable hotel until its final years.
In the mid-1960s, a large urban residential redevelopment projected called Sandburg Village to the south and west of the hotel changed the dynamic of the area. The land and prominent corner that the Plaza occupied became more valuable than the aging facility could sustain. In 1968, the Plaza was demolished; the Latin School, an exclusive Catholic college prep school was built on the site.
The Lexington Hotel (1892)
The luxurious Lexington Hotel was opened in 1892 in anticipation of the World’s Columbian Exposition, just four blocks from Chicago’s prestigious Prairie Avenue mansions—home to most of Chicago’s wealthy captains of industry. One of the Lexington’s first noteworthy guests was President Benjamin Harrison, who stayed there in early 1893 while dedicating the World’s Fair.
As the prestige of the neighborhood rapidly declined in the early part of the 20th Century—thanks in large part to the brothels and gangster element growing only a few blocks to the north and west of the hotel-- the 10-story hotel held its own. Benefiting from its proximity to prohibition-era nightlife, downtown business, the Chicago Coliseum, Comiskey Park, and nearby transit and train stations, the Lexington was still an architectural jewel in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly oriented to light industry.
Gangster Al Capone relocated his headquarters two blocks north to the Lexington from the Metropole Hotel in 1928, taking up residence with his henchmen on the fourth and fifth floors. Capone’s personal suite was at the southwest corner of the building, on the fifth floor—providing him with a rounded window that afforded him a view of Michigan Avenue and 22nd Street. His suite featured a pea-green and lavender tiled bathroom; his gang, security staff, an exclusive kitchen, and a personal dining room occupied the rest of the fifth floor.
Capone was convicted of tax evasion on October 17, 1931 and sentenced to an 11-year term in federal prison, instantly eliminating a major hotel tenant and placing a cloud of ill-repute over the hotel as the Great Depression worsened. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many of the nearby nightspots—such as Colisimo’s and the Four Deuces Club—immediately lost much of their former allure.
In 1938, seeking to change its image, the Lexington was renamed the New Michigan Hotel. But by then the glamour of Prairie Avenue was long gone, light industry had taken over the Michigan Avenue corridor, the nearby Coliseum had become a third-rate convention venue, and North Side development had shifted focus away from the South Loop’s aging facilities.
By the late 1960s, the New Michigan Hotel had becomea transient hotel in a neglected, impoverished neighborhood. In 1980, the last residents were expelled, and the hotel experienced a decade and a half of abandonment. The last hurrah for the former luxury palace that once housed Presidents was Geraldo Rivera’s April 21, 1986 TV special in which he unsuccessfully attempted to discover treasure in what was purported to be Al Capone’s secret vault.
The former Lexington Hotel was demolished in 1996 after several failed attempts at renovation by numerous entrepreneur owners.
The Auditorium Annex /Congress Hotel, 504 S. Michigan Avenue (1893)
Completed in 1893 to capitalize on trade for the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Auditorium Annex was built as a complement to Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Hotel on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Street. The Auditorium Annex became the closest major hotel at the time to two large train stations; Dearborn Station and Illinois Central Station were both just five blocks away. It was also the southernmost major hotel in Downtown Chicago, and just a block and a half away from the elevated train station that whisked visitors to the fairgrounds in Jackson Park. Additions in 1902 and 1907 made the hotel--- renamed The Congress Hotel in 1909—one of the largest and most posh hotels in the city at the time.
In the latter part of the first decade of the 20th Century, a spate of newer hotels soon overshadowed the Congress. The LaSalle (1909), Blackstone (1910), and a new Sherman House (1911) were built, stealing luster and locational advantage from the Congress. In the 1920s, another group of large, luxurious hotels—the Drake (1920), Palmer House (1925), Morrison (1925), and Stevens (1927)-- further relegated the Congress to second-class status. Also, unlike the other great hotels built in Chicago from 1907-1927, the Congress had a mediocre lobby and drab entrance.
Yet the prime location and high quality of the Congress’ construction allowed the hotel to muddle through many of the financial difficulties encountered by hotels built just prior to the Great Depression. The Congress was the first hotel in Chicago—and one of the first buildings of any kind in the city-- to have air conditioning. In late 1935, native son Benny Goodman shot to national stardom as a result of his nationally-broadcast dance music radio shows from The Urban Room at the Congress. His six-month gig in Chicago garnered national attention (including articles in Time magazine), and propelled Goodman to the title of the "King of Swing."
Since World War II, the Congress has gone through many ownership groups, but has managed to survive by maintaining a respectable level of maintenance and being a low-cost alternative to other hotels. The widening of Congress Parkway in the early 1950s into the grand entrance to the city from Grant Park (as envisioned in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago) has only elevated the hotel’s desirable location.
Clinton J. Warren died on March 17, 1938 in San Diego, California. His obituary in the New York Times the following day made no mention at all of his training with Daniel Burnham, his influence on Chicago architecture, Al Capone, or his numerous prominent buildings over two decades in Chicago.