The History and Revival of Chicago's Blackstone Hotel
By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | October 2008
There was a time when the name said it all: In New York, New York, it was the Waldorf. In San Francisco, California, it was the Fairmount. In Atlanta, Georgia, it was the Winecoff. In McAllen, Texas, it was Casa de Palmas. And in Garden City, Kansas, it was the Windsor.
These names quite simply represented "the place". It was THE place to stay, THE place to have dinner, THE place to have a wedding. They represented unsurpassed quality in reputation, service and architecture. And as important, they represented the community's sense of arrival - a first class place for visitors to stay, for residents to socialize. In today's vernacular, these hotels then were the grand dames of the communities.
Sadly, the aging grand dames have had a poor survival rate. Beginning with the Depression and into the postwar America, these hotels were less grand dames and more like aging dinosaurs. With elaborately designed spaces, to stay on top, these hotels required a steady influx of money to keep them running. Maintenance and upkeep is expensive and the maintenance of expensive settings is even more expensive. Yet, the go-go years of the 1920s seduced many hotel owners to refinance their properties to fund expansion. With the collapse of the American economy in 1929, money dried up. The Depression undermined the business and excursions travel market. It undermined the market for social gatherings. And it left many hotel owners overextended with their mortgage payments. There simply wasn't money to reinvest in maintenance and upkeep. Most had few options other than to rest on their reputation.
Following World War II, the U.S. economy boomed and boomed big. Yet, it also represented a time of a fundamental shift in the hotel market and in our cities. American fell in love with the automobile. Real estate investment, including hotel investment, drifted out of the downtown into the suburbs. Vacationers and business travelers alike were drawn to properties like Howard Johnson and later Holiday Inn, motels which offered standardize modern quality in an auto-friendly environment. As investment moved out, downtown cores became fraught with dilapidated buildings and unsavory street environments. Some buildings went the way of the wrecking ball, leaving a surface parking lot in its place. Most often, the buildings that suffered most were the single-use properties, such as the great movie palaces of the 1920s.
So too did the grand dames suffer. More and more, they were viewed as white elephants with no future. Built in an earlier era, these buildings suffered from decaying conditions and a nearly auto-adverse design. Many didn't even have parking. And as the 1950s became the 1960s, this downward cycle continued, accelerated in part by building codes favoring new construction. In time, these buildings slide down the economic scale. If they survived, they trended towards low-rent hotels, or were adapted for senior housing, or even just remained vacant while the ground floors were adapted for retail.