By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 30, 2023 at 9:02 AM

CHICAGO – For decades, Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, 636 S. Michigan Ave., has meant history to me: jazz history.


The name immediately sends me strolling down a memory lane that includes shows by the likes of Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell and Stanley Turrentine.

Ever since Paul Cebar introduced me to it by inviting me to see the Dirty Dozen Brass Band there at legendary Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in, perhaps, 1986, The Blackstone has, to me, been spelled j-a-z-z.

But what I hadn’t realized when I’d walk up the steps on Balbo Drive, through the revolving door and immediately turn left into the Showcase was that the history of The Blackstone involves every president from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter; political conventions at which presidential candidates were nominated; a famous mob convention attended by Al Capone and Lucky Luciano; an owner with ties to The Beatles; appearances in well-known films; and guests ranging from Rudy Valentino, Nat “King” Cole and Lena Horne, to Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

I learned most of this when I stayed at the revamped hotel in 2019 and got a second taste recently when I returned. Both times I got tours of the place, each time seeing some different spaces.

The Blackstone was once the tallest thing around. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)
Timothy Blackstone. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)

The hotel is named for Connecticut-born Timothy Blackstone, who was president of the Chicago & Alton Railroad and the city’s Union Stock Yards.

A fabulously wealthy man, Blackstone – who had previously and briefly served as mayor of La Salle, Illinois – built his mansion on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Hubbard Court, with a view toward the lake.

After Blackstone’s death in 1900, the mansion was purchased by the sons of a former business partner of Blackstone’s, hotelier John Drake.


Tracy and John B. Drake II would tear down the mansion and erect in its place a theater (now called the Merle Reskin Theater) and a 23-story, 290-foot hotel, designed by Benjamin Marshall, who with his partner Charles Eli Fox, would also later build the brothers’ Drake Hotel north of the river.

Marshall & Fox also designed the Northwestern Mutual headquarters in Milwaukee.

Both the theater (completed the year after the hotel) and hotel were named in honor of Blackstone.

The hotel opened on April 6, 1910 with a celebration that included a performance by no less than Enrico Caruso.

Benjamin Marshall
Architect Benjamin Marshall. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)

While I can’t vouch for the theater, the hotel is a stunner.

Outside, it’s a Beaux Arts / Second Empire hybrid, with pink marble at the base of a brick and terra cotta tower.

I especially love the green mansard roof, just beneath which there are a couple incredible double-height suites with skylights and those lovely oculus windows.


The exterior is relatively unchanged, although in 1954, when Sheraton Hotels bought the hotel, remodeling work removed an ornamental balcony above the 15th floor. This likely was also when the original, ornate glass and iron entrance canopy was removed from above the Balbo Drive entrance.


The lobby of the hotel is lavish, with wood paneling, a decorated plaster ceiling, chandeliers and some lovely brass railings. Each elevator also has a clock-style location indicator above that’s fun to watch and, inside, a floor mosaic.

Elevator floor mosaic.

The former entrance into the Jazz Showcase (which had occupied the former orangerie before moving to new quarters off-site in 1995) now leads to a set of bathrooms which were built, along with hotel offices, into the old club space.

Tucked into the opposite corner, there’s a small staircase up to the mezzanine level and a grand staircase up to what is now Mercat, a Catalan-inspired restaurant located in a space that was long home to the Mayfair Theater.

That's where “Shear Madness” had a extremely long engagement – the longest in town – from 1982 until 1999, with an uninterrupted run of 7,114 performances.

Two views of the lobby.
lobby stairsX

Embracing the main staircase are two curving staircases that lead down to the Michigan Avenue entrance, which has a lovely sculpture-adorned fountain, and to a lower level where there is a former barbershop that’s now a conference room adorned with historic photos of the hotel.

The barbershop fountain.

It is said that Capone used to take meetings while getting his hair cut here.

At one end is a marble fountain with an embedded mirror flanked by a pair of fluted columns.

There’s also a bar down here and the billiards table made famous by the Paul Newman/Tom Cruise film, “The Color of Money,” directed by Martin Scorsese.

Over the years, the hotel also made appearances in Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables,” the Coen Brothers’ “The Hudsucker Proxy,” television’s “Early Edition” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

It also gets a nod in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” and its film version.

Art Hall
The Art Hall
Art hall
A vintage photo of the Art Hall. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)

Upstairs, in an ornately decorated reception area outside the ballroom balcony is the so-called “Art Hall,” where works of contemporary art are always on display. There are mirrors, plaster figures and floral elements on the walls, and French doors.

In one corner there’s a short staircase leading to a wall. This was installed at the behest of the Beatles’ one-time guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who purchased the hotel in 1995, hoping to make it his U.S. headquarters.

stairs to nowhereX

The stairs were apparently meant as a means for egress for spirits.

On the other end is the English Room, with its colored glass windows, exposed beams and plaster ceiling. The mahogany paneling was brought here in 1910 from an 18th century English manor house.

English Room
The English Room.
The Crystal Ballroom.

The Crystal Ballroom is the real gem, with decoration everywhere: the walls, the ceiling, the short balustrade – so low that a waiver must be signed by anyone seeking to enter the balcony.

A ballroom detail.

Looking around you can see why this is a popular wedding and events venue in Chicago.

In fact, the hotel and its ballroom were immediately successful. In fact, The Blackstone proved so popular, the the Drakes had Marshall & Fox design a 22-story annex for a site just west of the theater.

The theater. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)
Mayfair Room
The Mayfair Room (later Theater). (PHOTO: The Blackstone)

However, with the outbreak of World War I, those plans went nowhere.

But that still halt the progress of history and The Blackstone's place in it.

Many well-heeled folks kept apartments at the hotel, including Milwaukee's Cudahy meatpacking clan.

Vintage shots
The barbershop (above) and Balinese Room (below). (PHOTOS: The Blackstone)

In 1931, Lucky Luciano hosted the first “Crime Convention” in the ballroom.

Eleven years earlier, the Republican National Convention was held in here, and upstairs in suite 915 – which was subsequently dubbed the “smoke filled room” – party bigwigs met in secret to ensure Warren G. Harding’s nomination.

smoke filled room
The "Smoke Filled" Room suite. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)

In 1944, when the Republican National Convention returned to the Windy City, Harry Truman called his wife on the Suite of Presidents telephone in the hotel to discuss whether or not he ought to accept the vice presidential nomination. (As he was also known to do at this Kansas City hotel, Truman entertained folks by playing piano at The Blackstone.)

President Kennedy visited the hotel, too. (PHOTO: The Blackstone)

Eight years later, the conservatives were back in Chicago for yet another convention and Dwight Eisenhower watched his nomination from the comfort of the Suite of Presidents.

According to a city historic designation report, even Chicago blues legends liked the place:

"According to Shirley Dixon Nelson, the daughter of blues great Willie Dixon, musicians said they loved the large size and tall ceilings of the Blackstone's hotel rooms, its South Loop location (convenient to nearby recording studios, such as Chess and VeeJay), and what they termed the hotel's 'laidback atmosphere.' Dixon continued to stay at the Blackstone up until his death in 1992. 'He just loved the history of the place,' Nelson says."

In 1986, the hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 1998, it was designated a Chicago landmark.

A suite under the mansard roof.

But, when in 1999 the Maharishi's attempt to convert the hotel to luxury condos failed, The Blackstone closed and sat vacant for years.

In 2006, it was purchased by Sage Hospitality, which spent two years restoring the property before reopening it in 2008 as the Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel.

In 2017, the hotel was renovated to its current appearance.

Now, both the classic suites – Suite of Presidents and the “Smoke Filled Room” – are available to book for stays, as are the two incredible modern suites located under that mansard roof.

But you don’t have to have the budget for one of those to enjoy the hotel, which is part of Marriott's Autograph Collection.

Then guest roonm
Guest rooms: then and now. (ABOVE PHOTO: The Blackstone)

On the two occasions I’ve visited, I stayed in double queen rooms that were modern, comfortable and spacious, with views over Grant Park and Lake Michigan and with some skyline visible, too.

The hotel has a a concierge, a fitness center, in-room spa services, valet parking and all the amenities one expects from a modern hotel. The rooms and corridors – and key cards! – are adorned with art by Chicago artists.

But, best of all, a stay at The Blackstone also comes with hefty doses of classic beauty and American history.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.