Blackstone Hotel
636 S. Michigan Ave.

Blackstone Hotel

2003 NB

Below is my September 20, 2001 story in the Chicago Journal. The Maharishi Fund has since abandoned the renovation project after selling only one unit, and the building was put up for sale in the summer of 2003. The priciest units had been listed at $8 million each; now you can have the whole building for $35 million.

For now, history is written in pencil, on a hand-written sign. Posted on a makeshift plywood door frame inside the Blackstone Hotel building, the note warns construction workers of their surroundings: "Historic Site, Do Not Demolish."

And while the history made inside the former high-end Michigan Avenue hotel right now lies dormant, efforts to convert the building into luxury residences are conjuring the ghosts of American presidents. Located at Michigan and Balbo, the Blackstone hosted a dozen U.S. presidents before it was shuttered in 1998 due to code violations. And if you've got $7.95 million, the Blackstone's Presidential Suite--where Commanders-in-Chief ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter kicked off their shoes--could be yours.

Or maybe you'd prefer the Smoke-filled Room--the original smoke-filled room. Located on the Blackstone's eighth floor, the Smoke-filled Room got its name--and launched a cliche--in 1920. Politicos who had gathered in town for the Republican National Convention convened a private meeting to choose Warren G. Harding as the party's nominee. As the meeting ended, and the king-makers came shuffling out of the room, so too did a cloud of cigar smoke. A reporter from the Associated Press was standing nearby and wired a dispatch that read: "Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room." Thus was born an American political saw.

"A lot of American politics happened here, not just Chicago politics," said Kathryn Greco, during a tour of the building last week. "It's really special."

Along with her husband John, Greco is co-director of the Chicago office of the Maharishi Global Development Fund, the group that owns the Blackstone building and is overseeing its transition from hotel to homes.

One floor up from the Smoke-filled Room, the Grecos showed off the Presidential Suite--a set of three rooms that served as the Second City's presidential headquarters from 1910 until President Carter's last stay. A plaque on the wall lists those who've spent the night away from the White House.

One of the three marquee units in the building (along with the Smoke-filled Room and the Crystal Ballroom), the Presidential Suite will become part of a sprawling 7,000 square foot home occupying almost all of the ninth floor. In addition to four bedrooms and four-and-a-half baths, the condominium will have three walk-in closets inside the master bedroom and will boast a living room 35 feet long by 18 feet wide, which will claim one of the most enviable views of Buckingham Fountain in the city.

The old gathering room of the Presidential Suite will become a library, while the former presidential bedroom will serve as the dining room. The original dining room will be converted to a parlor. According to John Greco, the entire suite will be under special protection.

"What we agreed to do was put a covenant on these rooms," he said. "Future buyers have to maintain these rooms. We got very specific about what that involves. The fireplaces will be as they were, the walls will be where they were. Aside from a few things like furnishings, the room will be as it was."

Even at almost $8 million, Greco said he's already had "a very significant number of people interested" in buying a piece of local history. Owners will have to wait until late 2002 before moving in.

The renovation is an arduous process, Greco said, not just because the Blackstone building is now more than 90 years old but because the Maharishi Global Development Fund is steeped in the teachings of transcendental mediation and is taking a number of unusual steps to control the building's environment. In an effort to make the building, and the individual units, as serene as possible, the developer will be installing an air transfer system meant to keep stale air from one apartment from leaking into another. Rather than using electric stoves in the kitchen, gas units will be installed, a move aimed at "minimizing electromagnetic fields," according to Greco. The carpet will be all wool, Kathryn Greco said, and no toxic glues will be used in securing the wool to the floor.

The center of the new Blackstone's futuristic setup will be an "intelligence suite," which will provide the headquarters for the building's digital technology and teleconferencing.

"The building will combine everything: the history, the beauty of the building, the eco-friendliness, and the technology," Kathryn Greco said. "It's exciting to lift it into the 21st Century."

The quest for modernity goes along with maintaining the hotel's historical reputation for luxury, she said. Designed by architect Benjamin Marshall on the site of railroad baron Timothy Blackstone's mansion, the Blackstone Hotel set the early-20th century standard for upscale accommodations. Adorned in the lavish Modern French style of Beaux Arts, the building employs ornate detail on exterior columns and interior walls in marble, crystal, and French walnut wood.

"The wealthy had not had a hotel like this," Kathryn Greco said, noting that at 23 stories, the building was something of a giant in its day.

"It was referred to as a mansion in the sky," she said. "It was a very grand place. It helped to put Chicago on the map."

Rich as the place is with history--the Blackstone Hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and was landmarked by the city in 1998 shortly before its closing--maybe it's appropriate that a former history professor is heading the building's renovation. John Greco, it just so happens, used to teach history at Syracuse.

"I taught this for years, talked about the smoke-filled room," he said. "I came here to look at the building about a year ago, and remembered that this was the site, so I asked to see it. It's interesting to be in this environment."

"It's probably the only private building where two presidents were selected," Greco said.

In fact, the second left a larger mark on history than the first. In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt, calling from his whistle stop train, was told by an aide calling from makeshift party headquarters in Blackstone suite 708-09 that stubborn fellow guest Harry Truman was reluctant to be nominated as FDR's running mate. The president blasted back, "Well you tell him if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of the war and maybe lose that war, that's up to him."

"Roosevelt convinced Truman," John Greco said. "One month after the inauguration, Roosevelt died, and Truman became president. The actual decision to go with him happened here.”

-More about the Blackstone Hotel from the Chicago Landmarks Division


© Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma