Hotel trend breathes new life into historic buildings

The Windy City has always been known for deep dish pizza, world-class shopping and its beloved baseball stadium. But underneath its contemporary exterior, Chicago is a city brimming with history behind every stone-carved corner.

This Midwestern hub is in the midst of an explosive hotel boom, with a nod to its venerable, colorful past. A string of historical buildings are being repurposed and renovated into modern skyscraper hotels, with several of them to be unveiled this year.

“Staying in a historic hotel, whether in one of the many fine, traditional hotels—some of them being the oldest in the nation—or newer hotels housed in historic buildings, gives you that authenticity of being in a chic landmark and historic structure that redefines architecture as we know it,” says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

The city is expecting a record number of tourists—about 50 million this year—as well as its usual big number of meetings and conferences. With so many landmark venues to choose from, meeting planners can show attendees a side of vintage Chicago they’ve never experienced before.

From Historical Structures to Renovated Hotels

chicagoChicago Athletic Association

The iconic Chicago skyline is no stranger to massive overhauls of its soaring real estate. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 scorched the skyline at a critical time, when Chicago was becoming a sprawling metropolis. However, in the wake of destruction, the skyscraper was born. A brand-new metal framing system allowed for unprecedented heights unachievable with traditional masonry.

The wave of new buildings brought forth several Art Deco gems such as the Chicago Board of Trade Building and Civic Opera House. During a second wave of construction in the 1970s, Chicago led the way again, erecting some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, such as John Hancock Center and Willis Tower, which remains the second tallest building in North America.

And now, Chicago is in the middle of a third property revamp—at least 11 historic properties are pegged for repurpose in the next few years. New life is being breathed into dozens of historic buildings around the downtown Loop. Hotel brands are reaping the benefits by scooping up this prime real estate and saving century-old landmarks from dilapidation.

“Over time, land has become more and more valuable, so this provides a venue for the hotel operator to come in, restore a building and really get a lot of good publicity from these reuse ideas and investments,” Miller says. “It’s often considered a win-win when historic structures can be repurposed into high-producing hotels.”

chicagoVirgin Hotels Chicago

Earlier this year, Virgin Hotels opened its first property near Millennium Park in the 27-story Old Dearborn Bank Building, built in 1928. Virgin Hotels Chicago has 250 ergonomically designed guest rooms, plus a mobile app for check-in and room control settings.

There’s also 2,300 sq. ft. of atypical meeting space, including mini-golf in the hallways and ping-pong meeting tables. However, the property retains its original aesthetics, including ornate brass elevator doors, mail chutes, a 1920s oak cigar bar and molded plaster ceilings throughout the lobby and dining areas.

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Around the corner, the London Guarantee & Accident Building will be turned into LondonHouse Hotel in 2016. Hilton Worldwide announced the property will join its Curio Collection of upscale hotels. Its name pays homage to the famed London House jazz club located within its halls during the 1960s.

Designed in 1923 by Chicago architect Alfred Alschuler, the 22-story Beaux Arts landmark is one of four buildings that anchors Michigan Avenue Bridge. The semicircle tower will have stunning views of the Chicago River from its 452 guest rooms and 25,000 sq. ft. of event space. A unique feature is a limestone-adorned cupola at the pinnacle of the building. The domed structure will function as usable space, with 360-degree views.

chicagoHyatt Centric The Loop Chicago

Hyatt Centric The Loop Chicago is one of the newest reuse projects, from a former 22-story office building built in 1927. The lifestyle brand opened its doors last month, with 257 guest rooms and 2,540 sq. ft. of meeting space. The structure is also the site of a back-alleyway cattle path cemented in place by an outdated 1844 property variance. Coincidentally, the infamous fire that nearly destroyed the city was believed to be the work of a cow that kicked over a lantern.

Last May, the long-awaited Chicago Athletic Association building officially opened as a Commune Hotels & Resorts property. Originally designed by Henry Ives Cobb, the architect behind several historical Chicago properties, it was built in 1893 with a Venetian Gothic facade. Years of restoration involved preservation of the main marble staircase, stained-glass windows and low-relief wood carvings. The new hotel has 241 upscale guest rooms and 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Miller notes that “large windows are a feature of many of these historic buildings and work well in these hotel rooms. They really make each one of the hotels a special experience because you’re staying in a historic building.”

The former Chicago Motor Club Building also reopened last May as a Hampton Inn with 143 guest rooms, but it is a far cry from chain-themed design: The 17-story building is a bastion of Art Deco splendor. After it was first completed in 1928, the site became headquarters of a prominent automobile association.

Art Deco elements such as a dizzying spiral staircase and a 29-foot-tall mural are showcased in the main entrance and lobby. The iconic painting by John Warner Norton is a colorful map of the original tenants’ favorite driving destinations—a celebration of American car culture and the open road.

“At the end of the day, there’s a great investment in the restoration of these historic facades and important features of their lobbies and corridors,” Miller says. “Oftentimes we get features back that have been lost before.”

Historic Meeting Venues

chicagoChicago Union Station

Chicago has always been a top meeting destination, with its central location and two major travel hubs: O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW). It’s also home to McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America, with 2.6 million sq. ft. of exhibit space.

But if you dare to stray off the beaten path, there’s an abundance of venues with Old World charm. Surround your attendees with the works of legendary architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and dozens of others. Their neo-classical style makes for some awe-inspiring settings. It doesn’t get more “Chicago” than that.

Burnham once said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” It’s only fitting he designed a number of prominent landmarks, such as Chicago Union Station in 1925, a working railway hub that can be rented for events. The Beaux Arts-style Great Hall offers 20,000 sq. ft. of space, boasting 18 Corinthian columns, terracotta walls and a pink Tennessee marble floor beneath a five-story, barrel-vaulted ceiling. All the while, trains rumble below the station. The terminal is the third busiest in the United States, handling more than 120,000 passengers on an average weekday.

chicagoNavy Pier, Chicago

Navy Pier offers expansive meeting space amid its 150-foot Ferris wheel and unlimited waterfront entertainment. Its 1916 construction is reminiscent of a past era, when the pier was used during World War I to house regiments of soldiers, the Red Cross and Home Defense units. During its “Golden Age” in the 1930s, the pier held the World’s Fair—one of the most successful conventions in American history. Today, it remains a top meeting location, with more than 170,000 sq. ft. of venue space, including an 18,000-square-foot grand ballroom.

Many local attractions double as decadent venues for more intimate events. Enjoy 24-karat gold-leaf ceiling arches in Auditorium Theatre, which has over 6,000 sq. ft. of acoustically perfect space. The theater is often noted as one of the finest opera houses in the world. It originally adjoined a hotel when it was built in 1889 as one of the first multipurpose buildings. The Chicago Theatre, with its iconic signage, is another entertainment venue available for events. The 1920s landmark has 4,500 sq. ft. of lobby space modeled after the Royal Chapel at Versailles. Its two theaters can seat more than 3,800 attendees.

chicagoChicago Cultural Center

According to Miller, one venue not to be missed is Chicago Cultural Center. Completed in 1897, it’s a beautiful space, with an opulent mother-of-pearl mosaic interior, a white marble staircase and the world’s largest stained-glass Tiffany dome. “It’s a space that takes your breath away,” he says. The five-story “People’s Palace” offers 15,000 sq. ft. of space available for rent. The center also has free public exhibitions and events and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Summing Up

Chicago is chock-full of architectural gems and historical sites waiting to be restored, revealed and explored. The Chicago Architecture Foundation provides more than 85 different foot, bike, bus and boat tours of marvelous buildings and the stories behind them. This enduring city leads the way into the future while never forgetting its past.

-Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
-Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau
-Choose Chicago
-Downtown Evanston
-Visit Springfield


Nothing defined 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago quite like organized crime and bootlegged liquor. The city was once synonymous with notorious gangsters and corrupt politicians who fueled the speakeasies and brothels in every neighborhood. The Chicago Prohibition Tour guides visitors through the city’s storied past and offers a chance to sip the swill favored by infamous mobsters such as Al Capone. Visit his former headquarters at Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, which remains open today with illicit trapdoors and tunnels still intact.

For an authentic Prohibition experience, try The Drifter Chicago, a hidden speakeasy tucked below the century-old Green Door Tavern (pictured). The bar has everything from a tarot-card drink list and burlesque dancers to authentic memorabilia…that is, if you can knock past a nameless trapdoor.

Whether you stay in Greater Chicago or venture to the state capital of Springfield, Illinois
has no shortage of attractions and special venues for meeting groups.



Just north of Chicago, Evanston is a picturesque community with a youthful population attending Northwestern University. The campus was founded in 1851, and Evanston was named after one of the school’s founders in 1854. View its notable architecture at sites such as the French chateaux-style Charles Gates Dawes House (pictured), a history center available for events. Stay in downtown Evanston at the historic Hilton Orrington/Evanston Hotel, with 269 guest rooms and a 12,000-square-foot IACC-certified conference center.


As the second largest city in the state, Aurora boasts an attraction-filled downtown located on the Fox River. It’s known as the “City of Lights” because in 1881, it became one of the first to adopt an all-electric street lighting system. Stay at Hampton Inn & Suites Aurora, which has 127 guest rooms and 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Afterward, see Aurora Regional Fire Museum, a fire station from 1894 that features hands-on exhibits and a meeting hall.


Visit the home of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield’s most famous resident. The state capital is filled with places where the former president once set foot. Groups will want to tour Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which displays artifacts and has meeting facilities. Prairie Capital Convention Center offers 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. President Abraham Lincoln Springfield DoubleTree Hotel, with 310 guest rooms and 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, is connected to the convention center.

Major Meeting Venues

Chicago Athletic Association Building

Opened in May after a $125 million renovation of historic property in Michigan Boulevard District; originally built in 1893; 241 guest rooms; 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; across from Millennium Park.

Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile

Massive downtown property has undergone a recent multimillion-dollar renovation; 1,198 guest rooms; more than 66,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; world-class shopping, restaurants and entertainment; among Cvent’s 2014 Top 100 U.S. meeting hotels.

Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park

Overlooking Grant and Millennial Parks; AAA Four Diamond modern property; 685 guest rooms, including hypoallergenic suites; more than 16,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Aria Restaurant.

Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Located in the 25th tallest building in the U.S.; 345 guest rooms; Lake views on the Gold Coast; Forbes Five Star luxury hotel; 23,757 sq. ft. of meeting space; next to Miracle Mile shopping, Art Institute of Chicago and 360 Chicago.

Hilton Chicago Hotel


Landmark hotel with 1,544 guest rooms overlooking Grand Park and Lake Michigan; 234,000 sq. ft. of flexible space; closest full-service hotel to McCormick Place. 

Hotel Allegro Chicago

Theater/business district location; recently renovated; 483 guest rooms; more than 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; eco-friendly; acclaimed 312 Chicago restaurant; newly added Bar Allegro.

Hotel Burnham

Kimpton hotel located in historic Reliance Building; constructed in 1895 by architect Daniel Burnham; $4.1 million renovation of 122 guest rooms, lobby and private function space; remodeled Atwood restaurant; Reliance Room has 444 sq. ft. is available for with private dining and events; Conde Nast Traveler’s 2012 Gold List

Hyatt Regency Chicago

Situated close to Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier; AAA Four Diamond property with 2,019 guest rooms; 228,000 sq. ft. of flexible function space; 63 meeting rooms and 70,000-square-foot exhibit hall; Ranked No. 5 in top 100 meeting hotels by Cvent.

Hyatt Regency McCormick Place

Connected to McCormick Place convention center; 1,258 guest rooms; more than 43,500 sq. ft. of function space, including 12,000-square-foot Regency Ballroom and 25,000-square-foot conference center; near U.S. Cellular Field, Soldier Field and various museums and attractions.

Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile

Historic property built in 1929; 792 guest rooms; two-level spa and health club; Michael Jordan’s Restaurant; over 45,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 6,400-square-foot ballroom; walk to Magnificent Mile and trolley.

Loews Chicago Hotel


Downtown hotel that opened in March 2015; occupies 14 floors in 52-story tower; one block north of Chicago River; 400 guest rooms; 29,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 24-hour fitness center; 75-foot indoor pool; rooftop lounge. 

The Drake Hotel

Historic hotel built in 1920; 535 guest rooms, with lake views; more than 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 21,000-square-foot ballroom; located near Oak Street Beach and Navy Pier.

The James Hotel

Modern boutique hotel; 297 guest rooms; 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; premier Chicago steak house Primehouse; in the center of Michigan Avenue shopping district.

The Langham

Landmark building on the Chicago River designed by Mies van der Rohe; on National Register of Historic Places; known to locals as the IBM Building; 316 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of event space in 12 meeting rooms; within walking distance of retail shopping and tourist attractions.

McCormick Place


Largest convention center in North America with four state-of-the-art cuildings and 2.6 million sq. ft. of exhibit space; 173 meeting rooms with 600,000 sq. ft. of space; four ballrooms range from 21,000-100,000 sq. ft. of space; 4,249 Arie Crown Theater.

Radison Blu Aqua Hotel

Lakefront location with 334 guest rooms with minimalist design; 28,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 7,000-square-foot outdoor area; 80,000-square-foot garden; OneTouch mobile app; onsite Italian restaurant Filini has seating for 200;Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence winner for three consecutive years.

Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel

Nestled in the heart of the city; 553 guest rooms; 24 meeting rooms with 34,800 sq. ft. of meeting space, with 10,640-square-foot ballroom.

Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers

Located on Chicago riverfront; six dining options; 1,218 guest rooms; 37 meeting rooms including largest hotel ballroom in Chicago with 40,000 sq. ft.; business center; Sheraton fitness center.

Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago


Forbes Five-Star LEED certified hotel situated along Chicago River; 339 guest rooms; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of flexible venue space, including three new spaces totaling more than 6,500 sq. ft.; 23,000-square-foot spa; two restaurants/lounges, including Michelin Two-Star cuisine at Sixteen.

Virgin Hotels Chicago

Newest Virgin Hotel opened in January in the Loop; former Art Deco-style bank; 250 guest rooms; 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; located in a 27-story building.