I must admit that I made my reservation at the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel with slight misgivings. More than one major travel publication has heralded it as “Chicago’s hottest new hotel,” but after my stay in the city’s beautifully designed but self-satisfied Soho House, which competes for the same demographic, I had doubts that the service would match the remarkable architecture.
I have long admired the Venetian Gothic building, which wouldn’t look out of place along the Grand Canal if it were a few stories shorter. Architect Henry Ives Cobb, who also designed the city’s Romanesque Newberry Library, completed the Chicago Athletic Association’s headquarters in 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition. Inside, all-male members enjoyed access to Turkish baths, a swimming pool, various ornate lounges ideal for networking and a tucked-away restaurant, complete with a secret entrance for members’ mistresses and some soundproof phone booths for calling one’s wife at home.
The association folded in 2007, and for a time, it appeared as though this extraordinary building might be partially dismantled. Fortunately, John Pritzker, son of the founder of Hyatt Hotels and a Chicago preservationist, stepped in. His deep-pocketed company, Geolo Capital, spent an undisclosed (but unquestionably vast) sum of money restoring the interior starting in 2012, and the 241-room hotel opened to the public in May 2015.
The public spaces are nothing short of extraordinary. On the ground floor, the Turkish baths now house what must be the world’s most ornate Shake Shack. A grand staircase leads from the marble-clad entry hall up to the palatial lobby lounge, a triumphant German-American interpretation of high Venetian décor. Gothic flourishes decorate dark wood paneling on the walls and columns, and in between leaded-glass windows surmounted by ogee arches, Gothic spires top niches housing athletic trophies. Numerous seating groups stand on the mosaic-tile floor, with stylish mixes of pieces such as leather chesterfields and mid-century modern wingback armchairs. A screen of arches festooned with tracery separates the main lounge from a cozy library with more seating. I sat at a table by the windows one afternoon to catch up on some writing, expecting not to be noticed amid the numerous people working on their laptops. But a waiter came by almost immediately and promptly brought over a glass of wine and a snack of aromatically spiced olives.
I also had a delicious snack of crispy breaded-fish tacos in the Game Room, the club’s former billiard room, where Jack Dempsey once boxed. Now young patrons amuse themselves with pool, table shuffleboard, Foosball and bocce on a full-length court. Illuminated with numerous globe pendant chandeliers, this space also has rich period details, including carved-wood capitals and ceiling beams. A row of backlit pool cues stands above the bar, to the left of which is the tucked-away entrance of the Cherry Circle Room, the club’s former dining room.
The restaurant retains its stylish 1950s décor, with a long curve of a bar backed by a sweep of wood cabinets, and deep booths upholstered in Horween leather (used in professional baseball gloves). I was impressed by the unusually thoughtful list of wines by the glass, including little-known gems from the Finger Lakes, Burgenland and Galicia. Our appetizers of French onion soup and octopus with romesco sauce were delicious, and I could find little fault with our sweet and savory main courses of kabocha squash ravioli topped with braised oxtail, and lacquered duck with elderflower-spiked ancient grains. For dessert, we opted to have some Maker’s Mark pecan pie topped with coffee ice cream at Cindy’s, the hotel’s conservatory-like rooftop bar, which has a terrace affording sensational views of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan.
Our masculine Millennium Junior Suite on the fifth floor had similar views, framed by swoops of the Gothic tracery decorating the façade. A black leather sofa and two walnut-hued leather club chairs stood in front of the windows, and a wooden gym ladder rose above the writing desk. The nightstands flanking the plush king bed continued the sports theme, with legs wrapped in tennis racket handle leather. And two fleece boxing-inspired robes hung in the striking black-and-white-tile bath, with well-lit vanities surrounded by Carrara marble. Note that most accommodations don’t have park and lake views. Avoid the small Classic and Superior rooms entirely, and verify your view in advance.
While I enjoyed our stay at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, this property is clearly not for everyone. Service is attentive but very casual: Staff members address guests by their first names, and lobby waiters wear jeans and Converse sneakers. On evenings and weekends, the public areas and restaurants draw locals as well as hotel guests, resulting in an energetic and trendy atmosphere, not one of refined tranquility. But I failed to muster the irritation I ordinarily feel in such situations because the staff had won me over. They routinely asked for feedback and diligently dealt with even minor issues that I had no expectation they would address. Young-at-heart guests who find my other recommended hotels to be too formal will likely be quite pleased with the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. It’s an extraordinary work of architecture in what is arguably the best location in the city.
The carefully restored architecture; the stylish and elaborately ornate décor; the fine restaurant; the central location.
The post-work crowds; signs of wear in the hallways’ paint; our shower-tub combo; feeling a little old among 30- and 40-something guests.
The hotel has a fitness center but no spa; in-room treatments can be arranged. Anyone can take a fascinating free tour of the building, departing at 2 p.m. from the ground floor entry hall Monday-Saturday.