Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Down They Forgot as Up They Grew: Sherman House

Chicago’s next mayor, Rahm Emanuel may do well to take to heart the words of a man who occupied the office that he is about to occupy, words spoken nearly 150 years ago. 

In the administration of the affairs of the city let us always remember that we are but the agents of the public, and that personal feelings and partisan suggestions must never be permitted to influence our action in any way to the detriment of the interests of the great city of which we are the present official representatives. [www.chipublib.com]

Francis Cornwall Sherman
These were the words of Mayor Francis Cornwall Sherman in his third inaugural address delivered on May 4, 1863 prior to his last term as Mayor of Chicago.  Not a bad set of ideas there . . . ideas that we could do worse than follow these days.

Sherman arrived in Chicago in April of 1834, three years before the little hamlet on the shores of Lake Michigan was incorporated.  He established himself as a brick manufacturer, and in July of 1935 he was elected a village trustee.  He served his first term as mayor from 1841 to 1842.

The Original Sherman House
It was in 1837 that Sherman opened the City Hotel on the north side of Randolph Street between Clark and LaSalle.  Renamed the Sherman House in 1844, it wasn’t a big place, measuring just 18 by 44 feet.  [Chicago.urban-history.org]  It probably went up pretty quickly when the flames of October, 1871 engulfed it.

Sherman quickly rebuilt his hotel, hiring architect W. W. Boyington (Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station; Illinois State Capital) to design a Second Empire eight-story hotel of 300 rooms, clad In Kankakee limestone. [Host and Portman.  Early Chicago Hotels. Arcadia Publishing, 2006] 

Upon its completion in 1873 the second Sherman House was one of the three most opulent hotels in Chicago, the other two being the Palmer House and the Grand Pacific on La Salle and Jackson.

The second Sherman House (1873)
Photo from Early Chicago Hotels (Host and Portman)
As the 20th century began, the hotel had lost much of its luster and carried the label of “deadest hotel in town.” [Host and Portman].  It was at this point that Joseph Beifeld, who had emigrated from Hungary in 1867 at the age of 14, stepped in and bought the property.

Beifeld is another one of those many figures in post-fire Chicago who made a fortune in the rapidly growing city.  After he arrived in the city, he worked for Marshall Field and Levi Leiter for nine years from 1869 to 1878, at which point he struck out on his own, growing rich in the manufacture of ready-made cloaks for women. 

Combining impeccable customer service with some of the best entertainment in town, Beifeld had the Sherman House back to its original glory by 1904.  Bringing in Chef Joe Colton, Beifeld opened up the College Inn, famous for its chicken ala king. 

By the way the chicken broth you buy at the grocery store is directly related to the restaurant in the Sherman House.  The folks at the Sherman had the idea of offering Chef Colton’s dishes in cans at specialty shops and by mail order. By the early 1920’s the chef’s special recipe for chicken broth was a hit in kitchens across the country. [collegeinn.com]

Beifeld turned the hotel around so spectacularly that he tore the whole thing down and in 1911, at a cost of several million dollars, built a 15-story beaux arts palace in its place, using the firm of Holabird and Roche to design the 757-room hotel.  At a time when hoteliers protected their reputations by carefully monitoring their clientele, Beifeld opened the first lunchroom in a major Chicago hotel, making a tidy profit with a simple menu and an eatery open at all hours.

Construction of the 1911 Sherman House
(1909 memoryloc.gov) 
It didn’t hurt that Holabird and Roche’s City-County Building, finished in 1910, was right across Randolph Street from the Sherman.

In 1925 at a cost of over seven million dollars, Beifeld expanded the hotel with a 23-story tower, another Holabird and Roche design.  By the end of that decade the Hotel Sherman contained 1600 guest rooms and a banquet hall seating 2500.  It was reported to be the largest hotel west of New York City.

The Sherman House and Annex (Chicagopc.info) 

It was at the new Sherman House in 1926 that “Big” Bill Thompson, former mayor of Chicago, acted as a mediator in a “peace conference” between Al Capone and Bugs Moran. On September 26, after a long spring and summer of violence, eight carloads of Moran’s northsiders led by mobster Hymie Weiss, shot up the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero, where Capone was dining.  Days later Capone ordered the assassination of Weiss, who died in a hail of bullets shot from a snipers’ nest at 747 North State Street, almost directly across the street from Holy Name Cathedral.

At the Hotel Sherman conference, Capone pleaded, “I couldn’t stand hearing my little kid ask why I didn’t stay home in Chicago . . . If it wasn’t for him I’d have said, ‘To hell with you fellows!  We’ll shoot it out.’ But I couldn’t say that, knowing it might mean they’d bring me home some night punctured with machine gun fire.” [Chicagocrimescenes.blogspot.com]

It was decided that Moran’s gang would control the northside of the city near the lake and Capone would control the southside below Madison Street, plus Cicero.  As a result there was a 70-day period where no gangland murders occurred, the longest period without machine gun fire in years.

It was also about this time that the College Inn restaurant established itself as one of the city’s foremost jazz venues under the direction of bandleader Isham Jones.  The new jazz idiom, which Jones described as “modern emotional music . . . expressive of the happy dance; it is rhythm that is simple and yet inspiring.  It is music that is irresistible to the feet and at the same time appealing to the heart and head,” [jacksonohio.org] was a daring departure from the violin-based waltz bands that had held sway in the major hotels of Chicago up until then.

The Sherman House toward
the end (chicagonow.com)
The Sherman House maintained its reputation as one of the city’s finest hotels right up into the 1950’s when the luster began to fade.  The 1911 building was razed in the early 1950’s, and the annex of 1925 lasted until 1973, when it, too, was demolished to make way for Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Building, now the James R. Thompson Center. 

So here’s an idea . . . one day take a stroll around the atrium of the Thompson Center with your ear buds in and your IPod on.  And see if you can get hold of Isham Jones’s and Gus Kahn’s It Had to Be You.  Close your eyes and picture yourself in one of the greatest jazz venues in the city.

Then go out and buy some chicken broth.


Randy Sue said...

Thanks for this terrific piece! I was looking up the Sherman after just discovering that my grandparents, whose primary residence was in Davenport, Iowa, lived at the Hotel Sherman when in Chicago -- which they often were, according to a newspaper clipping. I love poking around in this kind of history as fodder for my fiction, and this was a lovely lode to mine.

Anonymous said...

My dad and his partner actually owed the hotel until it's demise!