From old-fashioned boys club to ornate hotel: The Chicago Athletic Association

“Take a look up. This is all German millwork,” Ben Nelson said, gesturing to the wood ceiling of the Game Room. “This is an absolute trade, and a craft that is very rarely practiced anymore.”

The wooden panels lining the ceiling had been sent to Germany to be prepared.

“This is all hand carved,” the concierge said. “It is very very rare to have even in Chicago, let alone in the United States, buildings that still have this amount – this immense amount – of German millwork.”

Nelson has only worked at the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel for a few months, but this concierge, a member of Les Clefs d’Or, the highest order of concierge in the world, has collected interesting tidbits of history to weave a comprehensive — and rather compelling — narrative of the newly renovated hotel.

Once one of Chicago’s most endangered buildings, the Chicago Athletic Association closed its doors in 2007 and began to undergo renovations and historic preservations in 2012, taking care to restore, recycle and recreate authentic architectural details.

“Part of the headache of such a great historic building,” said Nelson, “is who is going to undertake the renovation? Who is going to fund it?”

When it comes to the hotel’s architectural preservation and restoration, Nelson cites Chicago local and billionaire investor John Pritzker as “the perfect guy with the deep pockets.”

Formerly an elite, private club with membership levels that functioned like a society, the Association reopened to the public as a hotel with 15 different room types, and 53 different floor plans earlier this summer.

During the Association’s original construction, elevators were not available in hotels, so it was out of convenience that the most lavish penthouses, namely the four Founders suites, were located on the third floor.

In one Founders suite, a raised bathroom (complete with a standing shower and a cast iron tub), overlooks the bedroom from an open door space. The floor is laid with original marble from the upstairs ballrooms, and unlatched windows look out over a magnificent view of Michigan Avenue, Millenium Park, and Lake Michigan.

The suite could have been William Wrigley’s personal room at one point, Nelson explained, but now, anyone willing to spend the money could experience what was once considered an exclusive privilege.

One of the Chicago Athletic Association’s (many) cheeky nods to history, the Game Room offers an indoor bocce ball court, chess sets, pool tables, a full bar and more. It’s everything that a sports fan needs, everything except for a television.

Chandeliers in the ballroom towards the Madison side of the Hotel; Cherry Circle Room
Chandeliers in the ballroom towards the Madison side of the Hotel; Cherry Circle Room

“The idea for the Game Room is to promote social activity,” said Nelson. “We want you to be playing the games, not watching the games.”

He picked up a stool with legs made of original baseball bats of the Association.

“Very few times would we ever throw anything away,” Nelson said, gesturing behind him to the pool cue display behind the bar. “We’ll find a way to replace it into the Association.”

Although those with all sorts of money, power and influence would come through the Game Room to play and socialize, only a select few got to eat inside the Cherry Circle Room, an exclusive restaurant tucked away in the corner of the Game Room.

“These were the highest of the high, the cream of the cream,” said Nelson. “These were the heavy hitters of Chicago.”

With no windows by design, diners were ensured privacy and protection, and Cherry Circle Room was once considered a safe haven for the cultural elite who dined in its quarters.

These days, although anyone can technically dine amongst its cherry paneling and dim lighting, its exclusivity combined with first-rate food made the restaurant particularly exceptional in bygone decades.

“It was the Alinea of the day,” reminisced Nelson. “Anybody who was anybody wanted to get reservations at Cherry Circle Room.”

2 Responses to "From old-fashioned boys club to ornate hotel: The Chicago Athletic Association"

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