Explore Chicago arts, culture from storied Chicago Athletic Association hotel
You wouldn't expect a new hotel to hire a storyteller as it prepared to open its doors, but that's just what the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel did before it greeted its first guests last May. The building that housed a private club (the Chicago Athletic Association) for more than a century has a storied past, and the staff needed to be schooled in the art of telling tales so everyone from the doorman to the desk clerk could offer guests a tidbit of trivia.
Like the story that the Milk Room, the hotel's morning coffee shop and evening cocktail lounge, served as a speak-easy during Prohibition. Or that club member William Wrigley appropriated the club's logo for a little baseball team he owned, the Chicago Cubs.
An architectural treasure, with a Michigan Avenue facade modeled after the Doges Palace in Venice, the building faced demolition after the club disbanded and was listed among the nation's 11 most endangered places. But along came investors with a vision, among them John Pritzker, fourth generation Chicagoan of the wealthy Pritzker family, and the landmark was transformed into a 241-room boutique hotel with a hipster vibe.
Across the street from Millennium Park and a block from the Art Institute of Chicago, it makes an ideal base for an arts and culture exploration of downtown Chicago. Some of the city's top theaters lie within walking distance and opportunities for tours focusing on art and architecture abound.
If buildings could talk
Even if you don't check into the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, you can see it on a Chicago Architecture Foundation tour. Look up in the White City Ballroom where an unusual stalactite ceiling kept plaster artisans busy for months, and stroll through the Drawing Room, once the social gathering spot for the club's elite members who drank whiskey and smoked cigars by its colossal fireplace. The room still has a clubby feel with upholstered chairs and sofas, bas-relief woodwork, art glass windows and a long library table where scrapbooks belonging to Pritzker's grandfather, a prominent judge in the 1920s, display news clippings about famous court cases.
Plenty of architecturally significant buildings can be found in downtown Chicago, and the foundation offers tours of many of them.
Take, for example, its tour of the Rookery at 209 S. LaSalle St., an office building that started out as a water storage tank that attracted birds, hence its name. Docents point out the 19th-century work of architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root who had their offices here, and tell stories about the remodeling of the lobby by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1904. Wright covered the dark interior in white marble and gave the glass and metal grill ceiling the light and airy look of a bird cage. Outside, the building resembles a rock-solid red fortress in a combination Moorish and Richardson Romanesque design.
Art walk with an insider
Chicago's downtown has been blessed with public art, works that go way beyond the unnamed Picasso sculpture at the Richard J. Daley Center and "Cloud Gate," otherwise known as "The Bean," in Millennium Park. City and state programs require a percentage of the cost of new buildings in Chicago be set aside for public art. A Chicago Greeter can help you find them. These volunteers, knowledgeable and passionate about Chicago, give free tours on public art and a wide variety of other topics.
Maureen de Mattoff, who has led tours since the Greeter program began in 2002, takes visitors to see the abstract expressionist art of Frank Stella inside the building at 181 W. Madison St. and Louise Nevelson's "Dawn Shadows," influenced by the "L" tracks behind its home inside the office center at 200 W. Madison St. She points out the statue of Roman goddess Ceres atop the Chicago Board of Trade and explains why it has no face.
At 120 N. LaSalle St., de Mattoff tells the story of Daedalus and Icarus from Greek mythology. You see it depicted just above the entrance in a mosaic by Chicago artist Roger Brown. The building itself is the work of internationally renowned architect Helmut Jahn, who also designed the James R. Thompson Center a few blocks away. Here de Mattoff beckons visitors to stand inside "Monument with Standing Beast" for a different perspective of Jean Dubuffet's fiberglass sculpture.
Art on stage and in galleries
Guests at downtown Chicago hotels who venture out for an evening's entertainment can find plenty of choices in the performing arts close by, from the Chicago Symphony to the Lyric Opera, to the venerable Goodman Theatre and Broadway in Chicago productions at the Oriental, Cadillac Palace and Bank of America Theatre.
The Joffrey Ballet performs at the Auditorium Theatre. The Harris Theater, on the north end of Millennium Park, hosts Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, one of the world's top contemporary dance companies founded in1977 as the Lou Conti Dance Studio.
A stroll north along Michigan Avenue, the "Magnificent Mile," leads to the castle-like Water Tower Water Works built in 1869 of ivory Joliet limestone. Inside the pumping station that still supplies water to Chicago's North Side, Lookingglass Theatre turns out innovative plays in a space reconfigured for each production. Maximum capacity is just 240 seats. The theater won a Tony in 2011 as Outstanding Regional Theatre. Ensemble members, including Northwestern University alum David Schwimmer of "Friends" fame, have starred in world premieres and Tony-winning productions. "Treasure Island," an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, runs through January.
A block east, innovation plays out in paintings, sculpture, photography and film in often edgy exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Modern art gets a wing of its own at the Art Institute of Chicago. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the Modern Wing opened in 2009 facing Millennium Park. But the Art Institute's collection goes much further into the world of art with about 300,000 pieces, the third-largest collection in the U.S. It holds the largest collection of Impressionist works outside the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, thanks to Bertha Palmer whose husband, Potter Palmer, opened the historic Palmer House, now a Hilton hotel in the Loop. A patron of the arts and frequent visitor to Europe, Mrs. Palmer bought up scads of Impressionist work before they found favor in France.
The museum also has a strong collection of other European modern and contemporary art as well as American art and Japanese prints. Its most popular holdings include Grant Wood's "American Gothic," Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte -- 1884" and Pablo Picasso's "The Old Guitarist."
The neoclassical building itself ranks as a work of art. Constructed on what was then Chicago's lakefront to house delegates to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, its two bronze lions still guard the Michigan Avenue entrance.
A storied hotel
The exposition also prompted the building of the Chicago Athletic Association property. Members of the private club wanted to impress exposition delegates with their Venetian Gothic building, but a fire and funding issues delayed completion of the building until the exposition was winding down.
No matter. With members such as Wrigley, AG Spalding (sporting goods), Cyrus McCormick (International Harvester) and Marshall Field (department stores and publishing), it continued to thrive as a privileged hangout for the city's elite -- men only until the 1970s.
A two-year restoration preserved the building's treasures while adding hotel amenities for the Millennial generation. You can hold true to the club's athletic spirit by playing billiards, shuffleboard, table soccer or bocce ball in the Game Room. Afterward enjoy a highball or glass of Schlitz while downing the Heffelfinger hot dog named for William "Pudge" Heffelfinger who played amateur football for the Chicago Athletic Association. More refined meals are served in the Cherry Circle Room that exudes a "Mad Men" feel. Classic cocktails can be mixed tableside, if you wish, and several meat entrees can be carved at your table, too.
Guest rooms hark back to the early 20th century with marble baths and lacquered wooden armoires containing faux boxing robes. You'll find the mini bar stocked with locally sourced spirits and confections, such as Cracker Jack and Wrigley's chewing gum.
The hotel's crowning glory, Cindy's, sits under a skylight on the roof. Platters of the award-winning chef's best circulate family-style on picnic tables evoking the ambience of a Great Lakes beach house. Crowds pack the terrace to sit around a fire pit and take in sweeping views of Millennium Park. Art has a privileged position in the restaurant's private dining space. A portrait of its namesake, Cindy Pritzker, the family's eccentric matriarch, hangs above the fireplace. It's an Andy Warhol original.
• Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Choose Chicago.
ChicagoVisitor information: Choose Chicago, choosechicago.com
Chicago Athletic Association Hotel: 12 S. Michigan Ave., average nightly rates range from $165 to $425 on weekends in December, chicagoathletichotel.com
Chicago Architecture Foundation: 224 S. Michigan Ave., architecture.org
Chicago Greeter: chicagogreeter.com
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., hubbardstreetdance.com
Lookingglass Theatre: 821 N. Michigan Ave., lookingglasstheatre.org
Art Institute of Chicago: 111 S. Michigan Ave., artinstituteofchicago.org