Updated: May 11, 2020
Chicago, the third most populated city in the United States was founded in 1833 with a population of around 200. Today there are an estimated 2.7million people living in the city, situated in the state of Illinois on the shores of the giant Lake Michigan.
I’m back in the ‘Windy City’ (a nickname associated with Chicago, which to my surprise is not actually about the weather but thought by many, to be because of it’s ‘full-of-hot-air politicians’ back in the 1870’s) on a hot 86 degree June day for a short stay.
If like me you’ve only got a 72-hour tour of this great US city, here’s a little taste of seeing a side to Chicago most tour guides wont tell you about.
WHERE TO SLEEP?
Chicago has 1000’s of hotels on offer with the usual collection of high-end luxury hotels such as The Langham, Westin and even a Trump Hotel to budget conscious traveller chains such as Holiday Inn and Travelodge.
For me though, I recommend staying in a little piece of Chicago history, The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. Situated on South Michigan Avenue, directly across from the city’s millennium Park, the building was constructed in 1893.
Due to the Great Fire of Chicago, the building was delayed in its completion but its position on the early development of Michigan Avenue was encouraged due to local authorities wanting picturesque towers lining the important city thoroughfare.
Designed by Chicago-based architect Henry Ives Cobb, the 250 ft Venetian Gothic tower (inspired by the Doge Palace in Venice) was established to “Provide a Setting for Athletic, Business and Social Activities.”
Think of it as a private members club of wealthy business owners reserved only for the elite social gentlemen of Chicago. When it opened it had 3000 members and a 10 year waiting list.
As you enter the building you are greeted by colourful mosaic tile flooring, stained glass windows, Corinthian style columns and intricate crown mouldings. The interiors are influenced by the Art Nouveau movement that came to America around the time of the building’s construction, mostly thanks to architect’s Louis H. Sullivan and Richard Morris Hunt.
To the left is the Shake Shack restaurant, a casual dining venue serving burgers, hot dogs and (rather strangely) frozen custard shakes. Originally the site of the club’s men’s Turkish baths, the room features soaring wooden ceilings and vast amounts of white marble.
As I ventured through the entrance hall I arrived at the stunning grand central staircase. The black and white checkerboard tiles and the gold crown moulded ceiling create a real contrast to the bright white marble of the staircase. Amazingly one-third of the ceiling was destroyed over the years and during the restoration process, plaster artisans were able to remove intact parts of the original ceiling and create moulds to recreate the damaged section.
Behind the staircase was originally the club’s swimming pool, nicknamed ‘The Tank’. The swimming pool is now covered over, featuring the clubs logo at the centre and is used as an event space.
Stylish large Chesterfield sofas, green felt wing back chairs and tan-leather armchairs are grouped in large sectional seating areas within the main lobby area. Restored lighting with Edison bulbs were purposely chosen by the designers as the bulbs debuted at the 'Columbian Exposition' which took place shortly before the buildings completion.
The furniture is in a traditional style but with a modern edge, making the room feel funky rather than dowdy. You can imagine the fine gentlemen of the day, sat smoking their cigars, drinking whiskey and discussing their latest business dealings.
The Drawing Room is a perfect area for socialising with friends and family and when I visited on a hot Sunday afternoon it was full of "hispsters" enjoying drinks in the relaxed atmosphere of this sophisticated but fashionable lounge area.
A small room off from the Drawing Room is the Milk Room, named after its past as a Prohibition-era speakeasy (when everyone just drank “milk”) it is now an eight-seat intimate bar that serves rare vintage spirits, whiskeys and cocktails. The bar is available by reservation only and has a refined menu of shared plates from Executive Chef Pete Coenen.
On the second floor the hotel offers the vast Game Room, as its name suggests, this social space is jam-packed with shuffleboard, foosball, bocce, billiards, checkers, chess, and more. A playful menu of American street food classics like burgers and chicken wings accompany the drinks.
The Chicago Athletic Association Hotel features a full service restaurant, named after the original restaurant of the club, the Cherry Circle Room. Inspired by the original opening menus from the 1890’s, Executive Chef Pete Coenen has created dishes that are regional classics and only use seasonal ingredients, with the ethos of American farm-to-table products.
Featuring hand-made brown leather studded booths by a local tannery, cherry wood paneled walls and covered windows, the former men’s lounge was rumoured to be designed this way so people (or possibly their wives) from street level couldn’t see who the members were dining with (ooo er!)