I sometimes get invited to lunch by executives who want to discuss topics on my watch or suss me out as a possible speaker at their meetings. One delightfully odd meeting took me to the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton. I didn’t know who my host would be; an intermediary set it up. When I walked in, I was waved to a table by an elderly gentleman already halfway through his herbed omelet. The first time I heard his name was when the waiter addressed him familiarly. My host’s residence was a suite of rooms high in the hotel and, when he was home, his meals were taken in the Ritz’s restaurants. Or, I assumed, delivered to his room by servers who set the table and governed the curtains. My host explained that he spent nearly 300 days a year flying and usually ate on planes, but that while he was in Chicago, the hotel kept rooms tidy, let him come and go as he pleased, eat whenever his jetlagged appetite demanded, and enjoy crisp linens and Euro-pillows. It likely cost a few tens of thousands of dollars a month, but it left him unencumbered. His life was rare, exotic and, except for the thought of all those meals alone, stirred in me every niggle of envy.
The memory of that visit followed me when I walked into the renewed splendor of the newly renovated Belden-Stratford. It’s the mansard-roofed, high-rise, Second Empire queen that hugs so close to Lincoln Park that its residents are awakened by the morning howls of the red wolves in the zoo across the road. Built in 1923, it was one of a collection of large residential hotels that grew up in Chicago in the decades before The Great Depression. If living in a hotel seems rare today, it was once surprisingly commonplace in American cities. Author Paul Groth, in his excellent “Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States,” notes that Americans have been living in hotels for over 200 years. The zenith of the residential hotel building boom, however, lasted from the 1880s to the late 1920s. The hotels continued to be homes to millions for decades after.
Today, it may be hard to comprehend just how big a role residential hotels played in the lives of Chicagoans and other city dwellers around the United States. The Belden-Stratford was one of a string of hotels developed by Gustav Gottschalk, a Milwaukee-born livestock broker who moved to Chicago to buy land and build. By the early 1920s he was building a string of large residential hotels in Lakefront neighborhoods. These include the Jackson Shore Apartments at 5490 South Shore (still a premium apartment building) in Hyde Park, the Shoreland, also on South Shore in Hyde Park and three luxe apartment hotels in Lincoln Park: The Parkway, The Webster and The Belden. (The hotel added “Stratford” later, a nod to the statue of The Bard across the street in the park that classed up the name.) The Lincoln Park trio of hotels were all developed by Gottschalk with his partner and architect-of-record, Meyer Fridstein, a University of Wisconsin-trained structural engineer who moved to Chicago from Milwaukee for the make-no-small-plans enterprise.
The affluent were just part of the market. Nearly every economic class had residential hotels pitched their way. At the bottom of the market were the downtown flophouses, such as those west of Chicago’s train stations. A vast middle market existed, and endured, too. In the 1920s, Chicago’s downtown YMCA’s largely residential hotel had 2,700 rooms. Even in the late 1980s, the YMCA and YWCA, which owned large residential hotels in cities across the nation, were together the third-largest hotel chain in the world. Writing in 1984, Paul Goldberger, the longtime architecture critic at the New York Times, noted that a cozy unit in an apartment hotel made for New York’s perfect pied-à-terre. “They exist in a kind of in-between world,” Goldberger wrote. “They offer services far beyond those of most apartment buildings, since they have traditionally appealed to those who… did not maintain traditional households. So the small, well-located apartment that comes with maid service, phone message service and perhaps even a restaurant or dining room on the premises… clearly fulfills the prescription for the ideal pied-à-terre.”
Groth notes that in the year 1990, two million Americans still lived in hotels, more than the total who lived in public housing.
The Belden-Stratford’s presale brochure from the early 1920s spelled out its appeal. “In his own apartment the guest and his family have everything that could possibly be secured in the most modern private home, including a fully equipped kitchen and its service, and in addition he has at his call at all times the highest specialized service of the most efficient and carefully trained hotel organization.” And, thank goodness, no nettlesome domestics! The brochure pledged residents would be “entirely rid of the servant problem, of all the petty details and annoyances incident to operations of one’s own home.” And for significantly less than the price of owning and running a servant-filled home of one’s own. “The high cost of fuel, food and other commodities coupled with the desire of this class of people to be relieved of various home inconveniences is about a change in the mode of living. Servants mean more rooms and more food. In an apartment hotel a family can live as comfortable in a five or six room apartment as they can in a very large private residence.”
The Belden-Stratford seems to have played a particularly large and important role in Chicago’s Jewish community. Looking through the social pages in back issues of The Sentinel, a long-running but now defunct magazine serving Jewish Chicago, most issues, across eighty-five years, have references to Jewish families either moving into the hotel, or holding important events or meetings there. Groth resurrects telling passages from the work of Chicago School sociologist Louis Wirth. Writing in “The Ghetto” (1928), Wirth noted that Chicago’s predominantly Jewish hotels offered both an escape from Jewish neighborhoods and a place to land where Jews could mingle with a cosmopolitan clientele that included non-Jews. The Belden seems to have been part of the “Jewish Hotel Row” where rooms were often let to businessmen with wives and children. The social pages of The Sentinel regularly mention Jewish families moving in. Some, like one young North Shore widow, came to spend a season in the city away from their suburban homes.
America’s downtown residential hotels were often vital transitional homes. They promised connections to the social life of the city in a high-rise home suitable to the Biedermeier-chair class and to a more freewheeling lifestyle. Hollywood and Broadway reinforced this dual nature of the hotels. Think of the posh hotel scenes where Broadway composers try out new songs for their glamorous stars. Or Cole Porter at the piano in his sweeping suite at The Waldorf. Today, the promoters of the Belden-Stratford have adopted as a mascot and muse the once-scandalous movie star Gloria Swanson, who was sometimes resident at the hotel while performing onstage in Chicago.
The Belden-Stratford Hotel offered more sober escapes, too. As The Sentinel entries approach the era of Nazi power in Europe, they mention families that relocated to the Belden-Stratford. Judging from the pages, some Jewish refugees from Berlin and other Central European troublespots landed at the hotel. They must have been well-to-do. A 1937 Sentinel ad for the Belden-Stratford offered rooms starting at $125 a month, roughly equivalent to $2,650 today, which is slightly more than the current cost to rent a studio apartment in the renovated building.
The Belden-Stratford remained in part a residential hotel until 2012, after which it was a standard rental building. The building is hard to miss. It was built at a time when Chicago developers seemed broadly willing to try any style from any period in history. Often, as in the Belden-Stratford which aped Second Empire on the outside and Louis XIV on the inside, multiple historic styles were designed into the same building. Architects and engineers of the era borrowed liberally from thick professional reference books and folios and periodicals that illustrated vernacular building styles over the ages, portraying in minute detail structural and decorative elements and design motifs sketched, and etched, from emblematic structures from throughout the ages. They served designers in an age when Americans yearned for European-style buildings, but designers themselves weren’t especially well-traveled.
For today’s restorers of buildings of the era, the old reference works fill in gaps—and even provide clues to a building’s first color schemes—where original drawings are lost and photos are lacking. Such was the case for the team that worked on returning the Belden-Stratford to glory. In his original design for the building, Fridstein combined modern steel frame construction for the high-rise with a liberal cutting and pasting from the older styles that nevertheless express Fridstein’s own gifts for grandeur and balance. The building may have been highly derivative for its day, but today it stands out as a unique landmark in a much-changed cityscape. The Belden-Stratford rose in a feverish period of Roaring Twenties high-rise construction that came to a hard stop when The Great Depression all but halted big private projects. It also predates the postwar tyranny of taste for glass-box skyscrapers that Chicago’s variants of the International Style wrought on the city (and the world).
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I was met at the hotel in late June, on the kind of clear crisp day that leasing agents dream of, when the weather deserves half the commission. The park trees were lushly green and the many midday dog walkers and their pets strolled at a happy leisurely pace. At 2pm, the sun was so bright that the newly re-gilded curly “B”s adorning the Belden-Stratford exterior windows dazzled.
When I walked in, my eyes had not quite adjusted to the dimmer light of the soaring lobby. All I could see was the extensive sunlit gilding inside and the hall’s row of golden chandeliers. As the virtual house lights of my irises came up, the meticulously revived entrance revealed itself. It felt like the curtain going up on a big opening number. The renovation brings back the old-hotel feeling of the space, a reminder that buildings of this sort were the creature of America’s lost taste for residential hotels and the high-European styles that sold to the beau monde and its hopefuls.
I had been in the lobby of the Belden-Stratford before the restoration, just to make my way to the restaurants in the building. The space had been cut up for commerce and had lost most of its power to either welcome or impress. The newly restored main floor is back to its original, voluminous form, and it dazzles.The restoration added a classic illusion with a series of painted trompe-l’œil ceiling panels that push the otherwise flat-topped lobby into the heavens. The illusion was created on canvases painted in New York and attached to the flat ceiling to look like vaulted frescoes. The lovely effect is both Rococo and modern, the result of a workshop held by David Hockney and Fragonard, if the latter refrained from adding a swarm of cherubs. (Too bad!)
I was met near the door by Alex Krikhaar, an architect who is expert at restorations of prized historical sites and who steered the renovation of the Belden-Stratford. “I was taught at IIT in the Miesian tradition,” Krikhaar says, smiling wryly. “Now I am often working on buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. I collect old cars and I enjoy restoring them, too.” Krikhaar is a principal at Vinci Hamp Architects, one of two signature Chicago architecture firms, along with SCB, that worked on the project. The renovation was conceived by Joe Mansueto, the founder of financial information giant Morningstar, who also has a notable real estate portfolio (including the Wrigley Building, which his real estate firm also renovated) and who owns business-focused magazines and two professional soccer teams, the Chicago Fire and FC Lugano of Switzerland. Mansueto lived in the building in three different apartments in the 1980s, a period when Morningstar began its ascent from a small startup to financial media powerhouse. “I appreciated the sense of place and history that came with living in a building of its vintage, and the feeling of connection it gave me to Lincoln Park,” Mansueto writes in response to emailed questions. “Even after I moved away, I continued to admire it as an iconic Chicago landmark.”
In 2018, Mansueto’s real estate investment arm, Mansueto Office, bought the building for $106 million with the full intention of launching a major renovation. Few original drawings remained, leaving the architects to work backward from other sources. There were the standard references and some old photos. Beyond that there was detective work on the building itself, conducted in part by chipping and scraping to get to the structural and decorative elements that had been buried by prior efforts to reshape the interior to keep the building economically viable through changing markets.
Previous owners made attempts to maximize the rentable space in the building. That meant carving up units into smaller ones, stealing lobby real estate for businesses that paid rent, cutting through the main floor to create a concourse of shops and offices below, and closing off some of the building’s nicer spaces to create apartments. Mansueto himself lived in a unit that had been fashioned from a mezzanine lobby that overlooked Lincoln Park. Though he says that this was his favorite of the three apartments he occupied, that apartment is now gone and the lobby space, together with the windows which bring light into the bigger hall, restored. On my tour, Krikhaar points out the opulently gilded cornices and ceiling. The gilding, he says, is one of the details in which the renovation surpasses the original. The new effort applied real gold leaf; in the 1920s, Fridstein used a brass substitute, derisively dubbed “Dutch Gold.”
In the 1980s, the previous owners removed the former hotel’s ballroom and created two additional floors of apartments. It was a profitable insult in an economically shifting Chicago before Lincoln Park rents started their skyward climb. The big room has returned to its original dimensions, though its glamor is gone. Yet, the new, airy fitness room, once it’s filled with music, movement routines, and the potential to connect future life partners, may not be all that far in function from the old ballroom. In all, the building’s current iteration has 209 apartments, down from a peak of over 600. The new apartments are handsome late-model units, not easily distinguishable from new, clean, empty apartments in other upscale buildings. (What sets them apart are the views out onto the park and the city skyline.)
The Belden-Stratford also looks renewed from the street. Krikhaar notes that the building, like many of its era, was rich in decorative terra cotta. Much of it needed replacing and had to be recreated. “On the exterior,” he says, “all the windows were painted black. We scraped some of the windows at the top and saw that the original color was a teal blue.” The return of the blue is one of the most striking features of the refreshed exterior. “We replaced 1,200 windows and decided to replicate their original profile from the 1920s.”
The building comes with some amenities that are so up-to-date they harken back to the luxuries premium resident hotels offered in the 1920s. In addition to restored public spaces that allow residents to entertain outside their own units, there is a room filled with individual wine lockers where renters can store their best bottles. There’s a big media room for parties with a television screen large enough to do justice to Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”
In the 1920s, the city was dotted with white-glove garages, where a call would hasten an attendant to deliver one’s Packard to your building’s door. The new Belden-Stratford also offers a service that will deliver a car to borrow. It will meet you under the newly fabricated iron and glass Art Nouveau canopy at the entrance.
The ultra-luxe hotel residence has made a comeback recently, powered in part by international investors who buy condos attached to five-star franchises. The Belden-Stratford is no longer a posh residential hotel, but a high-end rental building. It won’t likely compete with modern residential hotels, and its residents will likely be more anchored in the city. Still, it may be hard to find a place to live in Chicago where the luxurious past and voluminous space of the residential hotel is closer at hand. The Ritz-Carlton may have great omelets and bellhops, but as spaces go, the revived Belden-Stratford certainly feels more classically Ritzy.